Lest we forget another of Montana’s favorite artist sons.
The Big Sky country of Montana has always represented artist Charles M. Russell as its favorite son, especially in the Judith Basin and Great Falls area. And rightly so due to the authentic and adoring artwork Russell created depicting his state. But head southeast about 3½ hours to Billings and folks will mention another favorite Montana son. Artist J.K. Ralston worked out of a cabin there for many years, depicting historic images and the region’s pioneers with equal passion.
Ralston’s Ranching Roots
Although he’s not as well known outside Montana, James Kenneth Ralston (1896–1987) is one of the foremost painters of the West. The youngest of five children born to Will and Ellen Ralston of Choteau, Montana, Ralston grew up on the cattle ranch his father managed. His family also kept a home in Choteau so the children could get to school easier.
In 1905, a ranch hired Ralston’s father to put together a new cattle outfit near Helena, so the family moved. There, friends of his mother first exposed the young Ralston to art instruction. The experience later took him to the Chicago Art Institute in 1917. It was a short 90-day semester, however, as World War I interrupted his schooling.
Ralston joined the U. S. Army and served with the 62nd Infantry, 8th Division. Ironically, he and his regiment were ready to ship out, but so many had died of the growing Spanish Influenza epidemic that the powers that be delayed their departure. He later made it to Norfolk, Virginia, and boarded a troop ship, the USS President Grant, bound for Europe. But the extended health delays proved timely, as the armistice was signed while the ship had sailed halfway across the Atlantic Ocean. So, they turned around and headed back to Norfolk.
Ralston writes in his biography, The Voice of the Curlew, which he told to author John Popovich, that the Spanish Influenza just rolled through his regiment, and while he had only mild symptoms, he still had to walk to the hospital each day for the 11 pills he took. In the fall of 1920, with the war ending, he re-entered the Chicago Art Institute.
Ralston’s sister, Bess, was in summer school in Miles City, Montana, in the mid-1920s. Ralston and his older brother, Billy, went there for horse business and to see her. Unexpectedly, Ralston met his soon-to-be bride, Willo at the school. After they married, they moved around hunting work in Spokane, Washington; Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada; and on the West Coast. Ralston worked for several years on the West Coast doing commercial art and illustrations for magazines, book publishers and ad agencies. In 1930, they returned to Montana to take over his parents’ ranch near Culbertson, on the Fort Peck Reservation. The Great Depression devastated the country, along with a severe drought. After five years, the couple moved to Billings to create a new life and an art career there.
Depicting the American Spirit
During the early 1930s, as part of the government’s Great Depression outreach efforts, the U.S. Department of the Treasury created the Treasury Section of Fine Arts (TSFA) in the fall of 1934 under the Federal Arts Project. Its purpose, according to then Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau, was to “secure for the Government the best art which this country is capable of producing, with merit as the only test, for the decoration of federally-owned structures,” such as the U.S. Department of Interior headquarters in Washington, D.C., and hundreds of post offices around the United States. This reflected President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s desire to help Americans’ spirits by giving them—in addition to the government-supported work projects of the Work Progress Administration (WPA)—“a more abundant life,” providing art, music and culture created by their fellow citizens.
This would be a gamer changer for Ralston, as Montana was funding murals for six new post offices in the state. Regarding the commissions, Ralston said in his biography, “I guess they figured that artists had to eat too!”
He was to paint a historic scene for the post office in Sturgis, South Dakota. He traveled on his own dime to see the area and discuss the subject with the selection board. They settled on a regional event commemorating a mail carrier killed in the line of duty by hostiles. The event occurred in 1876 when a young mail carrier, Charlie Nolin, was on his last trip carrying mail on the Deadwood Trail. He left that morning, despite warnings of warring Sioux tribes in the area. The mural depicts a wagon party coming upon the scene of Nolin’s death, with mail scattered around. You can still view the mural in Sturgis at the new main post office.
Ralston did another mural in 1942 for the Federal Arts Project at the Sidney, Montana, post office. The mural depicted a scene from the General Alfred Sully Expedition into Dakota Territory in 1864. It, too, can still be viewed at the Sidney post office. (Ralston’s work also includes a number of hand-painted signs that are viewable at the MonDak Heritage Center in Sidney.) For both of his Federal Arts Project pieces, Ralston did extensive research, a continuing feature of his artwork.
Romanticizing the West
Ralston and his wife kept a log studio in Billings that he and his son built in 1946. In 2005, the Western Heritage Center in Billings acquired the cabin and restored the interior. The center maintains a wonderful collection of Ralston’s letters, ephemera, memorabilia and artwork. His subjects, historic in nature, included numerous works regarding Lewis and Clark and their guide/translator, Sacagawea.
A romantic of his era and his state, Ralston wrote poems and short stories that he lovingly illustrated. He stated in his book Rhymes of A Cowboy, “I have been drawing pictures as far back as I can remember and I have made it my life’s work to try and make the old west live again on canvas. At times over the years I have put down some of the memories in rhyme and story.”
Regional artists are sometimes forgotten, but Ralston contributed greatly to the fabric of knowledge of the West. His two books are worth hunting for, and his authentic, approachable style of painting is a wonder to behold. Ralston was inducted into the Hall of Great Westerners at the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum in 1978, and into the Montana Cowboy Hall of Fame (posthumously) in 2012.