Carol and I are taking a prolonged trip around the country, and we have hundreds of new memories. I took her to see the 201-foot-long Roe River in Great Falls, Montana, and the Giant Springs that feeds the river. My brother, Paul, and I visited the river in June of 2016 and I was anxious to see it again. (Visit Paul’s web site at http://www.paullinzey.com)
Returning from the river and springs, Carol saw a sign and excitedly said, “Turn around!”
An obedient chauffeur, I turned around and found my way back to 400 13th Street North. I could hardly believe my eyes. I blurted out, “The Charlie Russell Museum? I didn’t know it was here! You want to go in?”
“I pointed it out to you, didn’t I?” (Good point.)
In Southern California I learned to know the artist as Charlie Russell, but perhaps most of you know him as C. M. Russell. Also known as “Kid” Russell, Charlie is perhaps the greatest painter and sculptor of Western America.
Charles Marion Russell was born in St. Louis, Missouri on March 19, 1864—a year before the American Civil War ended; and he apparently had the desire to sculpt and draw as a child. Through the stories of his grandmother (Lucy Bent Russell – her brothers were Charles and William Bent who founded Bent’s Fort in Colorado), Charlie became infatuated with The West, and when he was sixteen years old his parents allowed him to head west to work on a sheep ranch in Montana—often called Big Sky Country.
He became a cowboy; but no matter what you saw on television, being a cowboy was not all “Yippie-yi-yo, Get Along, Little Doggies.” It was a rough life, but Charlie stayed on and learned almost everything there was to know about the job. He often sketched scenes, painted, and made models of wildlife to pay for his room and board.
Gifted artists are not usually great businessmen, therefore, he had difficulty paying bills and keeping food in the pantry. But when Charlie married Nancy Cooper in 1896, she became his manager. When Charlie might have settled for $25 for a painting, Nancy knew the true value and sold it for several hundred dollars. With Nancy as his manager, Charles Russell entered the national limelight.
Charlie’s memory was amazing, but he frequently used props and models. Sometimes Nancy and another friend would dress up in Native American costumes to model for him. He would often create a quick reference sketch then join in the fun and dress up as well. His studio was filled with Native American and cowboy tools, jewelry, clothing, etc., which he used for reference.
Charles M. Russell died of congestive heart failure on October 24, 1926.
Arriving at the museum in Great Falls around 1:30 pm, time escaped us as we visited the gallery. The Charlie Russell Riders Sculpture Garden in the front of the museum is beautiful. But once inside the gallery, we were amazed with the paintings, sketches, sculptures, and carvings! Even the model stagecoach looked realistic.
Charlie was observant! Seeing what most others glossed over, Charlie saw the beauty in a galloping horse; sage brush in twilight; sunset over the rugged plains; and the fearsome look on the face of the Indian Chief sitting on his pinto without a saddle. He had a memory for detail that far surpassed most people: A gunfight at a saloon with rowdy cowboys riding their steeds on the boardwalks became a beautifully-detailed painting. And looking at another painting, I could almost feel the pain in the cowboy’s wrenched back as he tried to “break the bronco.”
The museum is very-well laid out as it reveals the evolution of Charlie’s life: professional as well as personal. We found high-quality gifts in the C. M. Russell Museum Store. The personnel are friendly, informative, and a joy to be with. I learned a lot as I spoke with them. In 2009 the Wall Street Journal called the museum “One of America’s premier Western art museums,” and I fully agree.
As we drove back to Dick’s RV Campground, I marveled at Charlie Russell’s abilities. Almighty God is a great and loving Creator. I believe that God gives everyone some creative ability or talent at birth, and it’s up to us to discover what it is and develop it. Charlie did.
I encourage you to visit the C. M. Russell Museum at 400 13th St. North, Great Falls, Montana. You’ll enjoy it.