Montana State University

Mountains and Minds

The art of living November 24, 2008 by Marjorie Smith • Published 11/24/08

Bob and Gennie DeWeese were the godparents of Montana's contemporary arts

Bob and Gennie DeWeese with a painting by their daughter, Tina DeWeese. Photos courtesy of T. DeWeese.
Bob and Gennie DeWeese with a painting by their daughter, Tina DeWeese. Photos courtesy of T. DeWeese.

It has been months since Gennie DeWeese put down her paintbrush for the last time and died in her sleep at age 86, and still they come to find her.

Often they come on motorcycles or maybe a rental car, paying homage to Gennie and her late husband, Bob, whom Robert M. Pirsig described in his novel, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, the Gennie who encouraged the main character to write down his musings on the metaphysics of quality, resulting in the treatise that remains a cult favorite.

For many of these Pirsig Pilgrims, the most vivid parts of Pirsig's odyssey are the descriptions of his old friends, the DeWeeses, and his return to Bozeman where he had taught in the English department at Montana State from 1959-1961.

Raised by parents both immortalized for their hospitality and intellectual thought, the DeWeese children remain gracious to the Pilgrims, especially Tina DeWeese, who lives in the family home located 14 miles out of town. However, they point out that Pirsig was just a peripheral part of their parents' lives.

"It's ironic that it's through that book that the entire world knows my parents," said ceramic artist Josh DeWeese, the youngest of the DeWeese children.

The five DeWeese children prefer their parents be remembered as contemporary artists. However, in addition to Bob's paintings and collages and Gennie's woodcuts and expansive landscapes, the pair also is remembered for their genius in cultivating and encouraging all manner of creative types and thinkers, nurturing and mentoring the arts in Montana. It didn't matter what discipline--if anyone in Montana was perpetrating art during the last half century, the DeWeeses supported him or her.

"The DeWeeses were instrumental in the creation of public galleries," said Mark Browning, who founded the Custer County Art and Heritage Center 30 years ago, and serves as its director today. "They taught us it was worth showing art for educational purposes rather than just showing what will sell, which is what gallery businesses have to do. There would be no Emerson Center for the Arts in Bozeman, no Custer County art center in Miles City, without the DeWeeses showing the way."

"[The DeWeeses] taught us it was worth showing art for educational purposes rather than just showing what will sell, which is what gallery businesses have to do. There would be no Emerson Center for the Arts in Bozeman, no Custer County art center in Miles City, without the DeWeeses showing the way." - Mark Browning

Internationally recognized jazz trombonist and vocalist M.J. Williams of Basin, Mont. met the DeWeeses while acting one summer in Virginia City with Cathie, the eldest of the DeWeese children.

"I didn't know many people who centered their lives on the arts. It was such a freeing experience," she said. "I think their support for all the arts -- music, theatre, dance -- validated generations of Montanans."

"Based on my own life, the most important thing they did for the arts in Montana was gathering those creative people together," said Browning, who first met the DeWeeses in the mid-1970s when he began getting involved in statewide arts groups. "I'm a self-taught artist and I was awestruck at the discovery of this network of people who cared about the arts."

"The DeWeeses, to me, represent the heart and soul of the visual arts in Montana," said Beth Lo, ceramic artist, jazz musician and longtime faculty member in the art department at the University of Montana. "When I came to graduate school in Missoula, I was introduced to the DeWeese family. I was immediately impressed with the way they blended their art and their lives."

Inspiration and conversation

DeWeese's work at the June solstice show and sale honoring Gennie, her work and her life. Photo by Kelly Gorham.
DeWeese's work at the June solstice show and sale honoring Gennie, her work and her life. Photo by Kelly Gorham.

Bob and Gennie met while art students at Ohio State University. He earned a master's degree in Iowa and they lived in Texas before Bob took a job in 1949 at what was then Montana State College. In buttoned-down 1950s Bozeman, they led what many considered to be a bohemian lifestyle and quickly displayed a talent for championing local intellectual life. Neighbors marveled at what they found inside their small brick house on South Church Avenue -- a vibrant chaos of kids and half-finished art projects and the implicit lesson that Art Mattered.

"My career -- the life I have lived -- would never have been if I hadn't known this family," said New York City-based dancer/choreographer Mary Overlie, who grew up across the street.

Bozeman psychologist Dee Mast recalls encountering Gennie on Main Street in her youth.

"In those days, women didn't show it but she was a woman who knew who she was," Mast said. "Gennie wore bright colors and natural fabrics and a hairdo that suited her, not fashion. There I was in my bubble cut and double knits. Gennie was one of the women who modeled what I needed, to become what I was (meant to be)."

Tina DeWeese recalls that her father's downtown Bozeman studio was a gathering place for the community's intellectuals, most based at the university.

"In those days, there were not the social divisions between (university) departments that there are today," Tina said. "My parents' friends were artists and scientists and philosophers from all over campus. They would talk for hours about what they were doing."

Moving beyond tradition

Gennie liked to say that when they arrived in Bozeman, "art in Montana was pretty much all about Charlie Russell. Contemporary art was made fun of (in those days) --but it evolved and so many people do it now I don't think there's any conflict."

The DeWeeses helped broaden the definition of art in Montana beyond the "Russell School" with their own work as well as their influence on the students Bob inspired during three decades of teaching. He took seriously his role as a mentor to artists. Tina said she found a note shortly after her father's death written in a sketchbook.

"He wrote the word 'responsibility,' which he defined as the ability to respond," she said of her father, who was always making art, sketching on scraps of paper, making collages from whatever was handy. "He felt that was his means of being responsible."

Before the family moved to Cottonwood Canyon in 1965, Gennie's work had been largely influenced by the abstract expressionist movement. She also did oil portraits of her children, ink sketches of friends and family and small abstracts. In the canyon, surrounded by the steep, tree-covered hills with the crystalline creek tumbling past just below the house, her vision exploded with rich colors and she traded her paintbrushes for cattle-markers and later, pigment sticks. She used the large, crayon-like bars of oil and color to respond to the landscapes, people and pets around her. Her determination to be true to her passion resulted in one painting of the Gallatin Valley that is 40 inches high and 121 feet long. Many of her works were too large to frame economically so she adopted the Asian system and made giant scrolls.

Once, when asked the difference between the landscapes and her non-objective work, she said the subject matter was determined by whether she was responding to the interior or exterior worlds.

Modernists and legends

A few years after Bob's retirement in 1977, he and Gennie ran a gallery at their home south of Bozeman. People flocked to the gallery openings, sometimes as many as 200 people, even 14 miles out of town.

"We wanted to show artists who were good, who lived in Gallatin County, and who didn't teach at the university so couldn't exhibit there," Gennie said in a magazine interview in 1991. "We sat down and made a list, and in no time, we thought of several dozen artists we felt should be seen."

After Bob's sudden death at age 70 in 1990, the DeWeeses received several honors for their contributions to Montana's artistic world. In 1990, Bozeman High School named the Bob and Gennie DeWeese Art Gallery for them. In 1995, Gennie and her late husband received the Montana Governor's Award for the Arts. That same year, Gennie received an honorary doctorate of fine arts from MSU, where her earlier work on a master's degree had been interrupted by the birth of Josh, whom she fondly called her "thesis."

Billings' Yellowstone Art Museum, the Missoula Art Museum and Helena's Holter Museum all have presented retrospective exhibits of the DeWeeses and have many DeWeese works in their permanent collections. The Holter is designated as the repository for the bulk of the works.

Browning plans a retrospective of Bob DeWeese's work to open next March in Miles City. In his promotional material, he describes DeWeese as "a pioneering modernist whose creativity, warmth and generosity made him a Montana art legend."

"What I feel is unique about these artists is their high level of productivity and quality of their work, coupled with commitment to their wide circle of friends and community," Lo said. "The DeWeeses were exceptionally open and hospitable to students and fellow artists, as well as the landscape that surrounded them. They had the ability to balance the inner life of an artist and the public life of teacher and pillar of the artistic community in Montana."

Lo played bass guitar with the Missoula-based band Salsa Loco at a June solstice celebration of Gennie's life and work held seven months after her death. Internationally recognized artists John Buck and Deborah Butterfield, both former art professors at MSU, loaned their large horse arena, as they had for a sale and retrospective of Bob DeWeese's work in 1991. Hundreds turned out for the celebration and for the show and sale that continued the next day, appreciating row after row of Gennie's exuberant paintings.

Passion is the thing

The five DeWeese children. Photo by Kelly Gorham.
The five DeWeese children celebrated their mother with a large art show and party attended by a Who's Who in Montana contemporary art. From left: Jan, Tina, Cathie, Gretchen and Josh. Photo by Kelly Gorham.

In a circle of life that is very satisfying to DeWeese friends and family, Josh has begun a new career teaching ceramics in the MSU art department after 18 years at the Archie Bray Foundation for Ceramics Art in Helena, 14 years as its director. He said he is proud to continue the DeWeese connection with MSU.

"Now is a great time to come to MSU's art department," he adds. "So much change is under way with new, ambitious faculty members."

Tina also has made her living as an artist for years. She is best known for her wire sculptures of horses, but also explores new forms and ideas. Cathie had a career in early childhood education and remains a social activist in Mexico, where she lives. Jan teaches and plays music in Portland, Ore. Gretchen, who also paints, teaches art in an elementary school. In the summers she also works in the Montana wilderness.

Recently Tina and Josh discussed the dilemma of art for art's sake versus commercial success. They agreed that their father, with his teaching salary, never had to worry about acceptance of his creations and could be utterly honest in his work. Then again, so was Gennie, with her huge paintings that fit only in large rooms.

"Even though he didn't have to sell his own work, Dad was not a snob about art --he was always very proud of his students who were successful and sold a lot," Josh said. But he and Tina remember that their mother liked to point out that while artists are expected to starve, "You'll never find a doctor or a lawyer who has to take a day job to support his passion for the law or medicine."

Gennie worked hard on her art until the day she died, leaving behind hundreds of paintings. To the end, she retained her convictions and sense of humor. She was a lifelong smoker and in 1996 the Bozeman Chronicle published her letter to editor in which she suggested that there might be worse dangers than smoking. Her children (all non-smokers) chose a photo of her with cigarette in hand to illustrate her obituary in the Chronicle.

A few years ago Gennie said that someone asked her, "Why do you keep painting?" as she struggled with various health problems.

"Because," she said, "if I keep doing it long enough, maybe someday I'll do a good one."