One of my first artist studio visits ever was in Kalispell, MT with Western artist Tom Saubert. It would become one of the most memorable travel or art experiences of my life. Aside from Saubert’s genuine hospitality and patience, his studio proved to be a wonderland of authentic Western and Native American objects, books, sketches and memories. My wife, mother and myself spent over an hour talking up Saubert about his artwork and background and could have stayed much longer.
Saubert, a Montana native, describes himself as a “nut for accuracy” in his work.
Saubert’s family had land on the Blackfeet Reservation, east of Glacier National Park, where he spent time with the tribe back when adults there didn’t speak English and visiting whites looked for Blackfeet children to serve as interpreters. Saubert honors the Blackfeet, and the other Native people he paints, by authentically representing their clothing, hairstyles, guns, bead colors, bead size, teepee decoration and every other imaginable cultural minutiae down to the smallest detail.
“Ninety-nine percent of artists don’t care about that stuff because the public doesn’t know,” Saubert told me.
But he knows. Does he ever know.
Saubert’s studio doubles as a Blackfeet Indian and Montana historical museum.
“It’s important to the way I work,” Saubert says of his studio, the material surrounding him being as bona fide as the images he creates.
Guns, knives, clothing, taxidermy, tomahawks, Native drums and blankets, books on Native people and art of all kinds fill every nook and cranny. It’s a 700-square-foot vision board for the artist who also has sketch books filled with Native dress and regalia from museum visits.
He possesses 25,000 slides from 40 years of model photo sessions, some of which last for days, placing Native people in natural surroundings across Montana, Saubert acting, “like a movie director,” orchestrating the scenes to help inform his work.
“That really psyches you up as an artist–the land, the people, the light,” Saubert said.
Saubert is equal parts historian and artist, excelling at both, “fifty years after I’m dead, someone can look (at my paintings) and say, ‘it’s right,’ ‘it’s correct.’”
Spending his life in Montana and in the out of doors. Saubert, along with ever other artist who’s spent extended time in the state has a bank full of artistic animal encounters to share.
Saubert’s involves a grizzly bear.
With four-inch front claws, bone crushing jaws, power to tip over cars and occasionally nasty dispositions, grizzlies can kill a man with the swipe of a paw. While grizzly deaths are rare, about two on average in North America per year, they do happen.
Anyone who’s been close to one in the wild knows this, and in those moments, the statistics suddenly don’t feel so slim.
Saubert has been close.
He was painting on the east side of Glacier National Park near the popular Many Glacier area with colleagues visiting Montana when they were run into Saubert’s truck by a curious grizzly. The bear appeared to be interested in the artists’ oil paints as it sniffed them thoroughly. Bears are thought to have the greatest sense of smell in the animal kingdom, far more sensitive than bloodhound.
Saubert’s telling of this story features no hint of humor.
Saubert’s generosity with his time and storytelling became the highlight my first trip to Montana. What my family saw in his studio, I have no reservation in saying, will be one of the stories we recall fondly for the remainder of our lives.