The Artist in His Element

Local painter Tom Saubert celebrates a 45-year career by simplifying his life and bringing his work back to the Flathead

By Molly Priddy
Western artist Tom Saubert poses for a portrait with one of his latest paintings in his studio southeast of Kalispell on July 18, 2019.

Walking into Tom Saubert’s art studio is like both wandering into the past and also into the man’s mind. The walls are full of Western artifacts, from taxidermied animals and arrowheads to traditional clothing worn by the Great Plains American Indian tribes.

The walls of the 1975 studio are made of planks of old cabins built by the Conrads to keep track of their bison herds, assembled without power tools. And then there are the books — volumes of Western literature highlight the lives and lifestyles of trappers and Indigenous peoples.

All of this history wraps around Saubert’s painting area of the studio, where he puts brush to canvas and creates historically and culturally correct Western art, a journey he’s been on for 45 years.

Now, after a year of battling pancreatic cancer and making it out alive, Saubert is approaching his art with the mindset of simplifying his life so he can do more of what he loves without distraction. It means stopping the chase for big national galleries and shows and bringing his art home.

On Aug. 1, Saubert will have an exhibition at UnderScore Art in Whitefish, followed by an artist’s discussion on Aug. 2. The reception will run from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. on Aug. 1, and the Q&A with Saubert will go from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m.

Saubert was born in Missoula and raised in Great Falls, and his family’s land in East Glacier and relationship with members of the Blackfeet Tribe instilled in the young artist a fascination with history.

He also spent time with a family friend named Bruce Neal, who homesteaded land near Augusta. As a boy, Saubert fleshed beaver skins, worked in the garden, and adventured in and around Neal’s cabin, which was full of local historical artifacts.

“It made history seem like it was just over the horizon,” Saubert said. “Those things have an impact on you, that connection early on with that location and the people.”

He took his first art classes at 10 years old in Great Falls, taught by a Catholic nun who focused on Charlie Russell and his artistic influence. High school in Billings didn’t offer much in the way of art, and Saubert continued on to Eastern Montana College there after he graduated.

While there, he met a professor who helped him build a portfolio, enough to apply and be accepted at the Cleveland Institute of Art. He graduated in 1973 with a degree in painting and illustration, and got to work on his 45-year journey to becoming a sought-after mentor and artist.

His work appeared in galleries across the country, and commissioned projects stacked up. But overcoming pancreatic cancer changes a man, and Saubert wanted to simplify his life and spend less time traveling to visit galleries and more time painting.

Saubert pulled his work from galleries in South Carolina, Florida, and Arizona, and now only shows in two galleries: UnderScore Art in Whitefish and Montana Trails Gallery in Bozeman.

With a fresh perspective on his life, Saubert is focusing his next artistic efforts on continuing to paint war masks for horses, as well as a new project that marries realism with graphic designs to highlight the artistry of various forms of tribal painted lodges.

It’s a project he started before his illness and now wants to continue. And beyond that, there’s a whole list of ideas he hasn’t even started.

“I’ll never live long enough to do all the things I want to do,” Saubert said.

Despite 45 years of honing his craft and painting an unknown number of subjects and scenes, Saubert can easily identify his favorite project among all of the work he’s ever done.

“The next one,” he said, smiling.

For more information on Tom Saubert, visit www.tomsaubert.com.