Bill Stockton 1921-2002
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                       Art School, Paris, 1948
“But my main interest has been and always will be the harsh, abstract, semi-wilderness qualities of central Montana. Why? Because I was born and raised there, I guess.”Bill StocktonMay 1993
Central Montana is rocky, dry, beautiful. Tough. The image of Bill Stockton is imprinted on my mind whenever I wander through those sandstone bluffs, the pine covered foothills and sage crusted prairie, the willow-bordered little streams. He was tall and rangy, with weathered skin stretched over a strong face slightly skewed from a boyhood farm accident. An outdoor man who loved his sheep, his gruffness belied a tender heart and exquisite sensitivity to the visual world. His sense of humor was apt to burst forth unexpectedly with a sharp bark of laughter at the silliness of life, particularly the "dudes" he would see traveling the western countryside looking for some authentic cowboys. Life was too hard for a small sheep rancher to tolerate phoniness of any kind. I met Bill early in the fifties through his good friend, Montana artist Isabelle Johnson. They shared a lifetime of ranching and living on and loving this tough land. Both had sought schooling far from home, studying and learning at fine art schools and the world's great art museums.

 

Returning home to Montana, the geographic isolation forced obscurity upon them as artists and they endured a painful lack of recognition by galleries and museums. The friendship Bill shared with Isabelle meant survival, intellectually and artistically. Respect for each other's work was unqualified. A keen sensitivity to this western landscape came with long years of working the land—and looking, always looking. Visual perceptions were then filtered through first-hand familiarity with the masterpieces of world painting.Both were exceedingly tough self-critics. At the end of her life, Isabelle would say to me, "Bill's the best of us all."

 

Bill's other great friend was Montana artist Bob DeWeese. After Bob and Isabelle were gone, he wrote: 

“Over the years, my mentors have been Rembrandt, Degas, Cezanne, Picasso, Wyeth, Pollock, and Munch. I admired these masters, but I was also influenced, from example, by my contemporaries: Isabelle Johnson and Bob DeWeese. From Isabelle I learned that what was around me was all important. From Bob I learned that the imperfections of honesty contained the real truths. I never told them that.

I should have.” 
 
                        Feeding Sheep
              Grass Range, Mont. 1972
             Photograph By Tom Hansen
Bill's remarkable abstract paintings from the fifties were explorations of what lay under his feet as he trudged the countryside: snow, wild flowers, grasses, rocks. He had absorbed the lessons of abstraction into his own vocabulary. Many of these important paintings were shown in Los Angeles in the sixties but there were no sales. As the years went by he became inventive with new materials, using cattle markers, oil sticks, watercolors as he moved more and more toward landscapes and small portraits of family and friends. Always the realities of this harsh and beautiful Montana land were sparingly laid down with great honesty. Sculpture drew his attention and many pieces from this period are now scattered around the region in public and private collections. (I own an early piece, the head of a young woman.) Always Bill drew. He was a brilliant draftsman. His sketches of ewes during lambing are loving and tender, and very real. Many were included in his book, Today I Baled Some Hay to Feed the Sheep the Coyotes Eat. The sharp laugh when he told me the title couldn't hide his ironic acceptance of those frequent misfortunes that plagued a sheep rancher's life.  In the spring of 1993, Miriam Sample and I traveled to the Stockton ranch to look at five decades of Bill's work. At the end of the day we had selected over seventy pieces for the Yellowstone Art Museum's collection, which Miriam purchased. Bill added another group of drawings. Now a major part of his work would be preserved in a museum as part of the state's heritage. Bill was born in 1921, four months after his father died. He grew up in central Montana, first on the family homestead. When it burned down his widowed mother moved with her four children to Winnett where Bill attended grade school. He finished school in Grass Range at seventeen and left for Minneapolis to work. A soldier in the Second World War, he met his French wife Elvia in Paris and brought her back to Montana in 1946. The G.I. bill gave Bill a chance to study at the Minneapolis School of Art for a year and then a year in Paris at the Academie de la Grande Chaumière. In 1950 Bill and Elvia returned to Montana for good to live on the sheep ranch west of Grass Range, a homestead his mother had bought many years before. There they raised their two sons. Bill died at the ranch of lung cancer in October, 2002. He was 81. Four months later he received, posthumously, the Governor's Award for the Arts. Elvia, their oldest son Gilles, and grandson Antoine still live on the ranch. Donna M. Forbes Former Director, Yellowstone Art Museum December 2006

Billings, Montana


                                                                Lone Pine, 1993
                                              Yellowstone Art Museum Collection
   
                                Winter Bouquet, 1997
                    Peter and Nancy Mickelsen Collection
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