YAM to feature beloved Montana artist Bill Stockton

Billings Arts

Bill Stockton: Grass Roots Modernist

Bill Stockton; Reeds, 2002; Cattle marker on board; 49.5 x 29.5 in. Loaned by the Stockton family.

[Billings Montana, November 7, 2019 – January 5, 2020] We are thrilled to present the first major exhibition of artist/sheep rancher Bill Stockton’s work at the Yellowstone Art Museum since 1993. The show is drawn from 93 drawings and paintings in the YAM’s permanent collection and includes loans from the collections of many individuals and institutions. Five of Stockton’s sculptures are exhibited together for the first time, alongside exceptional paintings and drawings spanning the five decades of his career.

Bill Stockton was many things: artist, sheep rancher, soldier, sign painter, performer, storyteller, husband, father, grandfather, and dyed-in-the-wool Modernist. He was a prolific artist in winter, between haying and lambing seasons, and after he transferred the duties of ranching to his son at the age of 54. This was his time to draw and paint, using livestock markers to remember briers and drifting snow, the gentle bleating of sheep, and the quality of light on cold mornings.

Stockton profoundly influenced the arts in Montana, along with his modernist friends Isabelle Johnson and Bob & Gennie DeWeese. His early paintings combine nonobjective abstraction with the colors and patterns of the Western landscape. Objects shorn of illusion, the canvases stress the flatness of the surface and the truth of the edge. Eschewing panoramic scenery, Stockton’s mature works represent the below-the-surface, thriving, interconnected life he experienced on his small patch of northwestern prairie.

His passion for Modernism and his need to create extended beyond traditional art media. He remodeled the Sears Catalog house on his family homestead, turning it into a flat-roofed modern dwelling and decorating the newly sunken living room with sleek modern furniture that he built from broken equipment, nails, and rope. He learned to felt the wool from his sheep into swirling abstractions, which he and his wife, Elvia, sewed into hats, mittens, and vests. He also expressed himself in writing, publishing a memoir titled Today I Baled the Hay to Feed the Sheep the Coyotes Eat, and assembling a picture book of sheepish puns called Ewe-phemisims.

Stockton’s father died before he was born, and his mother struggled to raise him and his sisters on a meager income and sustain the family homestead. World War II introduced Bill to a larger world, first taking him to France, and then enabling him to study on the GI Bill. After returning to the US, Stockton studied at the Minneapolis School of Art in Minnesota and the Académie de la Grande Chaumière in Paris, France. Finally, he succumbed to pressure from his mother and bad luck with galleries and sales. He and his French bride Elvia came home to the tiny community of Grass Range, where they raised two boys and countless sheep.

In the 1950s, Stockton combined nonobjective abstraction with the colors and patterns of the Western landscape, making paintings that resemble Jackson Pollock’s early abstract expressionist works. He introduced his expressive figurative sculpture during the 1960s. The 1970s were a time for experimentation with new media and ideas: felted wool, jewelry, portraits, simplified landscapes, and character studies of people and sheep. From the 1980s through the end of his life, Stockton’s mature works—mostly drawn with livestock markers and graphite—represent the immediate environment in and around his home in Grass Range.

Looking back on his body of work in 1999, he noted, “The paintings I have done with the [livestock] markers, of little quasi-abstract corners of nature, have become my favorite series. To me they are a natural evolution from the Avant-Garde paintings I did 50 years ago.” 

The exhibition and catalog survey five decades of art making, beginning with student drawings Stockton made in Paris in the 1940s and ending with his last painting of the scrub brush and reeds on his ranch. This exhibition draws predominantly from the museum’s collection of 93 paintings and drawings, most of which were purchased for the YAM by Miriam Sample. Loans from family, friends, collectors, and the Montana Historical Society bring his powerful sculptures and a few additional paintings to light. This exhibition presents the most extensive gathering of Stockton’s work to date. This is the sixth installment in Yellowstone Art Museum’s Montana Masters Series, initiated in 2015 to spotlight some of the most influential artists in the region.

A fully-illustrated and narrated catalog will accompany the exhibition—the first major publication about the life and work of this Montana Master.

Opening Reception: November 7, 6-8 p.m., Bill Stockton Film Screening: November 21, 5:30-7 p.m., Friends of Bill panel discussion and story-telling session featuring some of Bill’s close friends and family: November 21, 7-8 p.m., Lecture by researcher Michelle Corriel, Friday December 6, 6-7 p.m. Felting demonstrations January 3, 2020 from 5:30 – 8 p.m. by Alena Larson, Barb Garritson and other Prairie Handspinners members. Title Sponsors: Theodore Waddell & Lynn Campion; Lead Sponsors: John W. & Carol L.H. Green, Deborah Anspach & Dr. John Hanson, Charles M. Bair Family Trust, and Anonymous; Supporting Sponsors: Gareld & Barbara Krieg, Gordon McConnell & Betty Loos, Jon Lodge & Jane Deschner; Opening Reception Sponsors: Ted & Bess Lovec, Sharon L. & Garde Peterson.

The nationally accredited Yellowstone Art Museum is the region’s largest contemporary art museum offering changing exhibitions, adult and children’s art education, café, museum store, and the Visible Vault, housing the YAM’s permanent art collection. Museum hours are 10 a.m.–5 p.m. Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday, Saturday & Sunday; 10 a.m.–8 p.m. Thursday; and Closed Monday. Please check the museum’s website, www.artmuseum.org, for current general admission prices or to learn about other exhibitions, events, and classes. Free admission is a benefit of membership. Find us on Facebook at www.fb.com/YellowstoneArtMuseum.

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