The Pacific Northwest Forum
Volume 8, Number 1, Pages 12-16
By J.M. Moynahan
While traveling through Montana in 1967, my wife and I stopped at an antique shop. As usual I carefully examined the paintings that were for sale. Two paintings caught my eye; one was a large Indian portrait, the other a teepee and cabin scene. I was so impressed by both pieces that I carefully wrote down the dimensions, prices and artist's name.
Although I was unable to afford the paintings at the time I hoped that in the future, if they had not been sold, I could buy at least one of them. The signature on both was B. Howie Mackey. I knew something about the early Montana artists, but I had never heard of this one. I consulted many books, collectors and dealers, to no avail.
Cheif Charlot by B. Howie Mackey.
Courtesy of J. M. Moynahan
Several years later I became associated with the Museum of Native American Cultures and its founder, Wilfred Shoenberg, S.J. I discussed the paintings with him and he said the Museum would be very interested in them even though he had never heard of the artist.
Sometime later I returned to the antique shop and to my surprise both paintings were still there. I talked to the owner of the shop and said that the Museum was interested in acquiring both pieces but, they had authorized me to purchase the teepee and cabin scene, since it was not economically feasible to purchase both, at least at that time.
Cabin and teepee near Jocko by B. Howie Mackey.
Courtesy of J. M. Moynahan
The shop owner said that he believed that B. Howie Mackey was a woman who painted around the turn of the century near Arlee, Montana. He went on to say that he understood that she had lived there with a physician and his wife. He thought the physician was treating Mrs. Mackey for alcoholism.
This gave me the lead that I needed, so armed with the information and the painting I returned to Spokane. I continued to do research on the artist but it wasn't until the fall of 1973 that one of my leads paid off.
One of the physicians in the area of Arlee around the turn of the century was Dr. Heidelman. I contacted his son, who resides in Helena, and he was able to supply me with some information about the artist.
Mr. Heidelman writes, "My father was a medical doctor for the Bureau of Indian Affairs and we were located at the old Indian Agency called 'Jocko Agency'. The Agency was about five miles east of the present town of Arlee, Montana. We lived there between the years of 1901 and 1914. It was during this time that Mrs. Mackey was living there."
"My mother (Mrs. Elizabeth Heidelman), was very interested in art and took lessons from Mrs. Mackey. From information obtained from my mother, Mrs. Mackey had studied art in Germany. She came to this country in the early 1900's and was doing paintings for the Northern Pacific Railroad. Sometime prior to locating at the Jocko Agency, she had married a Mr. Mackey. He was a prospector and spent a lot of time out in the hills looking for a fortune. He had two young sons whom Mrs. Mackey took care of. I believe her motive for locating at the Agency was to get a lot of Indian subjects to paint."
Mr. Heidelman goes on to relate that in 1914 the agency was moved from Jocko to a new location out of Dixon, Montana, and that his family did not see her again. However from time to time they did get information about her.
Apparently, Mrs. Mackey never lived with the Heidelmans as I had originally thought, but rather lived in a small church parsonage in Jocko. She was not an alcoholic but rather a narcotic addict. Although my research on her is far from complete, I believe she died in a slum area of Butte from an overdose, some 50 years ago.
I am sure there are people in Montana and possibly Washington that may know something of her. Some material I have gathered indicates that at one time she lived in Seattle, where she taught art. (To date this has not been verified.)
Cheif Charlot's first wfe by B. Howie Mackey.
Courtesy of J. M. Monahan
The Spokane Museum was eventually able to place in its holdings the large portrait from the antique shop. This portrait was later identified as that of Chief Charlot's first wife. (Charlot was a Flathead Chief) A portrait of Chief Charlot was later donated to the Museum by Montana's St. Ignatius Mission. The Museum now has three Mackeys in its collection, which I believe is the largest collection of her works on public display.
Mrs. Mackey's paintings are valuable in several ways. First, of course, they are economically valuable. Even more important, they are early pieces done from real life which brings a historical significance to her work. Lastly, Mrs. Mackey's paintings represent early work from a woman painter who worked in Montana. She painted at a time when women painters were few and far between. She was one of the first, if not the first, professional woman artist to paint in Western Montana.
Very little is known of B. Howie Mackey and what we do know raises more questions than answers. She was a fine painter and draftsman, but where did she receive her training? How did she get to Montana in the first place? Was she the first professionally trained woman artist to paint in Western Montana? How extensive was her output? Where are the rest of her paintings? These and other questions go on and on.
It is unfortunate that those of us interested in the art field know little of this important early Montana painter. Hopefully in time more will be learned about her, and the rediscovery of B. Howie Mackey will be complete.