Turn A Corner And Find Magic
Artists of Montana Evelyn Cameron, Clyde Aspevig, Ben Steele
Sometimes road trips are magical. While visiting Billings Montana, to speak to a group of Tire Dealers, I had a spare 2 hours and decided to venture out to visit the Western Heritage Center two short blocks from my hotel. Sometimes fate and being unafraid to be adventuresome really pays off.
I was the only “tourist” so the curator Kevin-Kooistra-Manning, ( the only man I’ve ever met who’s last name is his wife’s maiden name he unashamedly admitted to me , “I did not know the rule onthat when we got married”, gave me a VIP tour. The only other folks at there were the local paper the Gazzette doing a photo shoot and interview with the two top artist of Montana, Clyde Aspevig & Ben Steele.
Ben Steele was recently featured in the bestselling book, soon to be a major motion picture, “Tears In The Darkness,” a book detailing how grew up in a pine-log house by a crystal spring in the shadow of the Bull Mountains on Montana’s eastern plain. By the time he was eight he could ride, rope, and shoot. He herded cattle, drove horses, tended sheep. In 1940, just before his twenty-third birthday, he joined the Army Air Corps and was shipped to the Philippines.
On April 9, 1942, after ninety-nine days of battle, he was captured by the Japanese and spent one thousand two hundred and forty-four days as a prisoner of war. Ben Steele and his comrades spent more than three years in captivity under brutal conditions.. His cultivated his drawing skills during his internment keep him alive and drawing has become his lifework. He is a now a man of 93 determined to make every day, every moment, count.
Clyde Aspevig is one of the preeminent artists in his field, Aspevig has been honored with numerous awards including the Autry National Center’s John J. Geraghty Award and the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Masters of the American West.
A native of rural Montana, Aspevig points out that “living on the prairie…taught me about distance and the mysteries that distance creates, how a perfectly blue sky changes in subtle hues and textures, how shadows change color, depending on how far away they are.” He is passionate about conservation and his breathtaking landscapes remind us all to protect and preserve the American wilderness.
What an inspiring serendipitous event for me .. I was awestruck and took a ton of pictures.
However my favorite featured exhibit was; “Photographing Montana 1894-1928: The World of Evelyn Cameron“. Her photo’s and diaries were discovered 50 years after her death and are her life work. She so inspired me. The exhibit includes 47 striking photographs reproduced from Cameron’s glass-plate and nitrate negatives that record the early days on the western frontier and the coming of the homesteaders that changed the face of the land forever.
Her story and true-grit as a Victorian woman who came to Montana on her honeymoon and stayed a lifetime moved me so as I studied each photo, each woman’s face and wondered over how these gritty women lived, worked and was mesmerized by Evelyn’s face who spoke to me more than any photo of a woman I have ever laid eyes on.
I saw exactly what she was feeling; she was absolutely glowing with happiness in each photo as she did what her heart called her to do in life, no matter what the price, struggle or obstacles. Evelyn is my new hero!
Evelyn Cameron’s bio from Evelyn Cameron Hertiage Inc:
Evelyn was born Evelyn Jephson Flower on August 26, 1868, at Furze Down Park, a rambling country estate, just south of London. Evelyn was the fifth of six children and also had nine half-siblings. In the fall of 1899, Evelyn married Ewen Somerled Cameron, the first-born son of Reverend Allan Gordon Cameron. Evelyn’s family did not approve of her choice. Ewen and Evelyn decided to leave London behind and settle in eastern Montana.
Evelyn had no regrets about leaving England; she could lead the outdoor life of riding and hunting she loved and leave behind her disapproving relatives. Evelyn and Ewen honeymooned in the remote badlands of eastern Montana Territory in 1899. They had come to hunt, a pursuit they both enjoyed. An English cook and one of General Custer’s old scouts accompanied them as a guide.
They moved to the Eve Ranch (named for Evelyn) with its crude three-room cabin constructed of logs and a stone foundation. The cost of ranching was more than the Cameron’s had expected. Ewen, discouraged, wanted to return home. Evelyn wanted to stay. In an effort to remain in Montana, Evelyn started taking in wealthy boarders. This was not a success. The boarders only created more work for Evelyn and they often failed to pay their rent.
Evelyn’s next venture was raising vegetables for sale. She raised the vegetables, loaded hundred of pounds of her produce into wagons and drove over great distances to sell her valuable commodity. She sold to cook wagons on the range, cowboys in saloons, remote ranches and railroad section houses. It was a tiring day spent in the elements, but Evelyn could earn as much as $5.10/day (cowboys were making $30 – $45 per month).
Evelyn’s most successful money making venture was to become her photography business. She took up photography and took thousands of wonderful pictures of friends, neighbors, their children, and the wildlife of the high plains.
Evelyn purchased her first camera by mail. She decided to wrestle with the intricacies of the dry plate glass negative, unwieldy, 5×7 Graflex camera. She later purchased a No. 5 Kodet that was designed for 5 X 7 plates or film, as she liked the tonal quality of the plates. Evelyn wrote articles that she illustrated with photographs and sold her photographs to other authors.
Cowboys and passing ranchers stopped by the Eve Ranch to be photographed by Evelyn and she often traveled on horseback for hours or days to reach remote ranches or an eagle’s eyrie to take a photograph. Cowboys and sheepherders were some of her favorite subjects as were the wildlife she adopted and tamed. She made albums as gifts for friends and relatives. For her professional photographs, she charged per the number of prints ordered, with the caveat that the buyer be pleased with the photograph.
Many of the women of Montana during this period are known to us today only through the extraordinary efforts of Evelyn Cameron.
In 1918, she became a citizen and voted in that November’s election. She was 60 when she died in 1928 after an appendectomy.
Evelyn Cameron is enshrined in the National Cowgirl Hall of Fame in Fort Worth, Texas, and in the Montana Historical Society in Helena, Montana. Terry, Montana houses many of her photographs and is building an Evelyn Cameron Gallery. Through Evelyn’s photographs and her words, we have a special insight into the Montana Territory.
“I wish I would lead a life worthy to look back upon, I am far out of the path now.” Cameron wrote not long after moving to Montana. How wrong she was and what an amazingly worthy life she led.