Irene Pirnie’s passing brings remembrance of great love, unbreakable partnership

Irene Pirnie, with Larry Pirnie in the background

“We didn’t know who was going to go first,” reflected Larry Pirnie, the Missoula artist famous for his iconic, vibrantly colorful ponies and cowboys. 

He and his wife, Irene, have been dealing with health issues for some time – Larry with heart problems, Irene with dementia.

For more than a year now, they’ve spent their time together “saying goodbye.” As it turned out, Irene was first to go, passing away Wednesday, September 25, 2019.

Their life together was an incredible love story, from day one. 

Larry refers to the first 38 years of his life as “Before Irene,” and the next 40 years as “With Irene.” 

Those first 38 weren’t always pleasant. The next 40 were “like I was in heaven, because I lived my dream.”

Telegraphically, we can sum up those first 38 years as: Iowa kid grows up on Mississippi, bullied at school, turns to writing and drawing, athletic scholarship, meets Norman Rockwell, goes to Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, N.Y., freelances, climbs corporate ladder to marketing director, two marriages, three daughters, painful loss of a daughter, world comes apart, moves to Montana to pursue his own art.

Part two of Larry Pirnie’s life begins with the dateline: Bigfork, Montana, 1978.

“A month and a half into Bigfork, I go to the Outlaw Bar and I see this beautiful woman. She’s full of energy, and I say, ‘Boy this is what I need.’ ”

A short time later as he sat down to order a drink, the woman came up and stood behind him. The bartender says, “Excuse me, you have this lady’s seat.”

Larry says, “We’ve always argued to this day – did she steal my seat, or did I steal hers? But from that moment on, we fell in love.” Two years later they were married, and Irene became the pivotal partner in his life and his art.

She immediately noticed that Larry, despite his marketing background, seemed to be spending more time talking people out of buying his art than talking them into it.

“She will tell you to this day,” says Larry, “the only reason she got into sales was because she thought her husband hadn’t been worth a damn selling his own work. And she was right.”

They worked together to develop Pirnie Art. Over the next 40 years, says Larry, “it’s never been about me, it’s been about us.”

“It takes someone who believes in the product and who knows how to communicate with people, has empathy for people in every situation.”

Irene not only knew nothing about art, but also “never met a salesman I liked.” She had her work cut out for her. She dove in and learned every aspect of the trade.

“We built a life together that is not like any artist I ever talked to, any other story I had ever heard or read about – probably Charlie Russell and Nancy came the closest to it – but we had this wonderful togetherness where I could paint whatever I wanted to paint and I had this person who loved me and she would tell you that’s the only reason she became a sales person.”

Irene worked tirelessly to get Larry’s art into galleries, and they began to make a good living.

But six years in, Larry began tiring of the earthy colors of his Western art (that “Charlie Russell” period of his life). He almost quit.

Finally, he sat down and, using a technique he’d learned in the corporate world, made a list of all the art and artists that had impressed him. It turned out to be a surprisingly short list.

“I asked myself what is the common ingredient? Why am I attracted to this work? There were two words I came up with: bold and colorful – (just) what my work wasn’t.”

A phone call came from Miles City – an invitation to do a museum show, painting scenes during the local bucking horse sale. Given his mood, he declined.

But it set him thinking. A short time later he called back. “I’ll do the show,” he said, “if you’ll let me do whatever I want in terms of my cowboy and horse interpretation.” The museum director agreed saying, “We’d love it; just do it.”

He did the show and he loved it. The colors flowed. It was fun! 

Now, all of this happened while Irene was away, marketing Pirnie Art on the West Coast. 

“When she came back and saw the work I was doing,” said Larry, “it’s the only time in our relationship where she was speechless. She still was loving, but I could see by her reaction, she was thinking ‘Oh my god, what are we going to do now?’ ”

What they did was invite friends and collectors to view this new work. At least one person was unimpressed, thinking Pirnie had “quit painting.” But one of the invited critics, after a careful study of the work, turned to Irene and said, “Finally you have some art that matches up with your personality.”

Larry says, “They were absolutely right. That’s what was missing in my work.”

“A lot of people think she’s the artist, the way she walks and dresses, and her personality. And my energy and my paintings look like her personality, so many times when she’s showing my art, (people think) she’s the artist, and I’m comfortable with that.”

Irene went to work, marketing the “new” Pirnie art with a passion.

“I had my opportunity to create my pictures in my terms because I had this wonderful support and if the galleries didn’t like it she just pulled the art and put it in another gallery. It wasn’t even an issue.”

“She was a great judge of character. So many artists have trouble getting paid by galleries. We never did, because she didn’t always go with the biggest. She went with the people she could trust, so we had wonderful relationships with galleries.

“Irene stays in touch with these collectors, so many of them. We now have a second generation wanting a painting because they were raised with ‘Pirnies’ in their household. 

“You can’t plan those things. Irene’s effort brought that into our life. She made us approachable. It’s been a wonderful relationship.”

Over the last few years, the Pirnies entered a new stage in life, in a way following philosopher Joseph Campbell’s advice to “Change your manner of thinking; move out of the sphere of achievement into the sphere of enjoyment and appreciation, and relax in the wonder of it all.”

The Pirnies discontinued working with galleries and filled their time with travel, visiting “wonderful grandkids and great-grandkids,” rather than “making commitments” they couldn’t follow up on.

Irene’s passing has been a sad affair. But Larry and Irene’s 40-year love affair has been, and will continue to be, a wonderful inspiration to so many, including me.

To Larry, our condolences and our thanks for sharing your story.