As a survivor of the Bataan Death March and a Japanese prisoner of war for more than three years, Montana artist Ben Steele’s work provides some of the most haunting images of World War II. A new exhibition opening Friday, Sept. 23, at the Montana Museum of Art & Culture at The University of Montana features oil paintings and drawings donated by Steele and his wife, Shirley, in 2010.
Steele endured years of starvation, dehydration, hard labor and torture as a prisoner of war. In late 1942, while hospitalized with a nearly lethal combination of dysentery, pneumonia, malaria, blood poisoning and beriberi, Steele began drawing scenes depicting the Japanese invasion of the Philippines, the capture of American and Filipino POWs and the degradation and cruelty to which prisoners were subjected.
The bulk of the drawings Steele created as a POW were destroyed in the war. Only two originals remain, created on the back of stolen Japanese military ledgers. Steele, with a near photographic memory, re-created most of his POW art during his recovery at Baxter Hospital in Spokane, Wash., and while studying art at the Cleveland Art Institute from 1947 to 1950. Steele later received teaching credentials from Kent State University and earned a Master of Art from the University of Denver.
“We are deeply grateful to Ben and Shirley for their generous gift,” said Barbara Koostra, MMAC director. “It is a vital part of Montana’s cultural heritage.”
A native Montanan who grew up on a ranch outside of Roundup, Steele attributes art making to his survival, recovery and process of forgiveness after the war. Ultimately, Steele’s message is that of peace.
Steele and his wife will attend the opening reception for the exhibition from 5 to 8 p.m. Friday, Sept. 23, in the lobby of UM’s Performing Arts and Radio/Television Center. The event will feature refreshments and live music by Cosmopolitan Caravan, a WWII-era big band featuring solo vocalist John Semmons. A presentation by the UM ROTC Color Guard will start at 6:30 p.m., followed by remarks from UM President Royce Engstrom.
The event will be held in conjunction with an installment of UM’s President’s Lecture Series by WWII historian and MIT Ford International Professor of History John Dower. The lecture, “The Cultures of War: Pearl Harbor/Hiroshima/9/11/Iraq,” will take place at 8 p.m. Sept. 23 in the University Theatre.
Both events are free and open to the public.
The exhibition’s opening coincides with the 38th annual Montana History Conference at UM, themed “No Ordinary Time: War, Resistance and the Montana Experience,” Thursday through Saturday, Sept. 22-24.
Several other events held in conjunction with the exhibit are listed below.
- 7 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 27, Montana Theatre: Lecture by Michael and Elizabeth Norman, authors of the 2009 New York Times best-seller “Tears in the Darkness: The Story of the Bataan Death March and Its Aftermath” about Steele. The lecture will feature the artist as a special guest.
- 5:15 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 10, Montana Theatre: “War Poetry: Poetry is in the Pity,” a lecture by Lisa Simon, UM English professor. The lecture, held in honor of Veterans Day, is an installment of the Humanities Montana Speakers Bureau program.
- 7 p.m. Tuesday, Nov. 15, Masquer Theatre: Lecture and film, “The Tragedy of Bataan” by Jan Thompson, associate professor at Southern Illinois University-Carbondale and president of the Descendants Group Auxiliary of the American Defenders of Bataan & Corregidor. The event is co-sponsored by the Broadcast Media Center.
Steele also is the subject of two courses offered through the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at UM. James V. Koch, president emeritus of UM and Old Dominion University, will teach a course titled WWII in the Pacific from 9 to 10:30 a.m. Thursdays, Oct. 13-Nov. 17. Herbert Swick and Keith Hardin will teach a MOLLI short course titled Surviving Bataan: The Art of Ben Steele from 9 to 10:30 a.m. Fridays, Oct. 14-28. Steele will make a special visit during the final class. More information on MOLLI courses is available online at http://umt.edu/ce/plus50/.
Support for the exhibit came from an anonymous donor, Humanities Montana, retired Col. Thomas P. Ross, MOLLI, the Western Montana Military Officers Association, the Missoulian, and MMAC members Koch and his wife, Donna, and Bob Strahs.
MMAC’s fall hours are noon to 3 p.m. Tuesday, Wednesday and Saturday and noon to 6 p.m. Thursday and Friday. For more information call 406-243-2019 or go online to http://www.umt.edu/montanamuseum.
NOTE TO MEDIA: Digital images of select items included in the exhibition are available upon request by calling 406-243-2019.
Western Montana, Billings Gazette, Roundup Record