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Lela Autio, shown here in June 2015 when it was announced she was a recipient of the 2015 Governor’s Art Award, died in January at her home in Missoula.

LOREN BENOIT, Missoulian

Chloe Autio sang the final lines of "At Last" with tears in her eyes, and blew two kisses skyward.

"And here we are in heaven, for you are mine ... at last."

Chloe is the granddaughter of Lela Autio, a renowned sculptural artist and painter. Lela died in January at 88 years old. Last summer, Chloe sang that song at a party.

"When she was in the hospital in January, she asked me to sing it here for you all in case we decided to have a celebration, which she didn't want anyway," Chloe said, mimicking Lela's voice and causing a wave of laughter in the standing-room-only crowd at the Missoula Art Museum on Saturday.

Family and friends squeezed into the Lee Morrison Gallery to celebrate Lela Autio's life and share memories and songs.

It was as if she hadn't left, each story and imitation of her laugh and voice ricocheting off the museum walls and causing everyone to laugh amid the tears.

"Welcome to the art house that Lela built," MAM Executive Director Laura Millin said, opening the celebration.

Millin recognized that "it took a village" to launch the museum, but Lela was the "art mother" who took charge and advocated for art, women, the disenfranchised and so much more.

She never backed down and always spoke her mind.

Tom DeWeese put it simply: "She was a no bullsh-- gal."

'Hustling'

Steve Glueckert, MAM's retired curator, worked with Lela Autio for years. What was distinctive about Lela, he said, was that she wasn't the stereotypical "starving artist" waiting to be discovered.

She was always busy, always "hustling," as former Montana Congressman Pat Williams put it. And she did the same for her husband Rudy, an influential ceramic artist, essentially acting as his publicist.

"Life didn't happen to Lela," said Susan Ridgeway, wife of Lar Autio, Lela's son. "Lela took charge of life."

One of Lela's four children, Lisa, unveiled something her brother Arne found in Lela's house. It was an anniversary gift from Rudy to Lela, written after more than 30 years of marriage. It begins: "Isn't it amazing after all these years I still love you. There is no one in the world who complains about everything as well as you do ..."

Artists wrote letters to be read at the celebration, everyone saying that Lela was their inspiration. That includes New York City mime and actor – and Missoula native – Bill Bowers, whose play "All Over the Map" premiered Off-Broadway this spring. The play is dedicated to Lela, who was his high school art teacher and longtime friend.

"I always thought of Lela and Rudy as my art mom and dad," Bowers wrote. "Lela always signed her emails and letters to me, 'Love, your fake mom.'"

Williams said he's unable to think of Rudy without Lela.

"To us, they're a great flowering tree, you know, one of those trees with two trunks," he said. "I always had the feeling ... that Lela was the root system."

Dancing on clouds

Chloe told one last story before singing, a story about a conversation Lela had with Rudy before he died in 2007.

"You know what one of the last things Rudy said to me (was)? He said, 'Well, Lela, I'll paint some clouds and we'll dance on them,' " Lela told Chloe.

"So, I hope that they are dancing on those clouds," Chloe said.

Rudy and Lela, at last.

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Reporter for the Missoulian