Meadowlark Gallery: The Artist Biographies

Curt Dennis (1911-1964)

Curt S. Dennis was born on December 7, 1911 and raised in Great Falls, Montana. He went to school with Earl Heikka and competed with him to do drawings on lunch sacks and bags of his school mates. He left school in his high school years around 1926. According to his son, Jerry Dennis, Curt Dennis and Earl Heikka did not compare a lot of notes on sculpture. He was devastated when Heikka died, he felt that if Heikka would have lived that he would be far above Seltzer and Russell today for the talents that he had in his younger years expecially as a teenager.

He was a favorite young fellow of Charles M. Russell and Olaf C. Seltzer. He started to visit the Russell studio and absorb instruction from the artist when he was only six years old. "I was at his studio practically every morning until he died," explained Curt Dennis. "I used to love to watch him paint, but it was his models in beeswax that interested me the most. He showed me how to make my frames, and then when the model was finished, he would point out my mistakes. He was very patient and good natured, for every point of criticism there were always two praise."

So zealous was Nancy Russell about keeping Charlie at work, that she did not appreciate any interruptions young Curt might cause. "You must not bother Charlie," she remonstrated. "He is too busy for you today." Charlie waited until Nancy was out of ear shot, then he whispered to the lad, "Go out in back and hide in the lilac brushes. Mame will be going to town in a few minutes, and you can sneak back in." But Curt Dennis's good fortune did not stop with Charlie.

He met Olaf C. Seltzer at Russell's studio, and, of course, "from then on I had two places to go." It was Curt's opinion that there were never any two men in the same profession, doing the same type of work, who were so different in temperament. "I don't believe that I was ever in Russell's cabin when there weren't matches and cigarette butts all over the floor, old tubes of paint all over the place, and a bunch of dirty brushes to paint with. Seltzer was just the opposite. Olaf, a fine man and great artist, was high strung and sensitive. Everything had its place, including cigarette butts, and the minute he finished with a brush, it was cleaned and put in its proper place." It was Curt's contention that Seltzer never received the amount of credit and publicity he deserved. "In my estimation, he was one of the finest western artists of all time, and in the same class as Russell and Frederic Remington. Up until his death, he was still turning out some of his finest work although he was in a wheel chair and using a magnifying glass in order to see."

Curt Dennis started marketing his clay models when he was just nine years old, realizing a childhood goal. According to an article in the Great Falls Tribune, dated November 4, 1962, "He sold his first piece of work for fifty cents when he was nine years old, and several years ago bought it back for ten dollars." His favorite medium was clay, because he felt that models of clay were stronger and more permanent than those of beeswax. "I start in with a frame-work of welding rods, and mold and carve my clay around it. I seldom ever use any other tools than my fingers, or an old sucker stick I have sharpened on one end. When the models are completed and the clay hardens, I then paint them in oil in their natural colors."

During the depression years, he was a driver for the Greyhound Bus Lines, sold subscriptions to the Farmers Stockman paper, and was a night watch man for the Rainbow Dam. In 1931, he married Greyling Mitchell who was also a native of Great Falls. Curt Dennis also did pen and ink drawings but not as prolific as his clay models. He worked for the Great Northern in the 1940's and he drove cab for the Yellow Cab Company and the Black and White Cab Company. He would work six days a week and twelve hours a day and there was not too much time for his artwork. He did a lot of what he called his "ham and egg money."

There were quite a few admirers of him that could not afford his one hundred dollar models. He would work with pen and ink in his cab at his stand and do sketches. People would come by and he would sell the sketches for five and ten dollars. He did not work in oil or watercolor. There is only one occurence where he did use watercolor. Curt Dennis's father was a U. S. Marshall and Curt often visited him at his office and he would go up and down the elevator in the building. The elevator operator got to be friends with him and so he did a portrait of Tom Mix and that was his only deviation in his career at the age of nine from clay and, pen and ink.

Later in the late 1950's, he switched from clay to a type of plastic they called Duron, it was like clay only once you put it in the oven and baked it, it became almost indestructible. He did two models with extra detail for the purpose of casting them in bronze and did not paint them. He died before he decided to have them cast. Both of these models were cast by his son and he has cast a total of eight models.

During the brief career of Earl Heikka, he was promoted by Con Kelly where Curt Dennis was not promoted by anyone. Early on an aunt of Curt Dennis wanted to send him to art school but he declined. Curt did not want notariety, he did not want anyone to "own" him. He once commented, "I love my art and if gets to be a job or work, I know I won't like it and I don't want to do it." He did not deal with art galleries at all, Curt was one of two artists, the other being Sandy Ingersoll, that got to study under Olaf C. Seltzer.

Olaf was really the one to teach Curt Dennis how to mix colors for his clay models. Olaf always said that his philosophy was that if somebody was going to make a dollar on his work they did not like his work. If someone ever bought a piece and then sold it, it was the last one over sold to them by Seltzer. Seltzer never sold to an art dealer. Curt Dennis said that he also never needed a dealer. He would only sell one piece to a dealer. He felt that he was not there for the dealer to promote and make money on his artwork. He felt that he was the one to do the artwork and make the money. That was one of the reasons why Curt Dennis was not promoted too much, he would not let anyone promote his work. One dealer in Great Falls wanted him to sign a contract where he would buy all of his models that he produced.

In addition to the influence of Olaf C. Seltzer was the basic fact that hunting and fishing was his life's blood. His son commented that he lost more jobs because his father, come September would have felt that he had made enough money for the year because he felt that there was no need to pay more taxes on his income. He would set off to go hunting and fishing and convince his son to go with him. His son was just recently married and just getting along. His father was very close with his son as a family unit having come from a setting of being an only child.

Curt Dennis was just an artist that wanted to just get along or possibly just wanted to be left alone. The first car that they owned was a Model A which he continued to own even after other cars were acquired throughout his life. He was just as happy to drive the old Model A as any other car. His son mentioned that he really liked to drive the old Model A even if it took eight hours of driving to go to Canada to go fishing. Curt Dennis was not one that cared for the dollar. Alcoholism did not affect his career that much, according to his son, his work was still good when he was a recovering alcoholic the last fifteen years of his life. He joined Alcoholics Anonyomous and he was also one of the founding members in Great Falls. Before he quit drinking, he used to think that everyone was smarter than him. After he quit drinking, he realized that he had some good qualities and knowledge.

It was approximately in 1956 that he decided that he was going to become a professional artist and make his living from his artwork. He quit the cab company and started his modelling. He would get fifty dollars for a little model in the eight to nine inches tall range. For a double figure, he would get one hundred fifty to two hundred dollars. That was in the early 1950's and in the late 1950's, every model was sold before he had it done. People would come up and say that they would want his next model and they did not care what subject. The price would then start to go up because of demand and the most that he ever got for a model was $1,000.00 in 1964. At the climax of his career,the models were usually sold in the range of five to seven hundred dollars.

Chronological Review Of Exhibitions and Sculpture

April 15, 1942
Elk laden pack string model of two pack horses with a rider with no hat. On display in the windows of C. E. Davis and Sons, 317 Central Avenue, Great Falls,Montana.

Young's Art Gallery, Chicago, Illinois. Featured the works of Charles Russell, Frederic Remington, and Curt Dennis.

August 3, 1958
Models were displayed in the Western Air Lines window of the Cosmopolitan Hotel in Denver, Colorado. Several models on display in the Paris store during the North Montana State Fair.

August 6, 1959
Exhibition of work on display in the Paris during State Fair week.

January 27, 1961
Four clay models featured in the December issue of Horse Magazine, published in Middleburg, Virginia.

May 12, 1961
Displayed at Beckman's, model of William Henry Jackson, one of the nation's first photographers and famous for his pictures of Yellowstone Park. This work was commissioned by Dr. John Christlieb of the Historical Society of Omaha, Nebraska. The Historical Society advised the artist that a bronze casting would be made from the clay model.

March 6, 1962
Models featured in a story and picture layout in Sunday's Inland Empire Magazine section of The Spokesman Review.

November 4, 1962
Clay model sold for highest price of $1,000.00 and it was entitled, "Cinch Trouble." The model was more than just that of a packer returning from a successful elk hunt. The cinch on the pack of the second horse had broken. The pack has slipped and a point of the antlers on the pack is jabbing the animal in the flank. The rider pulls his mount up short, reaches back and grasps the halter to control the pack horse. The model was purchased by Mrs. F. E. MacKinzi of Great Falls, Montana.

May 10, 1963
Coin bank of Charles M. Russell for the Central Bank of Montana and the Bancorporation of Montana.

November 12, 1963
"Red Warrior" commissioned by Fred V. Ruffner of Freeport, Pennsylvania. The model was of an indian on an Appaloosa pony. Gallery Showings: Young Art Gallery, Chicago, Illinois. Cosmopolitan Hotel, Denver, Colorado. Latendorf Art Gallery, New York City, New York.

It is worth commenting on the basic fact that Curt Dennis and Earl E. Heikka were only a year apart in their ages but basically they were friendly rivals in the same community. Although Curt Dennis starting marketing his work primarily in his early twenties, his career did not become apparent as one can even see from the articles on his work in the Great Falls Tribune. Earl Heikka died in 1941, and the first article about Curt Dennis was April 15, 1942. This review of the career of Curt S. Dennis was accomplished through numerous articles from the Great Falls Tribune, Great Falls, Montana, and an interview with his son, Jerry Dennis, on July 24, 1995.

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