Round Up: Montana Modernism

The Western History Association recently announced that a book by Belgrade, Montana author Michele Corriel won the national 2023 Joan Paterson Kerr Award for the best-illustrated book on the history of the American West. Montana Modernists: Shifting Perceptions of Western Art chronicles six mid-20th-century artists who were largely responsible for the emergence of Modernism in Montana art. Three of them taught at Montana State University (MSU) in Bozeman and one at Eastern Montana College, now MSU Billings.

“This is a subject that is so near and dear to my heart — I’m very passionate about [it],” Corriel says. “I’m so honored and humbled by all of the attention this book has been getting.”

Corriel, who is also a professor at MSU, heard about the influential Modernists during her 18 years as an arts writer in Montana, Idaho, and Wyoming. While interviewing artists, she would routinely ask them who they were influenced by, and “the same six names kept coming up.”

The names belonged to eastern Montanans Isabelle Johnson and Bill Stockton, and four others who settled in the Bozeman area after World War II: Jessie Wilber, Frances Senska, Robert DeWeese, and Gennie DeWeese. “They had survived the Depression, they had survived the war, and there was starting to be a Cold War,” Corriel says. “The language they had used for their art while they were in art school wasn’t enough. For sure, in Montana, the art of [Old West artists] Charlie Russell and Frederick Remington was not going to suffice to tell the stories these artists needed to tell.”

Though the six artists profiled in the book are deceased, interest in them is alive and well, according to Corriel. In 2023, she curated a show based on her book at the Yellowstone Art Museum in Billings; this summer, she will do the same at the Holter Museum of Art in Helena.

In addition to the Kerr award, Montana Modernists was awarded the Big Sky Award for the overall best book and first prize for art and photography at the 2023 High Plains Book Awards. It also won honors in the 2023 Montana Book Awards contest.

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