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Rudy Autio: Family keeps legacy alive with exhibits, memoir

Rudy Autio: Family keeps legacy alive with exhibits, memoir

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The late Rudy Autio "opened the door for many, many artists to try more experimental approaches to ceramics." 

That influence and legacy extended around "Montana, and throughout the world, really," said his former student, the well-recognized ceramic artist Beth Lo. 

He remains in the public eye across the state, in public and privately commissioned murals, from banks to the University of Montana campus. Some, like "Early Days at Last Chance Gulch," in what's now the Wells Fargo bank, are impossible to miss at 70 feet wide. Others, like the bronze grizzly bear statue on the Oval at the University of Montana, are likely photographed every day.

The work for which the Missoula resident is most celebrated, his large-scale ceramic vessels and drawings and paintings with Matisse-like imagery of human figures and horses, has been less visible in person since his death in 2007 from leukemia at age 80. 

After his wife and fellow modern artist, Lela Autio, died in 2016 at age 88, his four children were left to care for his legacy, along with a studio filled with art. Besides the hundreds of works the couple collected from friends and artists they admired, is the work they made themselves. The ceramics were divided among Lisa, Chris, Arne and Lar, and they formed a limited liability company to care for the thousands of pieces of two-dimensional work, which ranged from museum-quality drawings to quick studies and sketches.

Several years ago, Lisa said they thought they "ought to have a few more shows for Dad while the collection is still basically together, there's enough pieces to show."

Rudy revisited: A timeline of Autio's life in words and photos

That led to a burst of activity in the region. Late last summer, the family selected vessels and 2-D work for an exhibition, "The Monumentalists," at the Art Spirit Gallery of Fine Art in Coeur D'Alene, Idaho, that paired Autio with the late Harold Balazs, a fellow student from Washington State University in Pullman. A week after that closed, another opened, this time in Bozeman at the Emerson Center for Arts and Culture titled "A Modern Impact: The Work of Rudy and Lela Autio," which examined their respective careers as modernists in the state. It comprised early lithographs, oil paintings and watercolors along with later-period ceramics from Lisa's collection. A show of Rudy and Lela's work at the Yellowstone Art Museum in Billings is in the planning stages.

***

Closest to home is a show at the new Radius Gallery titled "The Creative Act," with paintings, prints and, of course, the curving vessels with undulating surface paintings. 

The first substantial solo exhibition of Rudy Autio's work in years drew an estimated 2,500 visitors in the first weekend.

Beyond the fact that he knew so many people here, as an artist "he’s a contemporary touchstone in Montana Modernism," gallery co-owner Lisa Simon said. 

"Even for people who don’t know Rudy, the way his works relate to well-known early Modernist painters like Picasso and Matisse, invites comment and interest. Autio is clearly having a conversation with the Modernist(s). Perhaps with all his depictions of horses, he’s wondering how the traditional West figures into it," she wrote.

The pieces, which range in price and medium from drawings for hundreds of dollars to a decorated ceramic vessel for $40,000, have attracted fans and potential buyers who may never have seen a full exhibition of his work.

"They’ve seen pieces in their house or studio, but never had the experience of seeing the full vision as it plays out in different mediums," Simon said. "At the Radius exhibit, if you stand in the center of the room and look around you can see works in clay pots, clay platters, lithographs, relief prints, pen and ink, oil stick, pastel, acrylic paint."

The family inquired about exhibiting his work farther afield. Lisa Autio "tried hard" but was perhaps too ambitious. She reached out to museums and institutions in the Southwest about an exhibition. However, the cost of insurance and moving expenses for large-scale ceramics eventually led to a stall. Even the prospect of transporting the vessels across the pass to Idaho during winter led to a change in the exhibition date for that show.

Discussions with an experienced writer and curator to create a catalog halted because of health issues.

However, Autio had periodically worked on a memoir, which he wrote primarily for his children. 

"We knew about the memoir and we'd always enjoyed it, so we thought why don't we use that? Let Rudy tell his own story," Lisa said. 

Working with artist-curator Dennis Kern and his Rattlesnake Valley Press on the design, they incorporated historical photographs for a small-run first edition to sell at that exhibition in Idaho. They expanded with more pictures for a second run to accompany the Radius exhibition. 

Autio stopped working on it in the early 1990s. Lisa said it's particularly focused on his early years. Funny stories balance the sections about the trials and difficulty of making art and ends meet.

As an artist, you "dedicate your life to problem solving when you become an artist, and I guess every artist likes that challenge, in a way," she said.

He grew up in Butte, the son of working-class Finnish immigrants. The 1930s in the Mining City offered him exposure to art, whether opera, theater or visual art — creators from the Works Progress Administration visited the schools. After he enrolled at Montana State College in Bozeman and gave up on architecture for art, he met his wife, Lela; his friend and fellow ceramic artist, Peter Voulkos. They were invited to come work at a brickyard in Helena that eventually became the recognized hub for art, the Archie Bray Foundation Center for the Ceramic Arts.

Lo, a well-established ceramic artist, said he was "a very pivotal figure in the development and history of ceramic art. He really made a difference in the way it's looked at and the way it's thought about in terms of the use of clay as a material for art-making." 

She said the time and unlimited materials they were given, in the midst of radical ideas in art nationally at the time, led to some of their innovations. Back then, ceramics was the province of home economics departments and dishware, she said.

"They experimented with form and surface and expanded the idea that the vessel is more than something that has to be for a specific function," she said. It could be metaphorical. Autio "began to use slips and glazes as surface painting, not unlike some abstract painters were using paint on a canvas," and thinking about color, composition, brushstrokes.

The origin story has a certain amount of brilliant timing to Steven Young Lee, the resident artist director at the Bray since 2006. Autio and Voulkos happened to be two Montana natives studying art who met a teacher, Frances Senska, who encouraged them to go see Bray, an arts patron who owned a brickyard and clay he wanted to offer up to artists.

"There's a lot of serendipity in a way, because in addition to all that, both Rudy and Pete were these incredibly talented artists, but in such different ways," Lee said.

Voulkos began with pottery and the wheel before moving into abstract expressionist forms. Autio was an aspiring sculptor, curious about the figure and mural work.

"I always thought it was impressive how he would follow these threads of exploration, whether it was about sculpture, or drawing, or painting, or textiles," Lee said. "It was his creativity that was the key part of that." 

The notion that artists with vastly different styles who can inform and challenge each other is part of their legacy at the Bray, where top ceramicists from around the world share space and make work in vastly different ways.

"We do bring all these people together. We're not proscribing any curriculum of any sort," he said. They provide space and time, and artists might leave in a different space than where they started. 

For his part, Autio maintained ties to the Bray over the years after his initial tenure ended, to either make art or serve on the board.

"Rudy, out of most any of the artists in the history of the Bray, always felt a little more committed to what was happening and a little more beloved because of how much he loved that place," Lee said.

In 1957, Autio left to start the ceramics program at UM, where he stayed for 28 years. Lo, the former student who eventually became a teacher like him, said he was encouraging to his students but hands-off enough to let them develop their own ideas. "I think in some ways, just having that freedom to experiment was the best thing I got out of graduate school," she said.

With his connections around the country, he was a draw before and after he was done teaching. 

"Even after he retired, he continued to be a sort of a mecca for ceramic artists to come to visit to learn from," she said. 

The program he started has bloomed. When he was first hired, the "department" was only a warming shed next to an ice rink. When Lo was a student, the floor was exposed dirt and the air vents blasted too hard and would dry out their pots. It's now a marquee program at UM, with faculty members like Julia Galloway and Trey Hill who are recognized by their peers in and outside the U.S.

***

The Autios were enthusiastic art collectors. In addition, some ceramic artists aren't squeamish about leaving some work outside. The children nicknamed one series, "porchies," Chris said. "That is, they lived out on the porch" and are now repaired or in the process of being repaired.

There are hundreds and hundreds of pieces of flat work in need of organization, a process that's left them "flummoxed," Chris said. 

Autio was a prolific draftsman, and left behind both high-quality drawings and quick studies, which Lela tried to save and file as she could.

What to do with the remaining artwork is "an ongoing discussion," Lisa said. Unlike the ceramics, the two-dimensional work was never divided up. The four of them discuss what can be put up for sale or donated to an auction — their parents, both art educators, believed in scholarships for students. 

The family wants to be "careful and thoughtful about releasing" work, Lisa said. The drawings now fill drawers and drawers in flat storage, posing a time-consuming and difficult challenge in categorizing and archiving them.  Lisa said the next step is organizing them physically so they know where to find them. She's worked on a database of everything they've sold or donated.

"Then there's different types of paper," Chris said. "Some are losing some archival quality, just because of the nature of the paper that he drew on, and the cattle markers-slash-oil sticks that he used, and they may have affected the paper." 

Their mother liked the idea of donating them to a museum, and Lisa believes she would be heartened by the prospect of the new building planned for the Montana Museum of Art and Culture at UM. 

After Lela died, Chris, a professional exhibiting photographer, took thousands of pictures of their collection, both work by their parents and their private collections, and they had it appraised.

Lela amassed 40 binders' worth of slides that document thousands of pots and drawings that Rudy made, with the dimensions, year and medium. Some have titles, others don't. They're deciding how to have them digitized and cataloged.

It's a daunting and "unending" process, as they have their own busy lives and careers. Their father never left behind any directives for all the pots, the drawings, or his legacy. 

Like many artists, Autio was "never thinking about posterity," said Lisa, a painter herself. 

He was focused on "the moment right in front of you," she said, "where you're working spontaneously."

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