MISSOULA — Before Rudy Autio, pottery in America was coffee mugs, soup crocks, potato-chip bowls. “ I was never attracted to the craft,” he says, “ because I thought it was something you'd find in dime stores.”
Fifty years later, Ceramics Monthly maga zine hails him as one of the most significant artists in the medium ever, listing him and longtime friend Peter Voulkos among 13 “ liv ing potters and ceramic artists who have had the greatest impact on contemporary ceram ics.”
The Missoula ceramicist is, arguably, Montana's most important living artist, agrees Peter Held, director of the Holter Museum of Art in Helena. “ He's always been true to his unique vision,” Held says.
“ A living treasure,” Stephen Glueckert calls him, standing amid the colorful, oddly shaped sculptures characterizing Autio's work of late. Glueckert is curator at the Art Museum of Missoula, featuring Autio in his first solo exhibit in his hometown since 1983.
Along with his sculptures, the exhibit offers photos of Autio's public murals — demonstrating an artistic impact that's at least two-fold.
“ It's been 50 years of doing these vessels,” Glueckert says, walking among the bulbous ceramic sculptures on which naked women and horses cavort unhindered by gravity, “ but it's been 50 years of public works, too, a huge gift to cities. There isn't an artist in the state of Montana who's done that many public works … of significance.”
Notoriously poorly paying and time-con suming, public commissions often leave their creators vowing “ never again.” Not Autio, who has 22 major architectural artworks to his credit and who continues to produce them even while his smaller, free-standing vessels command prices of $25,000 and up.
“ That's what art is about: You can see it on a wall somewhere,” says Autio in his Rattlesnake Valley studio, adjacent to his home. It's summer, and Autio, putting the fin ishing touches on a new vessel, looks every bit like an off-season Santa with his round, beard ed face and glasses perched low on his nose. He resembles St. Nick in other ways, too, including his northern — Finnish — heritage and his reputation as a man with a giving spir it, a gracious manner and a work ethic that never quits.
His Butte upbringing deserves much of the credit for those qualities. He was born Arne Rudolf Autio on Oct. 8, 1926, the son of a mother he describes as “ very loving,” an out doorswoman who took him fishing at Georgetown Lake. His father was a musician — a fiddler who favored Hungarian gypsy tunes and had little patience for his son's “ tin ear” — and a copper miner. Young Rudy tried his hand at his father's vocation, but only for a month, working in the Neversweat Mine, owned by the Anaconda Copper Co.
“ We'd go down in the shaft to the 45- to 100foot level,” Autio says. “ It was really kind of scary down there. … You'd be in muck up to your hips.”
Poison gases trapped in the shafts were a constant danger — one the company didn't talk about, but the men did. Despondent, his father came home one evening and told of pulling from the ground three of his friends killed by the noxious plumes.
“ At the same time,” Autio says, “ there was great camaraderie underground because the men did look after one another.” The same held true above ground; after work, to escape the darkness, the men drank, gambled, fought in the streets — but still, Autio says, folks took care of one another despite differences in nationality, religion, economic status, political beliefs.
“ You'd walk down he street on any after noon and it was full of people,” Autio says. “ it was like you could picture living in Brooklyn. I lived in a tenement building with 10 apart ments. We played kick-the-can, went skating at night.”
Autio's parents, like most other members of their immediate community, had immigrated from Finland, a socialist country — and liberal politics made their mark on Rudy and his older sister, Gertrude, he says. (His parents, though, were conservative Republicans.)
Amid all the excitement of being a boy in Butte, Autio discovered his own talents and interests. He liked to figure things out; as a child, he built a house in his back yard, his wife Lela says. And he liked to draw, an inter est he's at a loss to explain.
“ My dad drew amusing cats smoking pipes,” he says with a grin. “ I didn't learn art from my dad.”
Still, he possessed an innate curiosity about art, fueled by a federal government Works Progress Administration that sent artists into schools. Starting at age 8 or 9 Autio began evening drawing classes, and loved it.
“ It was about the only thing I knew how to do well, drawing and painting,” he says.
After a stint in the Navy during World War II, Autio enrolled at Montana State University under the G.I. Bill — another federal nudge to his development as an artist. Without the aid, he says, he probably would not have gone to college.
Architecture was his first major of choice, a practical decision combining his love for drawing and painting with what seemed a viable career choice. “ I thought you couldn't make it in art,” he says.
He did enroll in an art class, though, and it's there that he met Lela, his wife for 53 years now.
Even then, she says, Rudy's artistic talents impressed her, as well as his problem-solving skills.
“ He was able to do things,” she says. “ When we had a Beaux Arts Ball or something he would be building the sets and decorations and the kids would be standing around, but he seemed to know what he was doing.”
Lela, who'd spent summers with her sister on a Choteau ranch, knew the value of selfsufficiency. It's a quality she still admires in her husband, she says.
“ He taught himself to fly a plane, play the guitar. He can do anything. He reads manuals. He knows how to use the library. He has this monster library in his head. He can sit down and draw a picture right out of his head.”
His “ can-do” outlook served him well at the Archie Bray brickyard in Helena, where he worked after graduation with classmate Peter Voulkos. Bray had dreams of turning the brickyard into a pottery studio, and hired the two young men with a notion that they could help.
Autio took the job mostly for the money. Although he'd studied at MSU with the esteemed ceramicist Frances Senska, his interest lay in sculpture, not pottery, and he left the Bray after a summer, in 1951, to earn his master's degree in sculpture at Washington State University in Pullman.
Those were lean, mean years, Lela recalls. Rudy's wife for several years by then, and mother to their first son, Arne, she suffered from loneliness and poverty.
“ I was very unhappy there,” she says. “ All the neighbors were destitute and unfriendly.” Rudy, meanwhile, was learning sculpture and tuning into the latest rage: abstraction.
Voulkos, he says, traveled to New York and saw what the abstract expressionists were doing, then returned to Helena full of fire. “ He brought that energy to his art,” says Autio, who returned to the Bray after earning his degree in 1952, “ and that influenced many of us.”
Working at the Bray, making bricks and building the pottery studio, Voulkos and Autio learned volumes about clay from their boss. Otherwise, Autio says, information on the medium was scarce.
“ Ceramics is an art form thousands of years old,” he says. “ But in this country the knowledge of contempo rary ceramics was not very much at all.”
Nearby in Helena, Peter Meloy was throwing pots using clay he'd dug up locally, and his brother Henry was painting them. Autio was profoundly influenced by the brothers, he says, especially Henry, whose proclivity for horses and nude women is mirrored in Autio's works today.
He wasn't however, much interested in using the potter's wheel - or in doing much else with clay except what he was paid to do. “ Sculpture was a macho thing. You worked in bronze or you worked in stone,” he says.
When Bray dumped a truckload of clay in the brickyard and invited the young men to have their way with it, however, he couldn't resist.
“ A ton of clay is a lot of clay. So it made you think big. It was no longer a precious thing. You could waste it.”
At the same time, Bray was expanding Autio's range of duties at the brickyard. He began volunteering Autio's artistic skills to customers: “ They'd sell some bricks and Archie would say, `I've got a kid who'll make you a nice plaque on the wall.' “
Autio enjoyed the challenge of working large, and of designing a theme to suit the customer's needs, he says. His first architectural commission, the “ Sermon on the Mount,” stands 10 feet high and 30 feet wide; made of carved brick, it shows a Christ with arms stretched wide before a mass of berobed figures, some of whose faces resemble the youthful Autio's own as well as those of his friends.
The work, with its strong lines, flat planes and sense of geometry, indicates a Cubist influence and also high lights Autio's drawing finesse. Picasso was an influence; so were Henri Matisse, to whose paintings Autio's styl ized figures bear a strong resemblance; Mark Rothko, and the Mexican muralist Diego Rivera.
One early mural, installed in 1959 inside the Union Bank and Trust Co. in Helena, echoes Rivera's motifs, depicting common laborers at work - a contrast to the public monuments most often seen portraying wealthy white men or heroes in battle. The historical ceramic tile relief jumbles prospectors, miners, claim jumpers, merchants, horses, wagons and more across a 70-foot-wide wall, prompting members of the right-wing John Birch Society to send the artist hate mail. “ They accused me of being a communist,” Autio says with a grin.
After five years at the Bray, Autio worked for a short time as curator at the Montana Historical Society Museum, for which he created a Lewis and Clark diorama of wax. (A later director had it pulled down and thrown in an alley: “ He should have been knocked in the head,” Lela Autio says. Rescued by a passer-by, it now stands in the Dillon Historical Society.)
In 1957 Autio landed a job at the University of Montana, where he taught for 28 years. His first step was to open a ceramics studio in the warming hut used for a campus ice pond.
He was hired, he says, to create a ceramics department “ over the heads of the fine arts professors.” They, too, regarded pottery as a common, dime-store art form — but Autio already was changing the face of clay, doing something completely new: making vessels by hand with odd, dysfunctional shapes, then drawing on them, using them as canvases for his images.
As a professor, he influenced future generations of potters including artist and UM professor Beth Lo, whose ceramic vessels and figures serve as vehicles for figurative works inspired by her Asian heritage.
“ He was able to take ceramics to a new level,” she says, explaining what makes Autio important as an artist. “ He was a pivotal person in terms of … stretching what the definition of a pot could be. And then, just the quali ty of his work: He's an excellent draftsman, an excellent colorist. He's taken his basic ideas and expanded on them. He's continued to produce this excellent work.
“ He's a very important figure in ceramics. And he's very smart, and he's also a wonderful, generous person ality.”
He's also a tireless worker, family members say. “ He worked often all hours of the night, toiling away in the studio,” his youngest son, Chris, says, “ creating what we found sometimes in the morning were magnificent drawings.”
“ He was always working, working, working,” Lela says. “ He used to make a lot of drawings every night. Before he took his drawings seriously, he'd spread them out and walk on them.” She grins. “ Dealers would take them even with the footprints on them.”
In the late 1970s, though, Autio hit a slump. “ He became depressed or disenchanted with his work and the time he put into it,” Lela says. “ Nothing seemed to be happening.”
Autio took several steps to jump-start his artistic career over the next few years - with positive results.
At a friend's suggestion Autio applied for a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, and won $10,000 in 1980. It was his third federal boost, and Autio used it to travel to his native Finland and work for a quarter at Arabia, a porcelain factory.
“ It turned him around, gave him a new lease on life,” Lela says. He met others who spoke his native tongue, met relatives and made friends and, most important, learned new techniques for making art. He learned to pro duce pots with the bright, cheery colors the Finns used in making dishware. The trip, and subsequent ones he made over the next several years, transformed his work.
Quitting alcohol was the second boost Autio gave to his career, Chris says. “ He drank every other night until about `86,” he says. It was an easy habit to fall into, he says, given the “ camaraderie in clay.”
“ They'd roll it up, put it together, fire it together, and have a picnic with what we see comes out of the kiln.” Chris Autio recalls the instability his father's drinking brought to the household, and he also recalls the almost instantaneous change in Rudy's work once he let go of the habit.
“ I could see a lightness in his work, and a continuity,” he says. “ His brush strokes were not so loose and hay wire, but more deliberate.”
At around the same time, Autio retired from his teaching job at UM - gaining for himself gobs of time in which to make art, lead workshops, give shows and accept awards, among them an honorary doctorate of art from the Maryland Institute, College of Arts in Baltimore, Md., and the American Craftsman's Gold Medal Award.
An artist who fell into his medium by happenstance and transformed it by ingenuity, Autio remains an impor tant - and unique - creator in the ceramics world.
Among ceramic artists, says Lela, “ He's one of the few people who draw,” using the vessel as a canvas. “ Others use glazes that are interesting, wood fires that are interesting. But none of them are drawing.”
He's a potter by chance, a painter and drawer at heart. His pots, hand-fashioned, sport a unique, three-sided shape and offer no clear function except as a vehicle for Autio's horses, nudes, and stunning glazes.
The shape, he says, is intentional: “ It has to be interesting all around.”
The paintings, though, are intuitive. “ I'm not telling stories,” he says. “ The form begins to provide sugges tions of what might happen. It's convenient then to think of figures and animals.”
Critics have pointed out the connection between Autio's childhood in Butte and his subject matter: horses and nude women, evoking the prostitutes so important to the town's history that it offers a museum in their honor. For Autio, the connection is more significant, going all the way back to Grecian urns and other vessels with drawings organized all around.
Art professionals who praise Autio invariably mention the fact that, at 74, he continues to create public art works, ceramic sculptures, paintings and, for the last 10 years or so, computer-generated prints.
“ He's always loved gadgets,” Lela says, talking about his computer art. “ If there's a whole bunch of gadgets in a car, he plays with them. Makes me nervous.”
“ He's still an experimenter and an innovator today,” Held says. “ I think that's much to his credit.”
His newest creation, and his current favorite, illustrates how Autio continues to seek, and take, professional risks. The wood-fired “ Escapade,” created this year, abandons the rich, bright palette that helped make his fame and substitutes earthier burnt-orange and black, and the female figures wrapping their bodies around it lack the expressions — at once serene and playful — that give Autio's previous works such appealing personality. These figures have no faces at all, which, he says, allows the viewer to focus on the sculpture rather than the women's eyes.
It works for Glueckert, who approaches the work, and the artist, with a reverence he says both deserve.
“ People who understand ceramics, I think they stand back in awe,” he says. He turns to “ Silver Ribbons,” also created this year, a richly and brightly colored sculpture whose surface glistens with metallic tresses, and he laughs and shakes his head.
“ He just knows what the hell he's doing.”
Rudy Autio public artworks
“ Sermon on the Mount,” First United Methodist Church, Great Falls, 1954.
Decorative tile wall, C.M. Russell Gallery, Great Falls, 1954.
“ Lewis and Clark at Beaverhead Rock,” Montana Historical Society, Helena, 1953-54. Now in the Dillon Historical Museum.
“ The Last Supper,” Hope Lutheran Church, Anaconda, 1955.
“ The Fourteen Stations of the Cross,” St. Gabriel's Catholic Church, Chinook, 1955.
Exterior wall relief, bison, horse and ox, Glacier County Library, Cut Bank, 1956.
Carved block relief, Christ surrounded by children, Gold Hill Lutheran Church, Butte, 1957.
Ceramic tile relief mural, early mining activity on Last Chance Gulch, Union Bank and Trust Co., Helena, 1959.
Three reliefs symbolizing three branches of learning, Montana State University Library, Bozeman, 1961.
St. Anthony and Child, tile relief, St. Anthony's Catholic Church, Missoula, 1963.
Cement and tile sculpture, abstract, men's dorm area, University of Montana, Missoula, 1966.
Metal sculpture, Montana State University, Bozeman, 1968.
Metal relief, mining activity in the Butte copper camp, Metals Bank and Trust Co., Butte, 1968.
Bronze grizzly, University of Montana main oval, 1969.
Metal sculpture, or-ten and stainless steel, Farm Credits Bank, Spokane, 1970.
Slab glass windows, Malmstrom Air Force Base chapel, Great Falls, 1969-70.
Ceramic tile mural, nature and ecology, Security State Bank, Polson, 1971. Being moved to the University of Montana.
Palouse Horses, tile mural in porcelain, Blue Ridge Elementary School, Walla Walla, Wash., 1983.
Rya wall hanging, horses, Performing Arts and Radio/T.V. building, University of Montana, 1983-86.
Tile relief, Madison Street fire station, Missoula, 1995.
“ Acanthus,” tile mural, Nippon Beauty Academy, Tokyo, Japan, 1998.
“ Rudy,” a retrospective look at the sculpture and public murals of Missoula artist Rudy Autio, is on view through Thursday, Aug. 30 in the Art Museum of Missoula, 335 N. Pattee St. The artist will present a slide show and talk about his work 7 p.m. Aug. 30 in Room 356 of the Social Sciences Building at the University of Montana; a reception at the museum follows the talk. Admission to both are free. For more information call 7280447.