Artist, Naturalist and Political Humorist

By Beacon Staff

The walls of the Hockaday Museum of Art will be home to some familiar Flathead Valley faces and places this summer, all part of an exhibit featuring a well-known local artist and political cartoonist.

The Hockaday is hosting many of Swan Lake artist Elmer Sprunger’s works throughout the summer in its exhibit, “Elmer Sprunger: Artist, Naturalist and Political Humorist.”

In its upper level exhibit rooms, the Hockaday displays Sprunger’s oil paintings of the natural world, most of which are set in a Flathead landscape, as well as his political cartoons, which he drew for the Bigfork Eagle for 24 years.

His cartoons also appeared in the Missoulian and several other publications.

“Elmer was very well known; he was very well loved and respected,” Liz Moss, executive director at the Hockaday, said. “His work was highly professional.”

Sprunger’s is a familiar name for many in the Flathead Valley. He was born in Kalispell in 1919, and grew up on Swan Lake. There, Sprunger observed many of the wild characters he later captured in his realistic paintings.

He married in 1940 and had three children. Sprunger moved around Montana and Washington working various jobs, including fence post cutting, ship fitting and drafting, and logging.

Throughout these years, Sprunger began expanding his commentary on life and politics through his cartoons. He joined the Army during World War II and was stationed in Hawaii, where he made commercial art and drew posters for military shows.

By 1950, Sprunger and his family were back at Swan Lake. Three years later, he was painting, sign-painting and cartooning for the Anaconda Aluminum Company in Columbia Falls. He created hundreds of work-safety cartoons, and in 1962, Sprunger co-authored a pamphlet with comments and cartoons on hunting.

Sprunger spent his spare time painting wildlife, a passion that would become his sole career pursuit in 1971.

As a full-time wildlife artist, Sprunger worked on commissioned pieces and began to cultivate a following. He also contributed his cartoons to the local newspapers, often going after politicians, dignitaries and environmental issues.

Sprunger died in Kalispell in 2007 at the age of 87 after a battle with lung cancer believed to be caused by exposure to asbestos. His work is featured at the Cowboy Hall of Fame in Oklahoma, the Safari Club in Las Vegas and in public buildings and private homes throughout the West.

The mix of wildlife appreciation and bold-faced commentary is what endeared Sprunger’s work to many valley residents, Moss said.

“All of these issues strike near and dear to the hearts of the people of the Flathead Valley,” she said.

The Hockaday’s exhibit showcases dozens of Sprunger’s paintings, organized by landscape location in its well-lit rooms. This is part of the draw to the exhibit, Moss said, because most valley residents will come to the sudden realization that they know where the depicted animals are standing.

Of the paintings in the exhibit, the featured landscapes include the Swan river, lake and valley, Flathead Lake, Jewel Basin, Logan Pass, and the Garden Wall. Animal subjects range from bison, elk, antelope, mountain goat and deer to owls, small birds and chipmunks.

Many of Sprunger’s political cartoons are also on display, held together in a binder. One of the cartoons expresses concern for keeping Flathead Lake clean, while the other shows Sprunger’s zeal for keeping the state’s population of old trees safe from logging.

“I wanted to include the cartoons,” Moss said. “(The exhibit) is pretty well rounded.”

Sprunger’s activism for ancient trees was behind the creation of the Sprunger-Whitney Nature Trail in the Swan, named after the artist and Jack Whitney. The two-mile trail works its way through an old-growth forest.

Moss noted that by exhibiting a local artist, the Hockaday gives the Flathead’s residents and tourists an interesting perspective on the changing landscapes throughout the valley.

“His work has been recognized, and there’s an intrinsic value in also presenting local work as well as work from outside the area,” Moss said.

The “Elmer Sprunger: Artists, Naturalist and Political Humorist” exhibit will be on display at the Hockaday Museum of Art until Sept. 3. For more information, visit www.hockadaymuseum.org or call 406-755-5268.

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