With his flowing drawings of figures and horses in generous colors on the surface of massive clay vessels or paper, Rudy Autio was often called “the Matisse of ceramics.”
The late artist, born and raised in Butte to Finnish immigrants, who’s famous for helping start an art center out of an unlikely place (a Helena brickyard), was plainspoken about the comparison when asked in an interview.
“Well, that’s not a bad one; I thought Matisse’s work was a lot like mine. I’ve seen very few bad Matisses so that’s not a bad label, if you want to look at it that way. The fact that he was interested in the figure and color, as I am, is a remarkable coincidence. I don’t know, I feel very fortunate doing what I’ve done, but then I can’t think of what else I would have been doing. It would have been a grim thing to become a copper miner and get my lungs filled with copper dust,” he told curator Peter Held in an interview.
Autio died in 2007 at age 80, having built a lifetime of work out of his home base here in Missoula. This year marks two occasions to revisit his life and art. The family has given work on paper and clay to show at the Radius Gallery for “The Creative Act,” the first Autio exhibition in his hometown in years. The family has also republished his memoir, “It Comes Around Again,” with additional photographs.
A timeline of Autio’s life:
Oct. 8, 1926
Born in Butte to working-class Finnish immigrants. He has credited the city’s culture at the time, with theater and opera and visiting artists from the Works Progress Administration, with stirring his interest in art.
Autio joined the Navy after graduating high school and was stationed in California.
Autio graduates with a bachelor’s degree from Montana State College in Bozeman. He initially came there to study architecture. He later switches to art, and studies ceramics under respected artist Frances Senska, and meets his wife, Lela Autio, and his friend and future collaborator, Peter Voulkos.
Archie Bray, an art aficionado and the owner of the Western Clay Co. brickyard in Helena, hires Autio and Voulkos as founding resident artists of what became the Archie Bray Foundation for the Ceramic Arts, an internationally respected institution in the field. “It was and still is a place we could talk and influence each other’s work,” he said.
He completes his master’s degree from the Washington State University in Pullman and returns to the Bray, where he would stay until 1957. He received his first commission for a public mural, at the Liberal Arts Building at the University of Montana.
At the suggestion of K. Ross Toole, Autio is invited to start a ceramics program at the University of Montana, where he taught for 28 years. He taught generations of artists, including celebrated Missoula figures Beth Lo and Monte Dolack.
Autio completes a 70-foot mural, “Early Days in Last Chance Gulch,” for what’s now the Wells Fargo bank in Helena. The depictions of working-class people drew complaints calling him a communist.
He completes “St. Anthony with the Christ Child,” a two-story mural at St. Anthony’s Parish. Autio, a fan of public art, once said, "that's what art is about: You can see it on a wall somewhere.”
He and his family travel to Italy to see art from the Renaissance and the Vatican and to New York to see contemporary American work.
Autio designs the cast-bronze grizzly statue, called “Grizz,” on the Oval at UM, which weighs some 5,000 pounds. “I guess it’s alright,” he said in 1977. “It’s become the mascot and it’s often photographed so I’ve become resigned to it.”
Autio receives a $10,000 grant from National Endowment for the Arts, which he uses to travel to Finland, the source of inspiration for later textile work. His visit to an Arabia Porcelain Factory to study their clay and glazes would later be visible in his signature pastel palette.
Autio receives one of the inaugural Montana Governor’s Art Awards for his contribution to visual arts.
At age 57, Autio retires from teaching at UM to pursue art full time. With his children off to college, he entered a particularly fruitful creative period.
Autio completes “Montana Horses,” the 20-by-30-foot tapestry in the PAR/TV Building at UM, made with weaver Anneli Hartikaninen.
Autio unveils a tapestry for display in a building in Helsinki.
Autio completes a mural for the Missoula Fire Department station on East Pine Street.
Autio receives the American Craft Council’s Gold Medal. His wife, Lela, wrote that many of his largest and most colorful vessels were created during the 1990s and the 2000s.
“Rudy,” a retrospective at the Missoula Art Museum, examines his sculptures and public murals. At the time, Peter Held, the director of the Holter Museum of Art in Helena, said he is arguably Montana’s most important living artist. “He’s always been true to his unique vision.”
Autio is diagnosed with leukemia but continues working, heading to the Bray Foundation the next year to make six large pieces while in remission.
He is named a “Master of the Medium” by the James Renwick Alliance in Washington, D.C., which is considered one of the major honors in the field. Previous recipients included Voulkos.
June 20, 2007
Autio dies of leukemia at age 80. “Together with Peter Voulkos, Rudy helped change what it meant to be a ceramic artist in America,” said MAM’s curator, Steve Glueckert.