As I walked to campus this morning, with air temperatures hovering around -5 degrees, I thought of a funny cartoon that has recently made the rounds on the internet. In it, a cartoon figure, bundled up in a parka and stocking cap looks dejectedly down. The caption reads, "The air hurts my face. Why am I living where the air hurts my face?"
The joke, of course, for those of us who are attempting to survive this long and bitterly cold winter is that we have all asked ourselves this question at one point of another. Why are we here? Why don't we just move somewhere warmer, somewhere greener, somewhere with fewer extremes of weather?
This past January, I enjoyed my first "non-teaching" j-term. Other than overseeing a few independent projects with students, I spent the majority of my time with this man—Charles Marion Russell, the Cowboy Painter of Montana.
I had intended to use this blog to talk a bit about Russell and my latest research project—Russell's conception of the Midwestern Farmer as an interloper—but I began thinking this morning, as my toes grew increasingly numb on my walk up the hill—that even though I chuckle at the cartoon, and question my sanity from time to time, I know exactly why I'm here in Decorah. Like so many of my colleagues I came for a job at Luther, but have grown to love the land, the community and especially the people. And this isn't unconnected to Charles Russell. Charlie devoted his entire career to the depiction of the West, his adoptive home.
Working in Montana at the turn of the 20th century, Charlie began his adult life as a night wrangler for a cattle outfit, watching over the herds while the more senior cowboys slept. Russell had little experience with ranching, but he more than made up for that with his knack for storytelling, his good humor, and his habit of sketching the cowboys and range life around the campfire. In 1882 began to experiment with watercolor and define a core group of subjects—the life of the cowboy and the Plains Indian—to which he would return time and again during his long career.
Russell is often presented as a man who "documented" the West, but in reality, most of his paintings were produced long after the heyday of the cowboy and the long cattle drives. Indeed, he is better understood as one who helped create the myth of the West, than one who documented it.
Regardless, as the era of the great cattle drive came to an end and Charlie began spending more time in the studio and less time on the range, he began to re-conceptualize what his role in the "new" modern West would be. He launched a program to save what remained of old Montana. And for Charlie, despite all of its natural beauty, Montana was best understood through its people.
In 1907 Russell sent his friends and family a Christmas postcard. In the small image, the artist stands in his characteristic pose wearing his colorful sash—bottle raised in holiday greeting, saying "Here's how to me and my friends—the same to you and yours."
He is surrounded his friends, a ragtag and motley assemblage of frontier types, including miners, cowboys, Chinese laborers, gamblers, stagecoach drivers and Native Americans. The caption underneath simply reads, "I savvy these folks."
Let's be clear, the representation of some of these folks demonstrates some pretty deep-seated racial stereotypes, but the image also betrays an aspect of Russell's concept of the West. He thought of the region as an inclusive space, a concept defined by scholar, Patricia Limerick as "the Rendezvous Model," a multicultural model for understanding the western experience.
For Russell, the experience of community–of people coming together, helping each other out—was what makes his place special. His characters repeatedly lock together in epic struggle for survival, presenting a visualized history of conquest, but they also come together for assistance and camaraderie.
The "I Savvy these Folks" postcard also suggests that Russell's friends are not exactly the most upstanding citizens. They were far more likely to be found on a bar stools in one of the many saloons of Charlie's hometown of Great Falls, Montana, than sitting in a pew on Sunday morning, but these "Old Timers," as he called them, nevertheless adhered to a personal code of ethics to which Russell remained devoted throughout his life. Even in a limited and flawed way, Russell valued diversity as one of the things that made his Montana home. There is a lesson there, I think.
Like all institutions of higher education, Luther College is facing some significant challenges as we move forward. But as we prepare to welcome our new president, we are also in the midst of some pretty exciting change. These challenges that face us are as real as this second week of consecutive sub-zero temps. But the beautiful thing about Luther and the larger Decorah community is that we are just that, a community. And if you, whoever you are, can survive this winter, then you are someone that I can savvy.
Kate Elliott is an assistant professor of art history at Luther College. She teaches courses from ancient, medieval and renaissance art to art of the 19th and 20th centuries, as well as a Paideia 450 course in the Paideia program. She also serves as the curator of the Luther College Fine Arts Collection.