The Western Heritage Center is organizing a statewide celebration of longtime Billings artist Ben Steele's life and work. The event is set for Wednesday, Nov. 17, which is Steele's 93rd birthday.
Steele's life and work will be celebrated at 12:15 p.m. on Wednesday at the Western Heritage Center with a Montana National Guard Honor Guard and the presentation of a flag from the State Capitol. Lt. Gov. Bohlinger will be on hand. After the brief ceremony, Steele will recount his incredible journey of survival and the museum will host an open house to celebrate Ben's 93rd birthday.
Steele, a Montana native, was a World War II Bataan Death March participant and Japanese prisoner of war. Steele created oil paintings and drawings that chronicle the Japanese bombing of Clark Field in the Philippines after the attack on Pearl Harbor. He also drew images of the capture of more than 76,000 Allied POWs in the Philippines, the Bataan Death March, and Steele's experiences as a Japanese prisoner of war in the Philippines and Japan.
Steele's story was recently featured in “Tears in the Darkness,” a 2009 New York Times bestseller written by Michael Norman and Elizabeth M. Norman.
In September, the Montana Museum of Art and Culture (MMAC) announced Steele's gift of 11 original oil paintings and 78 drawings to The University of Montana-based art museum. “Ben is a treasure,” said Barbara Koostra, MMAC Director. “We are thrilled that his POW artworks have become part of the MMAC Permanent Collection. His message is one of peace and hope and people will learn a great deal about the lessons of war from his important, powerful art.”
The Montana Museum of Art and Culture, the Schoolhouse History and Art Center of Colstrip and Western Heritage Center (WHC) of Billings are honoring Steele with displays of his World War II paintings and drawings.
“We are inspired by Ben's ability to endure the worst and come out of those experiences with such a gracious and positive spirit,” said Julie Dial, Western Heritage Center museum director.