For most of his life, Bill Stockton was both artist and rancher. Though he wasn’t commercially successful in the 1940s when he began painting, he sold art throughout his 57-year career and found a sustainable existence. Stockton’s influence can be seen under many contemporary artists working today. Interest in his life and work has been re-stoked with the exhibition of his life’s work, featuring more than 120 pieces culled from private and museum collections.
Montana ranchers and artists Theodore Waddell and Patrick Zentz join Resounds co-hosts Anna Paige and Corby Skinner in the studio to discuss their relationship with Stockton and the artist's legacy. The three artists shared a unique combination of art and ranching backgrounds, and are among a handful of people in the 70s painting and ranching.
Stockton was born near Winnett, Montana, in 1921 and grew up a Depression-era child. Stockton’s father William died of pneumonia before he was born, leaving his mother Julia on her own with three daughters and a baby boy on the way. He took up painting in the 1940s during the war, which evolved into abstractions of the land around him. He conveyed starkness of the black dotted land and tufts of greying ground punched with pine trees and jagged, muddy ruts. His focus was often downward, rarely did he paint the iconic panoramas of Big Sky country.
A minimalist in materials, Stockton relied on buckets of rusty nails that farmers and ranchers would collect and reuse, and eventually sell for a buck or so. He also used livestock markers to paint gestural marks, hinting at the elements of his surroundings. His sculptures, which he began making in the 1960s from discarded nails, seemed to be his most popular, or at least they were the ones that sold the best and helped sustain the artist’s pursuit.
Painter, sculptor, and rancher Theodore Waddell is one of the most celebrated contemporary artists in the West. His landscapes dotted with animals of the ranching West are coupled with an abstract expressionism that convey the vastness and utilitarian nature of the landscape, often with ghostly elements that represent struggle, change, and mortality. Such paintings capture movement with subjects that are enveloped within the plains and mountain valleys of the landscapes of his life in Montana.
Waddell was born in 1941 in Laurel. He maintains a primary residence in Idaho, but he and his wife Lynn "have never given up Montana" and he has a house and artist studio in Sheridan, Montana. Waddell describes himself as a western artist "in that I live in the West and I make art. To me, western art with a capital 'W' opted for nostalgia, but it really is fantasy."
In the mid-1970s, Waddell took up ranching near Molt, and he would develop a friendship with Bill Stockton, though they rarely discussed art.
Patrick Zentz grew up on a ranch southwest of Billings, and came to know Stockton in the 1960s, and as a rancher described his need to observe the land, the grass, the weather. “Your entire life is involved with land and sky, and if it’s not, you’ll go broke.”
Zentz majored in biology at Westmont College in Santa Barbara, and obtained an MFA in sculpture from the University of Montana. While pursuing graduate studies, he taught in a seventeen student rural elementary school along with his wife, Suzie. He also taught sculpture at Bozeman High School for a few years thereafter and then returned to ranching in 1978.
Bill Stockton: Grass Roots Modernist is on display through Jan. 5 at the Yellowstone Art Museum.