What is it about the American West that draws people to its high mountains and vast plains? Perhaps it is the solitude, the ability to be in a place and be alone without being lonely, with the ground and wide-open sky as companions.
Or perhaps it is the storied past, full of adventurers, warriors, and pioneers who made lives for themselves in an idyllic but harsh land, stories of opportunity and freedom.
Whatever the cause, the pull of the West has brought people to Montana and the surrounding areas for centuries, and much of the recent history has been captured and portrayed in artwork.
The Hockaday Museum of Art in Kalispell is ruminating on the magnetism and cultural changes of the region with its exhibition, “Visions of the American West,” which will be on display until Feb. 21.
Hockaday executive director Liz Moss curated the exhibit, which was a way for her to display some of the museum’s extensive permanent collection in a narrative way.
There was a show last year that featured many pieces from the permanent collection, which has 700 to 800 paintings and is worth more than $1.8 million, but the sheer volume of material makes it difficult to view the pieces in a discernable order.
“It’s interesting, because we have so much stuff, but I needed to connect it to a story so people would understand what they’re looking at when they’re walking through here,” Moss said.
Moss moved to Kalispell from Virginia to take over as director at the Hockaday in 2009, and wanted to share her perspective on the American West as someone who did not grow up here.
“From my East Coast perspective, I have a bit of a romantic view of the West,” she said.
A romantic view doesn’t mean rose-tinted glasses, though; the exhibit shows how much of the tribal culture was lost when Native Americans lost ground to white settlers.
Some artifacts, such as Blackfeet beading pieces, are under glass for protection, Moss said, but most everything else is out free on display, allowing the viewer to get up close to the work.
One of the pieces featured is on loan from the Glacier Conservancy, and is a five-and-a-half-foot painting of Lake McDonald by renowned western artist Ace Powell.
There are other Powell pieces on display as well. Other featured artists include Frank Cahill; painter Olaf Wieghorst, who painted the west much in the style of Charlie Russell; and early 20th century photographer Roland Reed, who is known for his work on Native cultures and the Great Northern Railroad.
The exhibit is also the first time the museum will display works by local photographer Harry Harpster, who lived in Many Lakes and worked for the government as a photographer for mapping territories.
The museum purchased a large collection of his work in 2010, Moss said, and it includes photos of Glacier National Park, powwows, mining towns, and more.
“His stuff is awesome,” she said.
Exhibit works also include living artists, and artists viewers may have known or have a personal connection with, such as Bud Selig.
The subjects of the pieces “run the gamut” of western views, Moss said, from Glacier Park to ranch lands, and mountaineer hunting scenes to the plains and stagecoaches.
While the Hockaday does have a room featuring Glacier works on permanent display, the Visions of the American West exhibit is different, Moss said, because it is a narrative display of works that represent an important time in western history.
It is important for viewers to have access to the art in the permanent collection, she said, especially these pieces of history.
“I thought, ‘How can I get these pieces to relate to each other in a way that the public is going to respond to?’” Moss said. “So I created a story.”
For more information on the Hockaday Museum of Art, visit www.hockadaymuseum.org or call 406-755-5268.
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