Monday, December 29, 2014

Putting a Face to Al Urness

Day 11 (12/28/14)
Recently I was able to put a face to the man who I have spent so much time in the last two years thinking and writing about. I had of course seen some old newspaper images but most were of Al at a distance and had been taken from archives of newspapers from the fifties. Thanks to Charl Agiza (formerly Charl Roach) I have, not only, been able put a face to Al but also see a great variety of his art work. Charl apparently ran across my blog while doing a Google search of Al. Again I am going to as much as possible let Charl tell her own story:
While visiting my family for the holidays I got to looking at these paintings that were done by Al Urness. In our Information Age I thought I would Google his name and see what I came up with and was so surprised to read the stories and clippings on your blog. Thanks so much! He came and stayed with my family in Arkansas and painted several paintings, one of which I am sending in this email and the others to follow. I shall try to find a photograph I believe we have around here. He was the free spirit that is described. Al was a simple man traveling with few possessions and painting along the way.
On my blog site she wrote:
I have sent several images of paintings by Al Urness and photographs we had of him in our family album to your email (if you have a new email let me know and I can resend them).
We met Al in the 70s in Lake Village, Arkansas and later he came and lived with us for several months in Jonesboro, Arkansas after we moved there. I was 15 at the time and studying and performing various ethnic dances. He did a large painting of me in my Middle Eastern dance costume. He worked from a photo but he also did a sketch which must be around here somewhere. My Grandmother was an artist as well as my Aunt and myself. Of course now I sit and look at his work with a different eye. Looking back after reading about him in your blog I see why I had such a resonance with him then and realize he left a great impression on me. We exchanged correspondence after he left and I might even have some of those letters. Even though he was older when he came into our lives his spirit was young and playful and we enjoyed each other's company. Thanks so much for bringing his spirit to life again. I think as artists we always hope our work will survive and someone will ask “who painted that?"

I am honored and humbled to have stumbled upon the story of Al Urness. I must apologize that I am not really a writer. My skills like those of Al fall more in the area painting and kayaking. It is a story that warrants telling however and it has been my pleasure to have met so many people, if only in cyber space, inspired by Al. For the time being I have exhausted my available information. I would not be surprised nonetheless to have other people step forward with stories of their own. I certainly hope that is the case and to everybody who has already contacted me I want to offer a big heartfelt thank you.  
Another Picture of Al

Al the Teacher

Al at work Sketching

Al Painting

Finished Painting

Devils Tower by Al Urness

Domestic Life

The Dancer by Al Urness

Detail from the dancer

Another detail

Saturday, December 27, 2014

More Adventures of Al Urness

It is this newspaper clipping with Al's miniatures in the background
 from a show that he had at Eastern Montana College that gives me
 hope that some of these and others still exist.
Day 10 (12/25/14)
I have a few more stories from people who crossed paths with Al. Considering that he died in 1998 at 89 years old I am glad to have come across as many people who knew him as I have. As I have stated before, there seems to be a certain amount of press about his journeys, but I have had to rely totally on personal contacts for his artwork. I am still holding out hope that somewhere there is a collection of his work, including the sketches and watercolors that he did on his journey down the Yellowstone, Missouri and Mississippi rivers. In the mean time I will continue to post what I can get. In many ways I like the personal nature of these pieces anyway. The next person I heard from was Shawn Cramer who wrote:

Hopefully, I have attached the pencil sketches Al Urness did of my Grandparents, Andrew and Orvella Christensen in Glasgow, MO in 1970.  My Grandpa worked on the Missouri River for the Corps of Engineers.  He started his career working on the Ft. Peck dam in Glasgow, MT. He and Grandma moved down the river before finally settling down in Glasgow, Missouri around 1940. Grandpa retired from the Corps in 1970, the year these drawings were made. I am not sure how he made Mr. Urness' acquaintance. Grandpa passed away in 2000 at the age of 95, but I will ask my Grandmother if she remembers. She is still alive and doing pretty well at 98.
Shawn Cramer
Orvella Christensen by Al Urness

Andrew Christensen by Al Urness

Then in April of this year I received this from Janis Walker:

In 1955 or 1956, my Daddy was fishing on the Mississippi and saw Mr. Al coming down the river. We were told that because of the current of the flooded river, he seemed to be in trouble. Daddy helped him come ashore and brought him to our home in Covington, TN. He stayed with us for several weeks in which time he made pencil drawings of my Mom, Dad, Great Grandmother and all of us eight kids. Over the years he would come back to visit us for a week or so. When I was about 11, we got our horse. He brought me a blanket from Wyoming and also subscribed me to the Western Horseman magazine. He was loved by all of us, like a favorite uncle. My Mom died in 1972 and he came to visit several years after her death. My step-mother made it very clear to him that she didn't care for him (she didn't care for us either) and he never returned. He gave one of my sisters a painting of Devil's Tower and so it became like a sacred place to all of us. In 2008 my younger sister and I made a trip out there and when we read the story behind Devil's Tower, it became even more so. You see, there are seven of us sisters and we have one brother. He also painted a picture for each of us, of the house we grew up in, in Covington. He is loved and missed by all of us.

I of course had to look up the legends of Devils Tower after this of which there are several but I am sure this is the one Ms. Walker is talking about. It is a Kiowa legend of Devils Tower:

Eight children were there at play, seven sisters and their brother. Suddenly the boy was struck dumb; he trembled and began to run upon his hands and feet. His fingers became claws, and his body was covered with fur. Directly there was a bear where the boy had been. The sisters were terrified. They ran with the bear after them. They came to the stump of a great tree, and the tree spoke to them. It bade them climb upon it, and as they did so it began to rise into the air. The bear came to kill them, but they were just beyond its reach. It reared against the tree and scored the bark all around with its claws. The seven sisters were borne into the sky, and they became the stars of the Big Dipper.

It is the stories from these people who have inspired me. The more I hear of his life the more I want to know. Perhaps it is time to throw out a few more lines or revisit some old ones. At any rate I am sure there will be more to come in the adventures of Al Urness 

Thursday, December 18, 2014

The Life and Times of Al Urness

Grand Union Hotel, Fort Benton, Montana 
Day 9 (12/17/14)
As I read through the e-mails people have sent me about Al Urness I am taken not only with the extraordinary life of this man but also the extraordinary time in which he lived. When I read about him drifting in to town with either his Kayak or on the bus only to be taken in by the locals I am amazed. I was lucky enough to have lived during the end of the hitch hiking era and even then more often than not shortly after arriving in a new town we would be greeted by the local constabulary to check our credentials and question us of our intentions. The thought of being taken in by locals didn’t even cross our mind. When I mention to my students now about my hitching adventures you would think I had crawled unarmed into a lion’s den. As much as possible I am going to let the people themselves tell the stories. One of the first people that I heard from was Mr. Terry Garvin from Russellville, Ark who writes:
We will take some photos of the pieces we have. When we moved to Ft Benton MT in 1979 we moved into the Grand Union Hotel (built ca late 1800s).  The third floor had been converted to apartments; 70 yr old Al lived next door.  Al befriended us; he loved Southerners (we were up from Mississippi.) He shared meals with us on many occasions. Al had been in Ft. B for some months already which he said was unusual for him.  For decades he moved every few months. Up and down the Missouri. Google Grand Union Hotel Montana and you can see the building.  Al's apt was 3rd floor, three center windows.  When we arrived, he was set up in a room off the lobby and was 90% finished on a 4' x 8' painting of a riverboat on the Missouri.  He painted on masonite not canvas. The owners may have the painting on display or in storage.  Al finished the painting while we were there. My wife was/is a painter.  Al gave her an easel (handmade and well designed); we still have it.  He gave her many brushes (handmade from whittled wood, horse hair, and metal from tin cans).  He worked in oil and mixed all his own colors from five big tubes of basic colors.  He taught her to mix colors for herself.
 Latter Terry writes:
I contacted the current manager of the Ft Benton Grand Union Hotel. She is new to the area and has no knowledge of Al or his work.  But she will ask some people there who may have information.  His riverboat painting may be in the town museum.  Maybe she will contact me. I'm still digging for old pictures to share.
Again, I hear from him and this time he sends a picture:
 Apologies for the poor quality of the jpeg.  This will give you a taste of Al's style and subject matter.
Painted on Masonite.  Done in 1980.  
He saw this dead cypress in Shaw, Mississippi and reproduced it on more than one occasion  to "pay the rent" or gift to someone.
One of your contacts mentioned Al doing a sketch/head shot.  He did that for us also.  He did a pencil profile of my father in law (while he was napping) and a quick profile of our 2 year old.
Al rode with us from Mt to Mississippi and spent about ten days with our families before catching a Greyhound for old haunts further south.
In our last correspondence he sends a picture of some brushes made by Al for his wife and this note:
Handmade brushes that Al Urness gave to my wife 30+ years ago; and she still uses them! Al made his own tools.  The handles are very thick, carved from scrap wood. The bristles are horse hair.  The metal collars are cut from tin cans. He was generous with his stories, with his materials, and with his knowledge.
Terry Garvin

Again I am taken by Al’s ability to win over new found friends. It seems it was his giving nature, charisma and his willingness to share his knowledge that left people with such pleasant memories of his passing’s.
Dead Cypress by Al Urness

Handmade brushes By Al

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

The Art of Al Urness

Charles Ferguson By Al Urness
Day 8 (12/15/14)
I have to apologize to anybody who has been trying to follow the continuing saga of Al Urness. Perhaps someday I will try to put it all together but for now I just update when I get a chance. I would never have thought when I started this journey two years ago I would still be getting more information on this incredible man. Recently I received an e-mail from a lady who had happened upon my blog that had known Al quite well. She and others have sent me images of some of his art which up until now have been scarce to say the least. I know that there has to be more out there and perhaps someday I will hit the mother lode. In previous blogs I have sketched out what I was able to find of Al’s journeys. Now I would like to spend a little time looking at Al the artist. For the sake of continuity I will go back and start at the beginning. In late 2012, I was contacted by a lady from Colorado who while housesitting for her daughter in Culver City, California came across a painting by Urness in a thrift store across the street from the Sony Pictures complex, which was the site of the old MGM studio. She later received the painting as a gift from her daughter. In her words from an e-mail,
It is a profile of an African-American man who is impeccably dressed in a dark-blue suit, tie, white shirt, a handkerchief in pocket, a neat narrow mustache and short graying hair. In the left lower corner is the artist's name, which I read as "Al Urness" and the year 1952. In the lower right corner is written by the artist: "A Happy Birthday to my Very Dear Friend Charles. Al Urness, Feb. 28, 1952. Then, at some point, Charles Ferguson apparently gave away the painting. In the upper left corner in, apparently, his handwriting are the words: "To my very good friend Miss Judy. From, Charles Ferguson."”.
She then continues,
 So I started researching and this is what I found: In the 1940 U.S. census, Leon Gordon, a well-established playwright and MGM studios screenwriter had in his Beverly Hills house located not far from the MGM studios, a wife, a daughter, age 2, (who would grow up to be actress Gloria Gordon), and a staff that included butler Charles Ferguson, 48, whose birth date was Feb. 28, 1892. (The Feb. 28, 1952 date of the painting would have been his 60th birthday.)  And in 1952, Judy Garland happened to be under contract with MGM.  My guess is Judy knew Leon, knew his family and so probably knew butler Charles. Is it possible Judy Garland was the "Miss Judy” Charles Ferguson gave this painting, too?  Fun possibility. So I've been trying to find out what I can find out. I've sent messages to Judy's daughters to ask if they might know of Charles Ferguson or of a friendship with their Mom.
I have never heard more from this lady and do not know if she ever found out anymore about her painting. Like so many things in this adventure it leaves more questions than answers. In the next couple of installments I will look at some of the lives that Al touched in his journeys and a few of the paintings and drawings that were created as a result of these relationships.