“There is a Right Way”
The justice of the prairie hawk
his wings tipped
the wind just right and the mouse
was any mouse.
I came away,
broken from my standing spot,
dizzy with the sense of a world
trying to be right,
and the mouse
a part of a wind that stirs the plains.
– James Welch,
“Riding the Earthboy 40”
A critic once said James Welch’s poetry had “wind and bones” in it.
The description struck Radius Gallery owner Lisa Simon, who taught Welch’s work as a college English instructor, as the perfect theme for a group show. With its intimations of “strength, sparseness and energy” she saw it as a rich representation of the Western sensibility.
Simon, who opened the gallery with Jason Neal this summer, sent out a call for submissions under that minimal but visually engaging theme.
The appeal of the phrase was apparent in the response. “Artists would just light up” when she told them about the show, Simon said.
Twenty-one artists’ work fills the gallery on East Main Street, where they’re accented by selections from “Riding the Earthboy 40,” the acclaimed Blackfeet novelist’s sole collection of poetry.
While Simon was initially worried the coinciding of October and the phrase “wind and bones” might lead to a slew of misguided submissions, most artists responded to Welch’s words and sensibility – she pointed to the heavy use of black, white and gray throughout the gallery.
Bitterroot Valley-based photographer Barbara Michelman contributed several large works, including a black-and-white print of the sprawling field where Chief Joseph 25 miles south of Havre in the Bear Paw mountainst where Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce was captured trying to flee to Canada with his people.
Radius-represented artist Melissa Bangs has five watercolor still lifes of bones starkly centered on all-white backgrounds that were painted specifically for the show.
Bangs’ roots in Montana reach back to her great-grandmother’s homestead on the Hi-Line, and reading “Fools Crow” at age 12 was a formative, unforgettable experience for her.
“Welch’s words completely opened my eyes and heart to the history that long preceded my family’s history here, what was truly lost and the riches that remain. ‘Fools Crow’ shaped my world and has never left me,” she wrote in an email.
Bangs began this series in 2009, and her motivations dovetailed with the theme Simon choose. Her artist statement for the series asks, “What is left after the many layers have been pealed back or have wasted away?” and contemplates the cycle of the seasons and life and death.
Missoula firefighter and artist Dean Johnson offered up a ceramic deer skull that mimics the look of actual bone. He also has a series of pronghorn skulls, which have unreal colors such as gunmetal or bright, leaching hues from soda-firing.
Assemblage and collage artist Susan Carlson, who’s represented by Radius, contributed at least three pieces.
For “The Wings and Bones of Words,” Carlson used as a base an old lantern, about the size of a large hourglass frame. Inside are pieces of scientific equipment, dog bones and feathers gathered from her walks.
The lantern frame and interior are lined with text from “Fools Crow,” cut from an actual copy of the novel.
“It was already in rough shape, otherwise I wouldn’t have torn it up,” she noted. She knew Welch and his wife Lois, and did house painting and other work for them over the course of 20-some years.
Collecting runs in Carlson’s family, and assemblage art became a natural direction for someone surrounded by old, well-loved objects.
While artists she admires, like Joseph Cornell, had tidy working spaces, it’s not in her working method. She describes her workspace as an “art-nado” once she’s done with a piece.
She thinks about assemblages like the Welch contribution for weeks before working on it.
“It doesn’t happen till it’s ready to happens,” she said. Then the right combination of objects will come to her and she’ll begin experimenting.
Fittingly, she compared it to the way writers work.
In addition to the poetry on the walls, the gallery will host literary-related events.
Throughout the day on Friday, Oct. 10, local poets will give readings in conjunction with the Festival of the Book.
At 2:30 p.m., a Welch tribute reading will include a cast member from “Winter in the Blood,” the Montana-made film adaptation of Welch’s novel. In addition, Dylan Dywer will read a passage from Welch’s novel “Heartsong of Charging Elk,” and perform a piece of music from an accompanying score written by nationally-acclaimed jazz musician Wayne Horvitz.
“It’s a really moving piece. It’s pretty gorgeous,’ Simon said.