For C. Michael Dudash, the people who inhabited and moved through the frontier West, whether Native American, mountain men, settlers, or cowboys, are never “the other.” Instead the artist invites the viewer into his subject’s perspective, making room for a range of nuanced experience.
We’ve seen the story behind C. Michael Dudash’s Lost and Found depicted by other artists in a cartoonish, patronizing way: Nineteenth-century Plains Indians come across unfamiliar items left behind by pioneers and with amazed, buffoonish expressions try to figure out what these things are. For Dudash, the people who inhabited and moved through the frontier West, whether Native American, mountain men, settlers, or cowboys, are never “the other.” Instead the artist invites the viewer into his subject’s perspective, making room for a range of nuanced experience.
In Lost and Found, the Indians surrounding an abandoned covered wagon are quietly curious but not overly impressed as one man holds a violin he has pulled from its case. He touches the strings with the bow while two of the others look on. There’s a story in the face of each man (and that of the closest horse, clearly intrigued by the instrument’s sound), and it’s one that flows naturally from the situation, rendered in the painter’s skilled hand.
It’s no surprise that among Dudash’s artistic heroes are top figures from the golden age of illustration, from the late 1880s to the mid-20th century. Not only were artists like N.C. Wyeth, Norman Rockwell, and Harvey Dunn masters of draftsmanship and painting, they were also matchless storytellers. A single book or magazine cover or movie-poster image, expertly composed and dramatically compelling, could conjure a complex narrative in the viewer’s imagination. “Those illustrators had a massive influence on Western art,” says Dudash, who has presented talks on the artistic legacy of hand-illustration. It was his own path into fine art, as well.
Raised in small-town Minnesota, Dudash is the son of a first-generation Hungarian-American carpenter father and a mother whose pioneer ancestors settled in the state in the late 1800s. Both parents were musically inclined, and Dudash was a full-time musician for six years in his early 20s before turning to visual art. After one semester at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design, he was recruited by McGraw-Hill publishers as a staff illustrator for a sports medicine magazine. A year later he moved into freelance mode, beginning a highly successful 22-year illustration career.
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Even as he created award-winning images for magazines, book covers, and film posters, including Clint Eastwood’s 1985 Pale Rider, Dudash was also doing still life, landscape, and portrait painting. He sold his easel work at a gallery in Vermont, where he and his wife lived for a number of years. He shifted fully to fine art in 2002, and as his interest turned increasingly to the West, so did his home base. In 2012, the couple settled in Idaho, and today they live just north of Coeur d’Alene.
Dudash was honored with induction into the prestigious Cowboy Artists of America in 2016; he earned the organization’s gold medal in drawing for Cowgirl at its 2017 annual exhibition and sale. The portrait combines loose charcoal drawing with more detailed areas in colored chalk. The 67-year-old painter enjoys occasionally drawing and working in mixed media, styles that hark back to his illustration days. His oil paintings have also earned top awards in recent years at national events including the Eiteljorg Museum’s Quest for the West, the Briscoe Western Art Museum’s Night of Artists, and the C.M. Russell Museum’s annual show.
For Dudash, ideas for paintings emerge from meticulous research, resulting in a high degree of historical accuracy, but also through the creative process itself. The concept behind A Hard Trail, A Brother’s Hand came to fruition when he was working with Native American models on a rocky mountainside in Montana. On a difficult part of the trail, one of the men naturally reached down to another to offer a hand up. “It could be anyone, in any culture,” Dudash says. “That’s the powerful part of great art: These are human stories that transcend the subject matter and touch on something universal and timeless.”
See C. Michael Dudash’s work March 21 – 23 at the C.M. Russell Museum’s Russell Exhibition and Sale in Great Falls, Montana; March 29 – 30 at the Briscoe Western Art Museum’s Night of Artists in San Antonio; and April 6 at the Scottsdale Art Auction in Scottsdale, Arizona.
Photography: Courtesy C. Michael Dudash
From the April 2019 issue.