The Pacific Northwest Forum
Volume III, Number 1V, Pages 7-19
Fall, 1978

Western Realist: Asa Lynn Powell (1912-1978)

Part I

J. M. Moynahan

J. M. Moynahan is in the Sociology/Crtiminal Justice Department at Eastern Washington University. He is also a free lance writer and art collector. He has written two books on Ace Powell: 'The Ace Powell Book "(1974) and "Ace Powell's Montana" (1974).

Ace Powell and dude party on - X6 ranch.

His mother was a school teacher and his father a cowboy, and that's how life began on April 3, 1912, for the Western realist, Asa Lynn Powell. His birth took place in Tulerosa, New Mexico, and when he was a month old he and his family returned to Montana where they were originally from.

For three generations the Powells had lived in Montana and the move back from New Mexico was to be expected. Young Asa and his family moved into the still-rugged area of Northwest Montana where his father worked on several horse ranches finally settling down to homesteading. Homesteading was difficult at best, and after several years the elder Powell went to work for the Glacier National Park Service. Eventually he acquired a saddle horse outfit and guided tourists through the Park.

Young Asa (known to his friends as Ace) grew up in the Big Sky Country of Montana around livestock and the great outdoors. He particularly loved the horses, plains, mountains and streams of that state.

It's hard to say exactly when he developed a real interest in art. Like many young people he sketched and drew but somehow his absorption was more intense than that of his peers. Maybe, just maybe, he was strongly influenced by one of the family friends, an older artist that Ace's dad would guide and cook for on hunting trips.

The artist was an ex-cowboy who was born out east somewhere and at an early age came west settling in Montana. The artist had a fine and generous manner about him and he and young Ace got along quite well. It was probably from this man that Ace received encouragement and found an artistic model to follow.

This first important model was Montana's Charles M. Russell known to Ace as Charlie. Ace saw Charlie as both an artist and an avid outdoorsman, two qualities he found important. The total significance of the Russell friendship will probably never be fully known. I doubt if even Ace was ever able to assess it fully.

As a young boy Ace would accompany the cowboy artist on morning rides, watching him sketch and draw. Ace's own early attempts at drawing were sometimes shown to Russell. Criticism and guidance were undoubtedly forthcoming from Charlie.

Ace's early experiences with Russell helped him acquire his well known signature the ace of diamonds. At the age of 10 he had copied a painting done by Russell modo et forma with Russell's buffalo skull. A Russell protege, DeYong, pointed out that he had put Russell's brand on his painting.

"Do you know what would happen if you put your brand on somebody's horse?" asked DeYong.

"I can just see someone doing that," replied young Powell, "and taking away my horse."

Then DeYong suggested that he get a brand of his own. With the name Asa, "Ace" seemed to be a natural. Ace claims he picked the ace of diamonds because, "It was the easiest to draw." He used this signature for a short time and then discarded it. The name "Ace" however, remained with him. Eventually an old cowboy in Choteau, Montana, encouraged him to return to his ace of diamonds signature. From then on most of his work was signed with a painted ace of diamonds card and the name "Powell" beneath it.

 


"I wanted to go to Browning where I could go and live near the Indians.
I was always crazy about being with Indians and this looked like a good change for me."


 

Ace was only 14 when Charles Russell died. Russell's influence on Ace was important but probably not as much as some art dealers and writers would have one believe. People have said that Russell was the sole influence over Powell's artistic interests, but more realistically he was merely one of many. Although Russell was the best known of the group, there were others Ace had contact with such as Olaf Seltzer, Hans Reiss, Winold Reiss and John Clarke.

Some critics in Ace's later career claimed that he copied Russell's work. But as Ace said, "Russell did influence me with his use of colors, but I try to be everything but Russell." Careful examination will reveal that Ace was his own man.

When Ace was 15 his dad found it necessary to send him to boarding school. "I wanted to go to Browning where I could go and live near the Indians. I was always crazy about being with Indians and this looked like a good change for me. My father wasn't too keen on the idea, but he sent me away anyway."

At Browning Ace felt right at home. His interest in horses, art and Indians continued. It was here that he met another future artist, Bob Scriver. Together the two eventually illustrated one of the Browning High School annuals.

Times were never easy for Powell, even during his early years. He went to high school for only two years, beginning in 1927, but was forced to quit when a forest fire destroyed his parent's place.

Ace's interest in art continued and he painted sporadically for several years. During much of this time he worked as a horse wrangler and saddle guide in Glacier National Park. The Park's guide service referred outdoor painters to him because of his familiarity and patience with their needs.

After his success with guiding parties of artists, another part-time artist in the Park pointed out that guiding artists afforded an excellent opportunity to learn more about art, so Ace acquired a paint box and painted right along with the artists. Many were experienced and successful and he received a good deal of help and instruction.

In addition to his painting Ace was interested in literature. He read a wide variety of material. One year he wintered at a ranch that had in its library the Harvard Classics, and that's what he read during the winter.

He could easily talk about varied artists and schools of art. He could discuss everything from French romanticism to the Ash Can School, and artists as widely separate as J. M. W. Turner and Vincent Van Gogh. His knowledge of art amazed some people who looked upon him as an uneducated cowboy-turned-artist.

This interest in art and literature followed him throughout his life and bit by bit he collected a fine library, containing not only classics in art and literature, but rare and finely-bound books. Among other things he had a touch of bibliophile about him.

In his mid-twenties, Ace fell totally in love. He met and courted Helena Betty Sperry. Helena (known as Betty) was born in Smolensk, Russia, in 1906. Her father was killed in the revolution but Helena later escaped to the United States where she was adopted by Mr. and Mrs. Dennis Sperry of Minneapolis. In 1921 she came to Glacier Park where she met young Ace. She shared his interest in horses, the great out-of-doors and his artistic activities.

At age 26 when Ace was breaking remount horses for $40 a month ("and I didn't always get the $40 either" he says), he married Miss Sperry. The two of them settled into a period that was to prove one of the happier times in Ace's life.

When they were first married he took a job illustrating a book. He did eight sketches at $10 each. "The job took one afternoon! I never made that kind of money before in my life," Ace recalls. His career as a paid artist began and it was through his wife's encouragment that he devoted more energies to his career.

It was at this time that he began wood sculpture, carving small wooden animals which he sold in the Park. Success with carving encouraged him to enroll in WPA art classes. Many of his carvings were sold to Park visitors and found their way into homes in both this country and Europe. Recently, some of these carvings have been found and cast into bronze.

Ace Powell with pack string - Glacier Park, 1929-30. (Powell is on lead horse.)

Some of these early carvings represent the best sculpture Ace produced. He had a talent for making a piece of carved wood seem alive. In many cases these carved animals and figures display a fluid motion, a distinctive style not realized in his later pieces.

In a 1940 edition of the New York Herald and Tribune the following comment appeared:
Art nowadays is anywhere you find it, and some of it that is worthwhile is coming from the stables. At the Newhouse Galleries last week I saw a cow-horse carved out of a cottonwood stump by one of the guides in Glacier Park Montana, and I thought that it had all of the character and life of one of Charlie Russell's drawings in "Good Medicine" or "Trails Plowed Under." Ace Powell who did it with his hatchet or some other tool, grew up at Belton population fifty - on the North Fork of the Flathead River, where his mother taught school and Russell wrote his books and illustrated them in summer camp.
No stereotyped wooden image of a horse is this one, but a sour headed cayuse with one ear laid back apparently in readiness to let go with both heels. If you visit Glacier Park next summer you will probably find the artist out back of the big hotel with a string of pack horses ready to lead the tenderfoot out into the wildest region of the Rockies with camping equipment for a week of roughing it ... Powell seems to possess the rare gift which distinguished Troye, whose portraits had all the individuality of the living animals themselves. From a printed reproduction of a photograph of Cresceus, ... he recently carved a miniature only six inches high which bears a striking resemblance in conformation, posture and masculine character to that lion of the home-stretch, the backstretch and both turns of the trotting track.

During this time he and his wife were also organizing a historical society in Choteau, Montana. Then his life was marred by tragedy. Betty had become sick and did not seem to be responding to treatment. He soon learned that she had cancer and it was only a matter of time before her death.

 


Betty had become sick and did not seem to be responding to treatment.
He soon learned that she had cancer and it was only a matter of time before her death.


 

Ace remained with her as much as he possibly could, but watching the woman one loves die by degrees was about the most difficult thing he ever had to do. In Montana's cold bleak February of 1941 Helena Betty Powell died. It was then Ace recalled, "life gave me the first hard poke in the nose."

After the funeral Ace remained in Choteau. Always a drinking man he probably resorted to alcohol even more, this time to dull an unforgettable memory.

In 1941 there were rumblings of war in both Europe and the Orient - a war which would involve the United States. After the U.S. entered the war Ace enlisted in the Army Air Corps.

The period from 1942 to 1944 saw Ace stationed in four areas of California: Fresno, Los Angeles, Sacramento and Santa Maria, but because of severe physical problems he never saw duty overseas. In 1943 and 1944 he attended Southwest University where he studied engineering. After attending the University, Powell dropped the idea of engineering and decided to become a painter rather than a sculptor.

Following his discharge from the Air Corps, he moved to Yakima, Washington, where he set up a partnership with another man to produce small plaster figurines. This work was business not art, and Ace found himself frustrated despite good financial returns.

He married for the second time to Audrey Scott and from this marriage came a son, Eddie. This union was very rocky and things did not go well for the couple. When both his partner and his wife left him, the business was finished, his marriage "washed" and his money gone.

Ace Powell with his second wife, Audrey Scott

A disheartened, saddened, but determined Powell concluded that the best place to raise his young son was back in Montana. Ace came back to Glacier Park, the country he loved and the area in which he would establish himself as a significant artist.

Ace spent the next six years doing a little sculpting, some novelty work and painting. Then when Ace was about 40, he and young Eddie went to the University of Montana to study painting; he financed himself under provisions of the G.I. Bill. He found that the University of Montana's art department stressed abstract art, difficult at best for a realist painter like himself. For the kind of art he wanted to do, he felt he had received much better instruction elsewhere. One of his teachers told him that he couldn't make a living as an artist and would have to teach art. When another instructor revealed that as a first-year teacher, he was making $4,400, Powell replied, "Well, I'm an alcoholic and I was drunk half of the time last year and still make $7,500 so I've got no business here!" With that he quit. He later took a correspondence art course and learned to organize the things he had been taught over the years into formal presentations.

In the early 1950's Ace met another aspiring artist, Nancy McLaughlin. Although she was his junior by many years, they became attracted to each other, fell in love and were married in 1952. This was a marriage of artists. They started a small gallery in Hungry Horse, Montana, in 1955, where they both painted and sold their art.

During this period Ace gained much of his reputation. The work he had done before served as a good background, but it was from the early 1950's onward that he firmly established his name in the art field. He also attracted a group of collectors who remained with him throughout his life.

His production was prolific and varied. He worked in oil, pastel, charcoal, watercolor, pen and ink, and clay. Because at this time his art was inexpensive, it was purchased in great quantities and distributed widely. Powell was becoming known as an artist, not in just a few homes and galleries, but in Western art circles.

This article will be concluded in the Winter 1979 issue of the "Forum." There follows a selection of photos of Ace Powell and his work.

 

Oil Painting: "Then Went the Good Days"

Oil Painting: "Indian Woman and Child"

Oil Painting: "Crossing the Trail of the Law"

Oil Painting: "Stage Coach"

Oil Painting: "Days that Won't be Forgotten"