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The Montana Traveler

Seeing Bob Scriver's Artwork: An Intermountain Tour

by Kirby Lambert

From Montana The Magazine of Western History, 51 (Summer 2001), 70-73; this article is presented courtesy of the Montana Historical Society. All rights reserved, © 2001

From the late 1950s through the close of the twentieth century, a visit to Bob Scriver's museum was one of the highlights of a trip to the Glacier National Park area for many Montana travelers. Located along Highway 89 on a busy corner in the Blackfeet Indian Reservation community of Browning, the building's unassuming exterior belied the treasures held within. Since the artist did not advertise, the experience was reserved for those who had learned of the museum by word of mouth and for adventurous sightseers whose curiosity was piqued by bold lettering announcing the "Museum of Montana Wildlife" and "Hall of Bronze."

Once inside, visitors were greeted by a maze of exhibits packed, literally, floor to rafter. To the left lay the Museum of Montana Wildlife--an assemblage of taxidermy mounts and dioramas depicting the big game, fish, and fowl of the Treasure State. To the right lay the Hall of Bronze--an accumulation of a lifetime of work by one of the West's premier sculptors. Arranged by category, Scriver's exhibits paid homage to a wide array of figures from the past. Most notable among these were two series of bronzes depicting traditional Blackfeet culture and professional rodeo cowboys. Unseen by most visitors were basement work areas--Scriver's sculpting studio and bronze foundry--and attic storage areas brimming with early artwork, saddles, and cowboy gear of all kinds.

Following Scriver's death in January 1999, it became impossible for his widow, Lorraine, to continue the museum's operation, and after one final season, the Browning institution closed. Fortunately for art lovers, wildlife enthusiasts, and future generations, however, the world that Scriver created lives on. In March 2000 Lorraine Scriver presented her late husband's massive collection to the Montana Historical Society. Included in this gift were more than four hundred bronzes, five hundred casts in other media (primarily fiberglass, plaster, and the plasterlike material, Hydrocal), one hundred twenty paintings and sketches by Scriver, one hundred fifty works of art by other artists, two hundred taxidermy mounts, thirteen dioramas, an eleven-hundred-volume library, one hundred fifty linear feet of archival material, two thousand photographic images, and a broad assortment of historic artifacts ranging from foundry and sculpting tools to miniature wagons and presentation belt buckles.

To ensure the long-term preservation of this remarkable collection, the Montana Historical Society entered into a cooperative agreement that offers western museum goers expanded opportunities to enjoy Scriver's work. While the Society retains ownership of the materials, the Provincial Museum in Edmonton, Alberta, (with which Scriver had a long-standing relationship) and the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation in Missoula, Montana, will care for and exhibit portions of the collection that most closely fit their institutional missions. This unique consortium provides travelers the opportunity not only to enjoy more of the artist's work but also to experience firsthand the West that Scriver loved as they travel through the landscape that inspired his art.

The creator of this extraordinary collection was born on August 15, 1914, on Montana's Blackfeet Indian Reservation where his family operated the Browning Mercantile Company. Growing up amid the region's vast plains and shining mountains--and surrounded by frontier characters and Blackfeet elders--Robert MacFie Scriver was in▀influenced equally by the geography, people, and animals of the Glacier Park area, as well as by the romantic tales of the Wild West he heard in his father's store. As an adult, he devoted his considerable talents to music and taxidermy before becoming one of the nation's most celebrated sculptors of western life.

Bob Scriver had two lifelong passions--music and art. In the beginning, it was music that most captivated him. After graduating from Browning High School, where he played the cornet, Scriver studied music education at Dickinson State College in North Dakota, the prestigious VanderCook College of Music in Chicago, Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, and the University of Washington in Seattle. For many years Scriver served as music supervisor and band director at his high school alma mater and for three years in the Malta, Montana, public schools. During World War II Scriver played in the 550th Army Air Force's band where, as first-chair cornet in the Alaskan Division, he was stationed in Edmonton, Alberta. In addition, he played trumpet in dance bands across the region throughout the 1930s and 1940s.

By 1950, however, Scriver's growing fascination with taxidermy had replaced his interest in teaching music. Leaving his position at Browning High School, Scriver focused his attention on developing a career as a professional taxidermist. As a child, he had sculpted small animal figures from riverbank clay. Now he applied his talents to constructing anatomical forms for mounting hides. While enrolled at Vandercook, Scriver had spent hours at Chicago's Field Museum of Natural History studying the animal mounts and visiting with the taxidermists who prepared the displays. In the late 1950s, as an extension of his taxidermy business, Scriver opened his Museum of Montana Wildlife, which featured mounted specimens and dioramas inspired by his memories of exhibits at the Field Museum. Scriver also created a series of small animal figurines cast in plaster to sell as souvenirs to the museum's visitors.

Scriver's success in sculpting animal forms for his taxidermy work encouraged the artist to pursue more traditional forms of sculpture. In 1956 the Montana Historical Society sponsored a competition to select a heroic-size statue of Charles M. Russell for National Statuary Hall in the United States capitol. Scriver entered but lost the competition. (Years later Scriver said of his entry in that competition, "There was hardly anything right about it.") His initial disappointment at losing gave way to resolve, as the artist realized that he had found his true calling. From that point forward he devoted his efforts to becoming a master sculptor.

Although he received little formal schooling in art, Scriver was an extremely careful observer and was quick to learn from advice offered by the many artists he befriended. In 1961 Scriver opened the first major exhibition of his sculpture at his studio in Browning. The show received critical acclaim. National recognition soon followed, along with an ever-growing audience of admirers and collectors. In the mid-1960s Scriver opened his own bronze foundry to gain control over the complicated casting process. In 1967 he began his series of bronzes devoted to the daring men and women of the rodeo. In the early 1970s he added to his repertoire a series of sculptures depicting the culture and traditions of the Blackfeet people among whom the artist had spent his life.

Over the course of forty-plus years, Bob Scriver created, piece by piece, a unique artistic vision of the West. Upon his death, Lorraine Scriver inherited the daunting task of ensuring that her late husband's legacy would be properly preserved. By forming a consortium, the Society and its new partners were able to offer an innovative solution that kept the collection intact while making it available to the broadest possible audience. The Montana Historical Society Museum has recently opened A Legacy in Bronze: The Sculpture of Bob Scriver, an inaugural exhibit celebrating the acquisition of the collection; the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation has added Scriver mounts to its visitor center's displays; and the Provincial Museum of Alberta will soon be installing a major exhibit of Scriver's Blackfeet series and other bronzes. Most significantly, each institution is involved in planning expanded exhibit space for the Scriver Collection.

In addition to these works, the region is rich in other Scriver offerings as well. The area's leading western art museums--including the Buffalo Bill Historical Center in Cody, Wyoming, the C. M. Russell Museum in Great Falls, Montana, and the Glenbow Museum in Calgary, Alberta--all collect and periodically exhibit Scriver's work.

Like the large-scale sculpture Symbol of the Pros that now stands east of the Montana Historical Society building in Helena, a number of monumental works are also permanently on view across the region. Visitors to Great Falls can see Scriver's heroic-size renderings of Charlie Russell at the C. M. Russell Museum and Lewis and Clark at Overlook Park on the Missouri River. Just downriver, Fort Benton is home to two monumental Scriver bronzes--the state's official memorial honoring Jefferson's intrepid Corps of Discovery as well as Shep, Faithful Friend, a tribute to Montana's most beloved canine. In Cody, Wyoming, Scriver's heroic-size statue of the great western showman William "Buffalo Bill" Cody welcomes visitors to the Buffalo Bill Historical Center. And, current plans call for two large-scale rodeo pieces on loan from the Scriver Collection to be installed on the grounds of the Plains Indian Museum in the artist's hometown of Browning.

With the death of one of the Treasure State's most celebrated sculptors and subsequent closure of his museum, visitors lost the opportunity for a chance encounter with the colorful artist amid the works he created. But Bob Scriver's matchless legacy has been preserved, and Scriver enthusiasts--present and future--have gained myriad opportunities to continue enjoying his artistic vision of a West that was.

KIRBY LAMBERT is the curator of collections for the Montana Historical Society Museum, Helena.

From Montana The Magazine of Western History, 51 (Summer 2001), 70-73; this article is presented courtesy of the Montana Historical Society.  All rights reserved, © 2001.

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