When my children were tots, every time we took our weekly trip to pick up our vegetables from the PEAS farm we’d have to slow down in front of a house on Duncan Drive. Upon the stone wall surrounding this house are two ceramic cats, sunning themselves. We’d have a conversation about, and sometime with, the cats, and to this day they’re a point of reference for us: “two blocks past the cats.”

These charming cats don the wall at the home of the late Rudy Autio and his wife Lela. If you’ve lived in Missoula for any length of time, you’d be hard pressed to not know Autio’s name, or at least his work. His pieces can be found in public places such as the mural on the wall of the Missoula Fire Station and St. Anthony’s Parish, the tapestry in the foyer of the PAR/TV Center on campus, and the 7-foot-tall, 5,000-pound bronze grizzly bear on the UM Oval. Autio also founded the ceramics department at the University of Montana, where he taught for 28 years.

Despite the variety of media Autio used in his public art in Missoula, he is best known for expressing himself in a unique way: through his altered vessels — large-scale multi-lobed pieces that serve as complex three-dimensional canvases adorned with free floating figures and often horses. The Montana Museum of Art and Culture has such a piece in its permanent collection, “Cavalcade.” 

Autio’s "pots" are vessels in name only; despite having an exterior, an interior and the ability to function as an enclosure, they rarely do so. Autio settled on the figure after an important epiphany in the late 1970s at a workshop in Apple Valley, California, where he drew a figure on a piece.

He relates, “Well, I can see a head here — maybe I can move the body this way and have it envelop and go around … I started to gouge it with my fingers and reinforce it with trowel lines.”

Autio’s imagery is primarily centered on the figure and is gestural in a way that is kinetic. MMAC curator Brandon Reintjes states, “Rudy’s artworks are so dynamic and require the viewer to move in relation to them.”

Jim Todd, professor emeritus and former chair of the School of Art and Humanities, writes that Autio’s work cannot be fully appreciated if his origins in Butte are ignored. “There is an interesting connection between the 'Richest Hill on Earth' — the large-scale extraction that made the Berkeley Pit — and Rudy’s use of clay, accentuating,” as Todd writes, “that the materials of the earth determine the destiny of its citizens." 

A more important influence, perhaps, is the fact that Butte is a diverse, multi-cultural city, whose proud, local history influenced Autio’s integration of regional themes into his pieces such as the lyrical “Goodbye the Girls of Galena Street” or “Silver Creek,” which evolved into other Montana place names like “Heart Butte Pony” or “Going to the Sun.” Also, I can’t help but think that the proud history of blue-collar labor informed the sentiment of some of Autio’s public murals. Autio, like other Missoula artists such as Jay Rummel, elevated local events and places to a universal status, creating a mythology of Montana.

“Cavalcade” is part of the Montana Museum of Art and Culture’s permanent collection and can be viewed, along with 119 equally interesting pieces, at the Paxson and Meloy galleries on the University of Montana campus in the PAR/TV Center. MMAC’s exhibit “Art of the State: Celebrating 120 Years of the MMAC Permanent Collection” runs through May 23.