C. Michael Dudash paints the drama and complexities of 19th-century western life
By Gussie Fauntleroy
This story was featured in theApril 2017 issue of Southwest Art magazine. Get the Southwest Art April 2017 print issue or digital download now–then subscribe to Southwest Art and never miss another story.
The Old West, according to the Hollywood and history-book version most of us grew up with, was hardly a place of subtlety when it came to the good/bad divide. But our understanding of the world has grown more nuanced in recent decades. For C. Michael Dudash, this sometimes means visually rendering multiple sides of the complex human struggle that took place in the early days of European-American settlement of the West. Dudash’s painting A FIGHT FOR LIFE, A FIGHT FOR A WAY OF LIFE, which earned the artist an Artists’ Choice Award at the Eiteljorg Museum’s Quest for the West show this past year, does just that. A small, ragtag group of buffalo hunters attempt to defend themselves as mounted Native Americans begin to surround them, approaching up the hill from all sides.
Growing up in small-town Minnesota, Dudash always wanted to play the Indian in cowboy-and-Indian games, and he sympathizes with the people whose physical, cultural, and spiritual survival were inextricably tied to the buffalo. He knows it was catastrophic for them when Americans slaughtered 31 million of the great animals between 1868 and 1881. At the same time, Dudash understands what led many men to take on such dangerous, bloody work. “After the Civil War there were thousands of men with no work, who’d lost their families, who needed to make a living. It was really an economic and cultural conflict,” he says. “And the Native people were realizing they were losing a way of life and were in a panic, and rightly so.”
As an artist, Dudash knows it can be risky, not taking sides in a conflict whose devastating outcome we all know. But he also believes it’s worth the chance of offending a few viewers, and clearly there are many more who appreciate the depth of research and historic accuracy, as well as artistic command, that goes into his widely collected work. For the past three years in a row, the 65-year-old Idaho-based painter has been presented with Artists’ Choice Awards at Quest for the West. Other recent honors include Patrons’ Choice and Collectors’ Choice Awards, purchases by museum collections, and induction into the Cowboy Artists of America at the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City in 2016. And that’s on top of countless awards and achievements during his previous 20-year illustration career.
In fact, A FIGHT FOR LIFE, A FIGHT FOR A WAY OF LIFE is among Dudash’s personal favorites precisely because its dramatic spirit reminds him of some of his artistic heroes, masterful image-makers from the golden age of illustration during the 1920s, ’30s, and ’40s. Among them: N.C. Wyeth, Norman Rockwell, Dean Cornwell, Haddon Sundblom, and Harvey Dunn. “Imagine a great epic novel, and someone illustrated a pivotal moment in the story. It evokes emotion and can stimulate deeper thought. It’s more than just a pretty painting,” Dudash says, gazing at images on his studio walls from some of these giants of illustration, as well as those by favorite contemporary western painters. The 1,500-square-foot studio in the backyard of his home near Coeur d’Alene is also filled with Dudash’s own paintings and items he uses as costumes and props—saddles, reproduction period rifles, trade blankets, and elk and beaver skins. They reflect the artist’s shift toward historic western subjects, which began in 2000 and has been his virtually exclusive focus since 2005.
In one area of Dudash’s studio are musical instruments—guitar, mandolins, violin, and piano—reminders of the other great passion that developed during his youth, and his means of relaxing when he takes a break. His love of music was inspired by his father, a first-generation Hungarian-American carpenter with a strong visual and musical sensibility. He taught his five children the value of hard work and joyful play. Dudash was earning money shoveling snow and mowing lawns by the time he was 8, and today he spends an average of 60 hours a week on his art. “We had no allowance, and a self-reliant attitude became part of me,” he says. “It’s one reason I love history and painting this subject matter, because of how life was in the 19th century and how our forefathers lived.” From his mother, Dudash received both pioneer and creative genes. With ancestors who arrived in Minnesota in the late 1800s, she had musical and artistic talent and attended art school in Chicago for a year before marriage and family came along. Neither parent ever admonished their artistic son (nor the son who became a professional violinist) to “go out and get a real job.”
Known in high school as “the artist,” Dudash studied art for a year at Macalester College in St. Paul before leaving school to hit the road for five years with a band. His travels took him to New England, where he met his future wife. Then in his mid-20s he decided to return to school, either for music or art. He wrestled with the choice. But he missed painting and was thinking ahead to a family and the stability of not living on the road. So he and Valerie returned to Minnesota, where he enrolled in Minneapolis College of Art and Design. After the first semester, he was recruited by McGraw-Hill publishers in Minneapolis and left school again to become staff illustrator for a sports-medicine magazine.
With inherent talent and basic skills, he learned illustration on the job and enough about the publishing industry that after a year he decided to strike out on his own. As a boy he had absorbed his parents’ message that he could become whatever he set his mind to be. “I had no doubt that I could go do it. I decided I’d just get an agent in New York City and start getting freelance jobs,” he says. “I realized later how naïve that was, but actually, that’s exactly what happened.” He and Valerie moved back to her home state of Vermont, Dudash acquired an agent in New York, and within a week he received his first assignment from Reader’s Digest. Over the next two decades his illustrations were published in scores of magazines, on book covers, and as movie posters, earning awards and recognition in the illustration world. All along he also did easel painting, selling still lifes, portraits, and landscapes through a gallery in Vermont.
In 2000, while in Scottsdale on a speak-ing engagement related to a limited-edition print, Dudash approached Legacy Gallery, which immediately took him on. He was ready to leave the high-pressure world of illustration, and this was the entry he needed into western fine art. Living in rural western Pennsylvania at the time, he began feeling an ever-greater pull toward the true West. The move to Idaho, in 2012, put him just where he needed to be. “As I read about the history, met characters, met real ranchers, and worked with Indians on photo shoots, everything became more alive and relevant,” he says. “It’s a subliminal, subconscious thing, but my work has become more authentic, and I’ve had better, fresher ideas.”
One idea that began germinating a few years ago developed into the painting TELLING OF THE SECRET PATH, which Dudash exhibited at the Prix de West show in 2016. It was inspired by the title phrase, which his research revealed as one way some Native peoples described being introduced to the Christian gospel. A non-denominational Christian since his late 20s, the artist was intrigued by the complex intersection of two utterly different cultures and worldviews. In the painting, the missionary is a good-intentioned Christian who truly loves the people to whom he is reading (through a Native interpreter), and those who listen are genuinely curious to see whether the white man’s
“secret path” is one they could understand and follow. “My goal wasn’t to pass judgment on this subject one way or another, but to create a work that highlighted the efforts of good people on both sides who struggled to find common ground,” Dudash says. “I know this kind of scene did happen.”
The artist finds himself rewarded by the self-imposed challenge of inviting the viewer to look beyond the beauty of the landscape, or interesting faces, or stories that clearly and immediately reveal themselves. Presenting both sides of a more complicated issue “opens a window to what makes us human beings—the fears we all have and the love we all have,” he says. This same kind of resonance with the challenges and daily life of 19th-century Native Americans, pioneer families, cowboys, and mountain men inspires much of Dudash’s art these days. It also reflects human qualities that are meaningful to him in life. “Life is a grand drama for us all, and I love it when I see
ordinary folks who rise to the challenges of making something of themselves, or doing the ‘right thing’ in the most difficult of circumstances,” he says. “My hope is that the viewer can get a sense of the quality of character in these people’s lives, of the values of God, family, friends, self-reliance, honesty, heroism, courage, and strength.”
Legacy Gallery, Scottsdale, AZ, Jackson, WY, and Bozeman, MT; Settlers West Galleries, Tucson, AZ; Saks Galleries, Denver, CO; Coeur d’Alene Galleries, Coeur d’Alene, ID; The Obsession Gallery, Tokyo, Japan.
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