KALISPELL – For centuries, the wild alpine heights of Glacier National Park have served as muse, first for Native American creativity and later for European artists who captured – and were captured by – the striking mountain scenery.
This summer, several galleries are commemorating Glacier’s centennial by celebrating that artistic history. Up in Kalispell, they’re hanging canvases for an in-depth look at the inspired works of John Fery, commissioned by Great Northern Railway to paint the scenery along its route. Fery’s sweeping oils also are making an appearance in Missoula, part of a broader show that tracks park art from its native roots into contemporary works, pairing tepee designs with original oils and even promotional calendars.
“It’s a very big spectrum,” Brandon Reintjes said of the Missoula show. “We’re really examining that strong visual legacy that Glacier has engendered, both through Indian traditions and the Great Northern Railway patronage.”
Reintjes is curator of art at the Montana Museum of Art and Culture, where a rare Blackfeet war record will join Fery’s work and portraits by Winold Reiss, among others. He’s also incorporating photography, pamphlets, even books in an attempt to encompass the park that drove the art.
The war record, in particular, stands out, serving as bridge between the native tradition and the Great Northern artists. Commissioned by the railroad but painted by an American Indian, it is one of a very few portraits of Native life not created by an outsider.
“It’s a traditional art form,” Reintjes said, “in which each warrior paints his own story.”
Initially, it hung in one of the railroad’s park lodges – the sole survivor of four originally commissioned – “and the style is discernably Blackfeet,” Reintjes said.
It’s the cross-cultural link, he said, and is critical to the show’s sub-theme, “examining depictions of Native Americans through a variety of sources.”
Local Indian cultures were participants in Glacier’s artistic unfolding, but also were exploited in much of that art, romanticized and stylized as “Glacier Indians” in idealized portraiture meant to draw rail-riding tourists westward.
“We’ve tried to use pieces that relate to each other, and that make connections,” Reintjes said. “We want them to work together, to tell the narrative of art and the park over time.”
Up in Kalispell, by contrast, they’re looking to capture a detailed snapshot in time, a single moment when a single artist came to know Glacier through his brush.
John Fery was born in 1859, in Hungary, and traveled America’s West in the 1890s alongside European nobility, on hunting trips. Fery first began painting the region during those travels, and later was among those hired by Great Northern Railway to paint the park.
“Many of the early European artists were working for the railroad,” said Tabby Ivy, “but they were also here just because it was so beautiful.”
Ivy chairs the board at Kalispell’s Hockaday Museum of Art, which several years ago added to its formal mission a charge to preserve, protect and collect Glacier Park art.
The museum’s Fery show has gathered seldom-seen pieces from several private collections, including many from the Fery family itself.
“They basically said, ‘How many paintings do you want?’ ” Ivy said, “and I said, ‘Well, how many paintings do you have?’ ”
Known for his grand, sprawling murals that graced lodge walls, Fery also worked on a smaller canvas, more suited to the summer exhibit now planned for the Hockaday. About two dozen paintings will be featured, “and some of them are pretty big. It takes up virtually all of our gallery space.”
That size and scope, Ivy said, is part of what distinguishes Fery’s art.
“In my mind, he’s the quintessential park artist, who captured the mood and tone and spirit of Glacier,” she said. “His paintings are more than just pretty landscapes. They really get at the essence of what you experience when you’re in the park.”
Liz Moss, executive director at the Hockaday, said “it’s the scale of his work that sets him apart. He worked very, very large, and because of that you can almost walk into his paintings.”
“These aren’t still-life landscapes,” Moss said. “He got himself into the place, its weather and its land.”
“Fery loved the mountains,” Ivy agreed. “That’s obvious in his work. He captures the subtleties, and there’s a reverence there, a spiritual and emotional connection.”
Lots of people painted Iceberg Lake, she said, but when Fery did it, “it just seems fresher somehow.“
In that same Fery spirit, the Hockaday is hoping to continue the tradition of fine art in the park and has organized a “plein-air paint-out” June 23 and 25. Like Fery, the two dozen or so artists will take to the park directly, spending three days working wilds that haven’t changed much since the railroad artists painted here a century ago.
Same mountains, same critters, same paints and same brushes.
“We didn’t want to limit the show to a certain period of time,” Moss said. “Glacier’s artistic influence isn’t just historical; it’s modern, and people are still inspired when they go there.”
Even the railroad – which has long-since loosed its grip on Glacier – remains an important patron of the arts, helping to sponsor the Hockaday’s summer exhibits and loaning several important pieces both to the Missoula and the Kalispell shows.
“It’s going to be fantastic,” Moss said. “This is a real opportunity for people to see the tremendous creativity these grand places can inspire.”
Galleries throughout the region are commemorating Glacier National Park’s centennial – and its many centuries as artistic muse – with summertime exhibits.
Photographer Sumio Harada is speaking and showing at the Montana House in Apgar on May 29. On June 15, photographer Chris Peterson’s exhibit “100 Years, 100 Days of a Photographer’s Journey” opens downstairs at the Hockaday Museum of Art in Kalispell.
Peterson’s show runs concurrent with the Hockaday’s much-anticipated Fery exhibit, open June 15 to Sept. 18.
In Missoula, the Montana Museum of Art and Culture features a centennial art exhibition June 11 through Aug. 7 in the Meloy and Paxson galleries. The opening reception is June 11, 5 to 7 p.m.
In conjunction with that show, MMAC is playing host to two lecture events. Dr. William E. Farr will present from his book “Julius Seyler and the Blackfeet Indians” at 7 p.m., June 24, in the Masquer Theater; and Dr. Rafael Chacón will discuss the relationship between artists and the park at 7 p.m. July 21, in the Meloy Gallery.
On June 26, photographers Peterson and Jim Jensen discuss art in the park at Glacier’s Apgar Village, and on July 8 the centennial film festival arrives at Lake McDonald Lodge.
The Glacier Symphony celebrates Glacier through music on July 10 at Rebecca Farm in Kalispell. Then the film festival returns on
Aug. 12, this time to St. Mary Visitor Center.
For a complete list of centennial events – art-related and otherwise – visit www.glaciercentennial.org.
Reporter Michael Jamison can be reached at 1-800-366-7186 or at email@example.com.