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The Cowboy's Sketches

Monday, September 28, 2009

Charles Russell's narrative is as amusing as his cartoons. This one refers to his toothlessness, and the fragments I could read said, "I had teeth then but were shed since...when you've been swallowing your grub like a chicken for over a year..." What an image that conjures!

He worked as a cowboy in the Judith Basin of Montana from age 16-27, when he decided to become a full-time artist. He died in 1926, much too early, at age 62. More than 4,000 works make his an incredible legacy. The Charles M. Russell Museum has preserved his home and his log cabin studio with all the props, clothing, saddles, and accoutrements that lend his paintings authenticity. I love, love, love this museum.

He often seemed to be trying to make his friends feel better. Here's a letter to a sick friend, with drunken cowboys singing lustily:
Nice letterhead, huh? I should emulate that, something so simple and iconic. Perhaps I could draw a pile of raccoon poo full of pawpaw seeds. If I ever used letterhead's all electrons, ma'am.

A New Year's card, wishing away the spectre of illness:

I'm hoping old sickness don't locate your camp
And health rides hard on you
May Dad Time be slow at snuffing your lamp
And your trail be smooth plum through.

That horse fairly breathes. I think his tail just switched.

This letter sketch completely flipped me out. Look at those horses, that action, that painting!!

Good Lord! If I ever got a letter like this...and yet when I was young and had all kinds of time, I illuminated my letters to a beloved uncle, who was confined to a nursing home, in this way. I had to stop decorating the envelopes when they started disappearing before they reached their destination. Someone in the chain of post offices took a liking to them. Kind of like stealing flowers out of someone's garden.

Charlie Russell's illuminated letters are compiled in a brand new book, available on the C. M. Russell Museum's web site. Mmm. Christmas.

Liam stood rooted before this exquisite drawing of a shaman calling up three white buffalo. We felt shivers pass right through us. It was as if no time had passed at all.

This is the only real American.
He fought and died for his country.
Today he has no vote
No country and is not a citizen
But history will not forget him.

Charles M. Russell, Jan. 5, 1914

My father was two when this was painted.
It hasn't been such a long time, after all.
We are still so close to what was, what is wild and wonderful about our country.


Ohhhhh, how I hope my grandfather got a chance to visit this museum. When did it open? My Papa moved to the West, to Arizona, late in his life and fell passionately in love with it. He couldn't get enough of the arts and crafts of both cowboys and Native peoples and took up pen and ink sketching and creating Kachina dolls. He would have adored Charles M. Russell (I bet he did, and I just didn't know it). Thank you for reminding me of him.

Such exquisite drawings. I can't even imagine receiving a letter illustrated like that! It's so wonderful that his talent is showcased there.

I love this post. Thanks, Julie. It shows how useful it is to just document the little things both in prose and sketch. We should all be doing this. It also makes me want to go and see these for myself.

There's a whole genre of art that mailmen know about--prison art. Prisoners make pencil drawings all over both sides of their envelopes. It's stylized enough that you can recognize it even before you see where it's coming from. And a lot of it is pretty good. Not Charles Russell good, but good. I've often thought it might be worth a research project. But then I'd have had to steal the mail (BTW: I'd suspect the nursing home people before the mailmen!).

I loved this history! Quite comical, actually. And I'm shocked and horrified that someone in a sort of post office stole your work. Now, that's sad.

"The only real american" shows what is so terribly wrong with this country. We should never forget how europeans tread on the indiginous people to get what that wanted, not what they needed. A shameful piece of our history.

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