New Summer Exhibitions at UM Honor Military Vets, Celebrate Missoula

May 27, 2015

Ben Steele portrait, circa 1940.

MISSOULA – Two exhibitions opening in June at the Montana Museum of Art & Culture at the University of Montana will feature Montana artist Ben Steele and artists who call or have called Missoula home.

The exhibitions will be on display June 4-Sept. 12 in the Meloy and Paxson galleries, located in the Performing Arts and Radio/Television Center.

The MMAC will premiere “Human Condition: The Art of Ben Steele” and “Hometown: The MMAC Permanent Collection Celebrates Missoula” during an opening reception from 5 to 7 p.m. Thursday, June 4, in the PAR/TV Center Lobby.

 The event features an honor-guard recognition and reading of the Congressional Record commending Steele’s life and service beginning at 5:15 p.m., a gallery talk by Missoula artist James Todd at 5:45 p.m., refreshments and live music. It is free and open to the public.

Steele, 97, is a World War II veteran and Bataan Death March survivor. As a prisoner he created drawings documenting the Japanese invasion of the Philippines, the capture of American and Filipino POWs and the degradation and cruelty to which the prisoners were subjected. Steele endured 41 months of starvation, dehydration, hard labor, torture and Japanese “hell ships” while crippled by dysentery, pneumonia, malaria, blood poisoning and beri beri. He attributes art making to his survival, recovery and process of forgiveness after the war.

A native Montanan, Steele grew up on a ranch outside Roundup. The bulk of drawings he created as a POW were destroyed in the war. Only two originals, created on the back of stolen Japanese military ledgers, remain. These artworks are among the few firsthand visual accounts of the Bataan Death March. Steele, with a near photographic memory, recreated most of his POW art during his recovery at Baxter Hospital in Spokane, Washington, and the Cleveland Art Institute, where he studied art from 1947 to 1950. Steele and his wife, Shirley, donated his artworks to the MMAC Permanent Collection in 2010.

Marilyn Bruya’s “Mount Sentinel December,” 1990, oil on canvas, 48 x 60.

Todd, UM professor emeritus and former director of the School of Art and Humanities Program, will discuss his monumental mural included in the “Hometown” exhibition. He created his “The Family of Man” mural in 1969 with fellow student John Armstrong. For many years the mural was installed in Christ the King Church before being removed for renovations. This will mark the first time in decades the artwork will be on display for the public to see.

“Hometown” is organized to celebrate the observance of Missoula’s 150th sesquicentennial celebration. The exhibition brings together images of the Garden City by artists including Tu Baixiong, James Dew, Walter Hook, Marilyn Bruya, Carmen Malsch, Heath Bultman and others.

Two additional events are scheduled in support of “Human Condition.” Henry Freedman will deliver a lecture titled “From Goya to Picasso: A History of War in Art” at 7 p.m. Thursday, July 30, in the Masquer Theatre in the PAR/TV Center. The talk will provide art historical context for Steele’s exhibition as Freedman discusses artists who revealed the human impact and terrible costs of conflict through their art.

The exhibition culminates with a closing reception at 7 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 10, the eve of Patriot Day. Filmmaker Jan Thompson, president of the American Defenders of Bataan and Corregidor Memorial Society, will screen her film “Never the Same” in the Masquer Theatre. The film about the Bataan Death March will be followed by a conversation and Q-and-A session with Thompson and special guest Loretta Swit.

Thompson is an associate professor at Southern Illinois University-Carbondale and currently is working on a new documentary focusing on Ben Steele. Swit, best known for her portrayal of Maj. Margaret “Hot Lips” Houlihan on MASH, narrates the documentary.

A complete schedule of other programs planned throughout the exhibition can be found online at http://www.umt.edu/montanamuseum/exeventsschedule/calendar.aspx.

MMAC is committed to making its Permanent Collection an important resource for not only UM, but also for the people of the state and the region. MMAC’s summer gallery hours, June through August, are noon-3 p.m. Wednesday, Thursday and Saturday and noon-6 p.m. Friday. The museum is open to the public with a suggested $5 donation. For more information call 406-243-2019 or visit http://www.umt.edu/montanamuseum.         

Contact: Barbara Koostra, director, Montana Museum of Art & Culture, 406-243-2019, barbara.koostra@mso.umt.edu; Jessica Vizzutti, MMAC programs, publications and fiscal coordinator, 406-243-2019, jessica.vizzutti@mso.umt.edu.