Twenty years after his death, artist Jay Rummel still haunts Missoula. 

Rockin Rudy's is an iconic music and gift store with deep Missoula roots and a finger on the pulse of contemporary local culture. But if you know where to look among the toys, curios, CDs and greeting cards, you can also find some interesting remnants of Missoula's past. Inside the jewelry department, for instance, are display cases salvaged from former Missoula Mercantile tenant Bon Marche. On the wall above the greeting cards is the old sign from Luke's, a Front Street biker bar that closed in 1990. Nearby stands the altar from the Chapel of the Dove, which lived in the basement of the historic Wilma Theater from 1982 to 1993, serving as a funky screening room, wedding space and shrine to former Wilma owner Ed Sharpe's pet pigeon, Koro Hatto.

If you want to dig even deeper into Missoula's cultural history, Rockin Rudy's attic is the place to go—if you can get there. Owner Bruce Micklus keeps the space mostly off limits, even to employees, though he occasionally invites a friend or a collector (or a reporter) to ascend the narrow staircase and survey a maze of rooms filled floor to ceiling with artifacts. Some aren't local, like the surfboard signed by the Beach Boys and the countless crates of old rock and blues vinyl. But the Missoula archives are extensive, a madman's library of music posters from local concerts dating back to 1982 (when Micklus first arrived in Missoula and started the shop) and yellowed newspaper clippings about long-gone local bands.

  • cover illustration by Courtney Blazon

"I'm a hoarder, I guess," says Micklus, now 70. "But of very particular things. I started collecting baseball cards when I was a kid, and then when I got into music I went to secondhand stores to buy 45s. I haven't thrown away any music memorabilia—posters, magazines, anything—since the early 1970s."

While most of the attic's objects are related to music, some of Micklus' most prized possessions are in the realm of visual art: large framed artworks by one of Missoula's most quintessential artists, the late Jay Rummel, who died in 1997.

Rummel was a printmaker and musician, a central figure in Missoula's creative scene during the 1970s and early 1980s who haunted downtown bars such as Luke's and Eddie's Club (now Charlie B's). Even if you don't think you know Rummel's work, you'd probably recognize it. His most distinctive pieces are large, intricately detailed black and white woodcuts, some of which hang on the walls of the Top Hat, Charlie B's, the University Center and Bridge Pizza. They feature historical Montana characters sharing the frame with Rummel's friends, many of whom were fellow musicians and artists.

Even 20 years after his death, stories about Rummel and his work continue to bubble up. Last year, a quarterly magazine out of Brooklyn called Smoke Signal rediscovered the artist and printed a 13-page portfolio of his work. Earlier this year, Missoula's Dana Gallery tried to mount a show featuring Rummel prints from private collectors, though the project fell through after concerns were raised about the possibility of counterfeit prints. Regardless, Micklus—who had been contacted by the gallery during the initial call for art—has been thinking a lot about how to get Rummel's legacy back into public view. He's bequeathed several prints to his children and displays some in his home, but others have been stacked in the attic, in unseen limbo.

"I guess it's the fact that I'm getting old, and what the fuck am I going to do with all these?" he says. "I have 18 Jay Rummel pieces, and right now they're sitting up here not being looked at by anybody."

The content of Rummel's work is of particular interest to Micklus.

click to enlarge Jay Rummel's “When First Unto This Country.” Artwork courtesy of Bruce Micklus.
  • Jay Rummel's “When First Unto This Country.” Artwork courtesy of Bruce Micklus.

"I don't think there are very many artists who have this kind of historical value in their art," he says. "He captures a way of life, a subculture that was important to downtown Missoula. To know a Rummel print is probably more Montana than knowing the name of whatever peak or where Lewis and Clark camped."

Despite Rummel's expansive body of work and hulking personality, it's hard to find much of his story beyond a few gallery descriptions, some newspaper articles and the references that pepper poems and essays written by his artist friends. He was born in 1939 into a family of carvers in the Prickly Pear Valley north of Helena. His father helped sculpt Mount Rushmore, and several other family members plied their trade chiseling gravestones. In high school, Rummel signed up for a short-term army enlistment and in 1957 went to Fort Ord, in Monterey, California, for basic training. The Korean War was already over, but its near-nuclear consequences had caused the army to consider worst-case scenarios, and Rummel was put to work illustrating nuclear explosions.

The enlistment program allowed Rummel to return to Montana after only six months. He landed in Missoula, where he signed up for a ceramics class with Rudy Autio, a master sculptor who had just created the University of Montana's first ceramics program. Rummel lived with some other young artists at an old army barracks on the south side of campus. He made friends with his fellow art department students, including Doug Grimm, who'd also served at Ford Ord, though they never crossed paths there. At UM they became fast friends.

"He'd walk all the way from the pottery studio to [the barracks], and once in a while I'd give him a ride," Grimm remembers. "We just sort of fell into each other, like two magnets—plop! And what he didn't know, well I'd fill him in, and he'd give me advice on what I was doing. And that went on for years and years and years."

By all accounts, Rummel quickly became an admired ceramacist, with a penchant for making large plates decorated with imagery that evoked a mix of indigenous folk art and Picasso-style Expressionism. But one semester, he decided to try his hand at printmaking. After class one day, Grimm found him on the top floor of the art building etching a small block of wood. Grimm was intrigued by Rummel's style and encouraged him to go bigger.

"I was a drama major," say Grimm, now retired and living in Missoula, "and I knew where to find sheets of plywood under the university stage."

click to enlarge James Todd created this woodcut portait of Jay Rummel, for which Rummel posed a few years before his death.
  • James Todd created this woodcut portait of Jay Rummel, for which Rummel posed a few years before his death.

He brought the plywood to Rummel and Rummel carved out a few human figures and some lyrics to a song. As he inked it up and began to run it through the press, Grimm heard Rummel yell, "Oh shit!"

"And I thought, 'Oh God, his hand!'" Grimm says. "It turned out he had the lettering backwards. So I said, 'Just wait here,' and I went downstairs and I got an even bigger piece of plywood. He said, 'Well, I'm just so tired I've got to go home and call it a night.' But he did reverse the lettering and make an even bigger print a day or two later. And that was how he got started."

Rummel's woodcuts often riffed on Missoula's downtown social scene. He spent time on Woody Street drinking with friends and playing guitar in makeshift bands. He was a character, more often than not sporting a black felt cowboy hat and a leather vest and boots. Sober, he was a man of few words, but a few drinks in, he became the life of the party.

After a few years, he quit taking classes at UM and focused on his woodcut prints, which he often sold to friends for beer money. Though he never abandoned art, alcohol was Rummel's demon. Printmaker James Todd recalls that when he moved to Missoula with his wife, Julia, to pursue a master's, they lived in the same barracks Rummel had occupied. No longer a student, Rummel was living out of his truck behind the barracks and doing piecemeal work on campus.

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