By Ed Kemmick/Last Best News
A few years ago, the painter and sculptor Theodore Waddell was thinking it might be time, five decades into a productive career as an artist, for a book-length retrospective of his work.
The more he thought about it, though, the less he wanted a coffee-table book solely about his art. He wanted a book that would tell the larger story of the artists and writers and friends he had learned from and worked with, of the ferment and excitement of a particular time in history.
And he wanted the book to be, he said, “about Montana and our place in Montana and how much we all love it.”
That book is now here. “Theodore Waddell: My Montana—Paintings and Sculptures, 1959-2016” was written by Rick Newby and includes essays on Waddell’s life and work by a wide range of curators, critics, scholars, poets and fiction writers.
It is a beautifully produced collection of Waddell’s work—his sculptures and portraits and abstract paintings and above all his “landscapes with animals,” a recurrent phrase in the book. And as Waddell hoped, the book is also a fascinating, instructive look at the evolution of American Western art, and an evocation of the art scene in Montana over the past 50 years.
Waddell gives all the credit to Newby, calling him “an amazing man” who has been writing about art in Montana for more than 40 years, “chronicling some of the most important stuff that has gone on.”
Waddell should know, having produced so much “important stuff” himself. Tracy Linder, a sculptor who lives in Molt, near where Waddell ranched for 11 years, called him the “perfect bridge of Modernism meets Contemporary with a Western twist.”
Yellowstone Art Museum Director Robyn Peterson, in nominating Waddell for the Montana Governor’s Arts Award in 2015, said he “has done more than any other living painter to develop a distinctive Montana-based vision that brings Modernism into the 21st century.”
Greg Keeler, the singer and satirist who used to open some of Waddell’s exhibitions with a performance, said his friend’s paintings and sculptures “are full of humor, tragedy, life, love, death, and the vast Montana landscape. So is Ted.”
Waddell and Newby will sign copies of the new work, published by Drumlummon Institute in Helena, when they kick off a book tour Thursday night from 6:30 to 7:30 at the Yellowstone Art Museum, 410 N. 27th St. (See below for a list of other stops on the tour.)
Waddell, 75, was born in Billings and raised in Laurel, where his father painted boxcars for the Northern Pacific Railway. In an interview with Corby Skinner, co-host of Yellowstone Public Radio’s “Resounds” show, which aired Monday night, Waddell said his first memory was of smelling the paint on his father’s clothes.
Both parents were encouraging, but especially his father, who had dabbled in oil painting and who would take his son to the library and fill bags with books, which they read together at home. At the age of 10, Waddell discovered his first artistic hero, Will James, whose illustrated books he found at the Parmly Billings Library.
In his teens he encountered James’ paintings directly after becoming acquainted with Virginia Snook, proprietor of the Snook Art Company in Billings and a longtime friend and supporter of James. It was the first of many fruitful encounters with influential Montana artists, curators and art supporters.
In Newby’s telling, few influences meant more to Waddell than that of Isabelle Johnson, often called Montana’s first modernist painter, who grew up on the family ranch in the Stillwater Valley. Waddell enrolled in Eastern Montana College (now MSU Billings) intending to be an architect, but within a month of studying art under Johnson, he had decided on his life’s work.
He pursued it with a doggedness that sometimes alarmed his friends. While attending EMC and working part-time in the art department, he also worked loading railroad freight from 4 p.m. to 3 a.m. Johnson bought a cot so Waddell could sleep in a tool room when he wasn’t painting. Later, when he took up ranching, he would rise at 4 a.m. to get some painting in before doing his morning chores.
In a phone interview, Newby said much of Waddell’s success had to do with “his tremendous work ethic” and “with him making his own luck.”
Waddell continued to develop as a painter and sculptor during his studies—in Detroit and Brooklyn in addition to Billings—and then a teaching stint at the University of Montana in Missoula. He and his first wife, Betty Leuthold, later moved to Arlee, north of Missoula, where he created one of his most recognizable pieces, at least in the Billings area—an untitled, 24-foot-tall stainless-steel sculpture that stands between McMullen Hall and Petro Hall on the MSU Billings campus.
As he developed his distinctive style and continued to create more and more art, his circle of admirers grew, too, until his works were being snapped up by museums, corporations and private collectors all over the world.
There is so much more in the book, so many good stories—about being drafted and ending up playing trumpet in the Fourth Army Band; about opening a little gallery on South 34th Street in Billings, where “We never sold any work … but we had some really good parties”; and about his time in Missoula, immersed in a world of artists, writers, musicians and some memorable taverns.
There are appreciative essays by his longtime friend Donna Forbes, once a visionary director of the Yellowstone Art Museum; Bob Durden, now the YAM’s senior curator; former U.S. Rep. Pat Williams, a friend and passionate supporter of the arts; Gordon McConnell, an accomplished painter and writer on contemporary art; the bronc-riding poet Paul Zarzyski; Patrick Zentz, a good friend of Waddell and like him an artist and rancher; Brian Petersen, a journalist and novelist; and Mark Brown, the curator and director of the Custer County Art Center in Miles City.
Among all the riches we have not mentioned is this: Waddell had heard that his grandfather, Thomas Jefferson Waddell, knew the cowboy artist Charles M. Russell, but he was very skeptical, on the grounds that most people who lived in Montana in that era had made the same claim.
But Waddell went into the archives and found out it was true. He even found a photograph of the 1885 fall roundup for the Judith Basin Cattle Pool, and in it were both Charlie Russell and Thomas Waddell. Not only that, Newby discovered that Waddell had shod Russell’s pinto “Monty,” the first horse Russell bought in Montana.
Even more to Ted Waddell’s liking, given his own penchant for extravagant yarns, Newby unearthed the fact that Thomas Waddell had patented a manure spreader. As Ted Waddell told Skinner in the radio interview, “So, it’s in the genes.”
Our favorite story in the book was recounted in loving detail by Scott McMillion, editor of the Montana Quarterly, and William “Gatz” Hjortsberg, the novelist and screenwriter who was born in the same year as Waddell and died just last month.
They were both in attendance at what must have been the most interesting gathering in the history of Montana—an arts conference called “Our Place & Time,” held in 1989 along the Musselshell River on Waddell’s ranch near Ryegate. Staged by Waddell, it attracted most of the leading artists and writers then living in Montana.
As McMillion, then a youngish reporter for the Bozeman Chronicle, recalled, “There were fifty-five established artists and twenty-seven published authors sidestepping cow pies on Waddell’s ranch that weekend. … There was plenty of booze and lots of laughter, along with some serious contemplation of the creative process. There was a lot of talk about regionalism and nativism and universalism and some of it was silly but some of it was profound.”
There are more stories like that in the book, the kind that make you proud to live in Montana, sighing with nostalgia but sorry to have missed out on these seminal events.
Waddell and his second wife, Lynn Campion, now live near Sun Valley, Idaho, but they spend a lot of time at their house and studio in Sheridan, Mont., too. Waddell said the new book “far exceeded anything I thought was possible,” and though he’ll be at the book launch Thursday night, he gives all the credit, again, to Newby.
“It’s kind of weird,” Waddell said. “It’s his book, but I’m doing book signings.”
The book tour
After the book-signing Thursday at the Yellowstone Art Museum, which may be attended by some of the other people who contributed to the book, Newby and Waddell will be in:
♦ Livingston on Friday, 7-8:30 p.m., Elk River Books.
♦ Bozeman on Saturday, 5-7 p.m., Visions West Gallery.
♦ Ryegate on Sunday, 2-4 p.m., Ryegate Bar.
♦ Miles City on May 21, 9:30-10:30 a.m., Custer County Art Center.
♦ Helena on May 30, 5:30-7 p.m., Myrna Loy Theatre.
♦ Great Falls on June 2, 7 p.m., The Celtic Cowboy’s Dark Horse.
♦ Butte on June 3, 7-8:30 p.m., Clark Chateau Art Center.
Ed Kemmick has been a newspaper reporter, editor and columnist since 1980. Except for four years in his home state of Minnesota, he has spent his entire journalism career in Montana, working in Missoula, Anaconda, Butte and Billings. “The Big Sky, By and By,” a collection of some of his newspaper stories and columns, plus a few essays and one short story, was published in 2011.