We recently attended an art show in Bismarck’s Capital Gallery that called to mind an early memory of the time my father rode the Empire Builder to visit a brother in the Great Falls, Mont., area. I was too young to remember much about his absence except for his return and the purchases he brought with him that have been a part of my life ever since. From his suitcase emerged a large manila envelope from which slid an array of a dozen or so full-colored Charles M. Russell art prints depicting scenes of the Old West. With wide-eyed admiration, I’ve gazed on them and gained a love of them lasting over 70 years.
The Capital Gallery’s art show honored Bismarck artist Vern Erickson and his art which makes me reminiscent of those Russell pictures. While Russell painted with a backdrop of western Montana, Erickson’s work depicts the North Dakota panorama where people and animals roam freely and interact with each other in this familiar environment.
The next day I met with Erickson over a cup of coffee to discuss his work and sensed that his eye for composing art scenes developed early because as a boy he’d climb the water tower in Esmond to take photographs with a camera his mother had given him. As he grew into his art, the work of established artists attracted him and gave him summits to climb for self-study in such things as brush strokes, shading, composition techniques, and whatever unnamed things an artist’s eye sees.Erickson likes to travel to such places as Cody, Wyo., to visit the art collections at the Buffalo Bill Center of the West and the C.M. Russell Museum in Great Falls, which on one occasion gave rise to an interesting story. He was in attendance at one crowded auction event at the Russell Museum where a large painting named “The Exalted Ruler” hung on display. Russell had painted and presented it as a gift to the Elks Club in Great Falls, but now, with their coming on hard financial times, they wanted to sell it. A man sitting beside Erickson said within earshot, “Dad gave it to them as a gift and they don’t have the right to sell it.” The man was Russell’s son, Jack. Generous benefactors came to its financial rescue to deny its sale to an out-of-state collector.
As one might imagine, great art depicts more than just an image painted on a canvas. For example, strong meaning runs beneath the surface of “The Exalted Ruler.” In the forefront stands the proud leader of the elk herd, off to his left wanders the deposed leader, and to his right a younger male waits to take his turn when he possesses the strength to dethrone him. In a fraternal lodge leadership changes in an orderly, friendly manner, but in Russell’s natural world, elk lock antlers in combat to decide the champion.
Erickson stays in touch with relevant literature and asked me if I’d seen a new book by Rolf Sletten, “Roosevelt’s Ranches.” No, I hadn’t, but when I next visited the library, there it sat on the new book shelf. As I read, one passage stood out. During Teddy Roosevelt’s time in the Bad Lands, cattle were mixing freely on the open range where it took a large roundup to separate each owner’s herd for market. These were the days when real cowboys worked as hired hands. Often undisciplined, much of the Western myth originated with their antics, and here I read that on their way to the cow camp, a few rode past a bar that drew them like a magnet. One mischief-maker rode his horse inside, others followed, then someone slammed the door and shot out the lantern lights. Imagine the scene, dark, filled with excited horses, men hollering, and furniture splintering. Next day the bar owner came to the cow camp with the bill.
It’s a relevant scene because Charlie Russell painted one similar, possibly inspired from this deviltry, that he titled “In Without Knocking.” In it a group of mounted cowboys fire their sidearms and crowd into a bar’s entrance, possibly inspired from the actual incident. Studying artists of Russell’s ilk whetted has Erickson’s creative appetite and continues to prod his painting of scenes as they might have occurred near the Missouri River, on the prairie, among a herd of bison, with men in pursuit of rustlers, or accompanying Lewis and Clark. It’s easy to appreciate his work because it’s the subject matter I’ve followed since a young boy. By the way, “In Without Knocking” is familiar because it was one of the prints that slid from the manila envelope Dad brought home.