The Pacific Northwest Forum
Volume IV, Number 1, Pages 2-11
J. M. Moynahan is in the Sociology-Criminal Justice Program at Eastern Washington University. He is also a freelance writer and art collector. He has written two books on Ace Powell: "The Ace Powell Book" (1974) and "Ace Powell's Montana" (1974). Part I of this article, which appeared in the Fall 1978 "Forum" traces Powell's career through his successes of the 1950's, when he was generally regarded as one of the foremost Western artists.
Part of Ace Powell's prominence can be traced to his business contacts with Dick Flood, a Southwest art dealer. Flood journeyed to Montana buying art from the Powells and then selling and distributing it as he traveled about the country. Many buyers now wanted Powell's art.
Although sales were generally good, the business of being an artist was still risky. During the winter months the deep snow would often prevent sales and shipments. At times the Powells had money to spend and at other times the coffers were empty.
During this period the Powells became acquainted with a young Kalispell physician, Dr. Van Kirke Nelson. In addition to his medical practice, Nelson was also an art collector and dealer. Through Nelson's encouragement, Ace recorded many of the stories and tall tales he had related over the years. The collection was eventually published under the title, The Ace of Diamonds and later reprinted as Tales of Glacier Park. Typical of Powell's humor is the piece entitled "A Lesson in Manners":
When I was twenty-two years old and knew everything I'm standing in front of "Mike's Place" in Glacier Park. I look up and see this kid about 10 years old coming down the middle of the street. The old pony is just ambling along and the kid is laying back on him with his hand over his face taking it easy.
I was afraid if a car came along and tooted the horn, the old "bear bait" of a horse just might side-step and leave the kid laying in the road in front of traffic.
I yells, "Hey, Injun kid" Straighten up and ride like a cowboy!"
He lets on he don't hear me until he goes on another fifty feet farther, then he slowly raises up on his elbow, puts his chin in his hand and yells back, "Who's riding this horse, white kid?"
Nancy and Ace had three children, David, Christa and Allison. Although their marriage had its ups and downs, these children along with his first son, Eddie, contributed to much of the satisfaction Ace enjoyed during his years with Nancy.
In the spring of 1964 they began building a house-studio combination. It burned to the ground in June and unfortunately their marriage was at a low point, so for the third time Powell was separated from a wife. In December of 1964 they were divorced.
Always a drinking man, Ace's consumption became acute at this time. His drinking was recognized as alcoholism, a state which had been prevalent for many years and one whose shadow accompanied him the remainder of his life. If, during his life, he were free of this condition, one wonders what alterations there might have been in his artistic production. It is, of course, only speculation but just possibly he might not have turned into the creative person that he did.
His alcoholism undoubtedly was responsible for many of his problems, yet it also had the function of helping him to understand and tolerate the short-comings of others. In many ways Ace was very sensitive to the world, the people in it and his immediate environment. Why he was this way is difficult to say. Sometimes people who are aware of their own problems become sensitive to those around them who have problems.
In 1964 Ace was at a particularly low point in his life. Fortunately, two friends came to his rescue. For many years Ace had worked with Father Wifred Schoenberg who was attempting to establish an Indian museum in Spokane. (It is now completed and known as the Museum of Native American Cultures). Ace had encouraged Schoenberg and he in return encouraged Ace; the men were close and respected each other. The second was the Kalispell physician, Van Kirke Nelson.
Father Schoenberg and Dr. Nelson together suggested, pleaded, encouraged and pushed Ace in the direction of treatment for his alcoholism. Realizing Ace had to make the final decision himself they cleared the path for him. Finally, Powell committed himself to treatment. His collectors, dealers and friends hoped that at least he had been cured of his drinking. Unfortunately this was not the case, but his alcoholism was on its way to being arrested.
The Glacier Park area although large geographically was sparsely populated. It was not unusual to know and remember many of the people in the area. It is not therefore, difficult to understand that Ace remembered a "younger gal, Thelma," who he had known years before. After his divorce from Nancy and during his session with alcoholism, he re-established his friendship with Thelma and it blossomed into love. At the conclusion of enormous phone bills and many romantic letters, Thelma E. Connor and Asa Lynn Powell were wed in the winter of 1965.
But Ace had not gotten a firm hand on his alcoholism and it proved almost too much to handle. He recounted, "We were fighting and I had the marriage annulled." Finding that existing without each other was more than either wanted to endure, they were remarried the next year. Sometime after that his alcoholism was again arrested.
Ace had been married four times; the first wife he lost through death and the next two through divorce. For one reason or another these two marriages just did not work out.
But Ace had a special relationship with each of his wives. They all influenced and affected his art. He appreciated each of them. In his later years while recalling experiences with his different wives he did not have harsh words for any of them. He realized that each fulfilled a particular role which was needed at the time. He once commented something to the effect that he had married good women, "They must have been, since they were able to stick it out with me as long as they did!"
Since his younger years Ace had been plagued with different health problems which accompanied him throughout his life. Emphysema, ulcers, a heart condition and gout were just some of his companions. There were times in his last years that he was in considerable pain and discomfort. He complained little and rarely relied on medication. For the wolf that might return to his door and the dealers and collectors with hands extended, he continued to paint, and only rarely, when suffering with severe pain, did he stop.
In his later years he knew his health condition was deteriorating and that life would only allow him to play out a few more cards. Feeling that he had much more to do than time to do it in, he stated during an interview, that he felt each day was a race against death. This may have been a factor that contributed to his compulsiveness about painting.
From domestic, social and health experiences he distilled a strong philosophy about life and through it he grew as an artist. Ace had a strong belief in God: "Somewhere," he said, "there must be a reason for things turning out as they do."
For Ace, this reason apparently was pushing him to become the well-established artist that he was by the time of this death. It was during the last 10 or 15 years of his life that he painted the best of his oils. And it was also then that the pressure "to make it" had subsided and he was able to relax a little. I say "a little" because he continued to produce on a large scale - after one "makes it," the demand for work becomes even greater.
Ace could never turn a deaf ear on his public. Even after he was established he painted small inexpensive pieces so that all who wanted an original piece of art could afford to buy. He could have easily painted a few large oils, charged a high price for them and been financially secure, but he chose not to follow this course.
That was one thing about Ace Powell - he helped people. Many a struggling artist (and even a fledging writer) would receive encouragement, shelter and money, if needed. No matter how secure he became as an artist, Ace remembered the days when he wasn't sure another painting would sell and where his next meal would come from.
Ace believed in putting back into art some of what is taken out. When he went to art shows, he would go around buying art from beginning artists. Even though he wanted to talk, sometimes it was hard to converse privately with these struggling artists since he was generally followed by a group of admirers. Some that have become established today count Ace Powell among their first patrons.
As an artist of Montana he believed his painting should record as accurately as possible what he had experienced and felt. To this end he constantly worked. His subject matter consisted primarily of Blackfoot Indians - a tribe he knew and felt akin to.
He had always been a friend to the Indian. Throughout the years he studied their ethnography in books and had lived among them in order to obtain the close and intimate knowledge that he believed was necessary for accurate painting. He was very concerned that there was little or no record of contemporary Indians and of what had happened to them with their intense contact with the white men. "This should be recorded," he said, "And I would like to do it."
Toward the end of his life he painted several scenes of homesteading on the prairie. He enjoyed doing these and wanted to do even more but found it difficult to sell to his many dealers. He was typecast, as it were, with cowboys, Indians, teepees and log cabins. To break from this tradition was almost impossible, so he reluctantly bowed to the wishes of his dealers and collectors - but occasionally he would slip a little homesteading scene into an order.
Ace felt that painting, like most professions, had to have a way of life which goes along with it. Several years back he recalled, "Over the years I've learned a philosophy of how to get along when one is painting. I try to teach this to new painters. In order to be a master at something, a person must learn the philosophy surrounding it.”
As an artist Powell was prolific. In 1971 he estimated his total output hetween 12,000 and 15.000 pieces. He considered oils his first medium even though he believed he was always a better scupltor. He rated sculpting as his second major interest, followed by etching, which presented good quality at low price.
Like most artists the quality of his art varied. At times when he felt pushed his art work simply suffered. I am sure that his state of health influenced the quality and quantity of his production. But when he did produce a fine, detailed and sensitive piece it was clearly a superior work of art.
Undoubtedly, his paintings will prove historically to be the most significant representatives of his art. There are many other pieces in various media which survive him but most collectors know him by his paintings.
When one buys a work of art by Powell they get not only an art object but part of a legend as well. For Ace was an artist who stood virtually alone in subject matter and style. His style which can best be described as "schooled primitive" is distinctive and easily identifiable in a crowd of other paintings.
It should be recalled that in his last years Ace didn't limit his energies strictly to his art. When a movie company moved to western Montana to film "Winterhawk" they needed someone to play the aged chief, and through a series of events Ace was chosen for the part. The film was generally photographed on location in Montana and Ace slipped into the Chiefs clothing and played the role. Thus, Ace debuted as a movie actor and hundreds of thousands of people around the country saw him. His by-line was rather small so few of them knew who they were seeing, and even if they did, unless they were interested in western art, they probably didn't know him. But Ace was always proud of his movie part.
Nineteen-seventy-seven was not a particularly good year for Ace. He fell, hurt himself and was forced into the hospital. It seemed from that point on that things became worse. One poor physical condition after another revisited him and on January 25, 1978, he died in Kalispell, Montana. Headlines on the front page of the local Daily Inter Lake simply stated, "Ace Powell Dies," and everyone knew that a grand old artist had left for the other side to continue work with his friends and fellow artists, Russell, Seltzer, Reiss and Clarke.
That is how it was for Asa Lynn Powell, better known as Ace Powell: artist, cowboy, horse trader, novelty shop owner, western legend, movie actor, teller of tall tales, something of a horse rancher, drinker, philosopher, critic and friend.