Acclaimed Montana artist Stockton, 81, dies
DAVID GRUBBS/Gazette file photo Artist Bill Stockton was one of a group of painters and sculptors who brought modern art to Montana when romantic and Western art were favorites.

Montana and modern art lost an influential force and authentic character when Bill Stockton died Tuesday morning at his ranch in Grass Range.

Stockton, 81, is considered one of a coterie of progressive painters and sculptors who brought modern art to Montana at a time when romantic and Western art were populist favorites.

His sometimes-gruff and sardonic demeanor belied an enormous heart and gentle touch with the brush that, admirers said, gave expressive and fluid life to Montana's landscape and critters.

"He was one of the last of the senior Montana artists who first brought a committed modernist sensibility to the state," said Donna Forbes, longtime Yellowstone Art Museum director.

A native Montanan, like Stockton, she had been his friend for more than a half-century.

Forbes, who retired five years ago, was instrumental in 1993 in acquiring 72 of Stockton's paintings and drawings for the YAM's Permanent Collection. Included is a bust of the late president John F. Kennedy, which was on view at the museum when news of Stockton's death came.

The acquisition, financed by collector Miriam Sample, represents Stockton's "seminal body of work," Forbes said Tuesday, in lamenting Stockton's passing.

"He was a rare artist," Forbes said. "He and a few forward-thinking others brought modernism to this state."

Stockton's inspirations were the great masters - Rembrandt, Cezanne, Degas, Wyeth, Munch and Picasso. The Montana artist was compared to entrepreneur and painter Jackson Pollock, whom Stockton also admired, for his invention and authentic approach to his subjects, whether moody abstracts of light and space or portraits of his beloved sheep.

Stockton ranched near Grass Range from 1950 to 1983, with his wife, Elvia, who was with him when he died of lung cancer early Tuesday. Until his health failed, the two were often present at gallery openings and enjoyed conversing on a wide range of topics.

They met in France during World War II and made frequent trips to Elvia's Paris roots through the years. In the City of Lights Stockton studied at Ecole de la Grande Chaumiere. He also trained at Minneapolis School of Art and exhibited his work in New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles.

Disillusioned with and often blunt in his criticism of the gallery system, Stockton kept his relationship with his art honest and straightforward.

"Even in his last years of painting, he imparted a freedom and looseness to his work," said artist and friend Corby Skinner. "He retained a childlike wonder at nature, too. Every artist aspires to that."

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Tributes to Stockton's talent, insight and influence came from around the country.

Tributes to the artist Beginning Thursday morning, the Yellowstone Art Museum, 401 N. 27th St., will unveil a tribute and overview of the late Bill Stockton's art career, from the 1950s paintings to the 1990s work.

It will be hung in the upstairs sculpture arcade and remain on view through the holidays.

The YAM and arts patron and Stockton friend Miriam Sample will celebrate his contributions with a memorial in May.

Services are scheduled Saturday at 10:30 a.m. at the Grass Range Methodist Church. Central Montana Hospice and Grass Range Ambulance are accepting memorials.

"He had a tempestuous alliance with the land that led him to identify with the grave beauty in a tangle of underbrush or the emptiness of rolling plains," said curator Terry Karson, who assembled the artful "Bill Stockton Retrospective" after Sample's gift in autumn of 1993.

Stockton's artistic interests were broad and erudite, including welded sculpture, old photographs, wallpaper, abandoned buildings and portraiture. But his main interest was, as he put it, "the harsh, abstract, semi-wilderness qualities of central Montana."

He was mentor to many and generous in his advice, when asked. Internationally known artist Ted Waddell, now of Idaho, considered Stockton a "gifted, intuitive teacher whose primary life was ranching but passion was always painting."

"He made a huge contribution to the contemporary art scene in Montana, the West and beyond," said Ben Mitchell, senior curator at the YAM.

On Tuesday, the YAM went quickly to the storage vaults and will present an homage to the late artist beginning Thursday.

Mitchell and Executive Director Robert Knight said the museum's tribute will span the body of work, a nearly 50-year breadth.

Forbes said, "Now that Bill and Pete Voulkos are gone, that leaves just a few of the true ground breakers in the state."

Others, she said, were the late Isabelle Johnson of Absarokee and Bob DeWeese of the Gallatin Valley area.

DeWeese's widow and fellow artist, Gennie, remains, along with Bozeman's Frances Sensca and Missoula's Rudi Autio, "just about the last of the line," Forbes said.

The Stocktons had two sons, Gilles, who lived near the couple in Grass Range, and Charles, who lives in Louisiana.

Memorial services are Saturday in Grass Range. Christene Meyers may be reached at 657-1243 or at cmeyers@billingsgazette.com.

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