This Montana farmer has a way with raising dryland crops and turning wood.
It was 1985. A hailstorm had just destroyed the crops of Montana farmer Rich Charlson. But life goes on, and, as they say, “when one door closes...”
When his local AQHA horse futurity needed a sign for Stallion Alley, Charlson created one of redwood, engraving it freehand with a router. His craftsmanship was a hit. “People kinda liked it, and I started getting orders,” he says. “It almost turned into a business.” Despite the loss of those crops, he says, “We had a good Christmas from making signs.”
Three years later, those signs had left behind a pile of scrap wood, and Charlson had an idea. He glued those pieces together, bought a secondhand lathe, and taught himself to turn wood into bowls.
Today, Charlson’s unique, intricate, one-of-a-kind bowls, baskets, and other beautiful wooden creations are among the fine art included in Montana’s prestigious annual Russell art auction, sold alongside original works by its namesake, legendary Western artist Charles M. Russell, and some of the foremost artists working today. “I was the first wood turner to ever have a piece in The Russell,” Charlson says. “Quite an honor.”
It’s not his only one. He was among the 2008 inaugural class inducted into The Montana Circle of American Masters in Folk and Traditional Art. “I still don’t think of myself as a master,” he admits. “I’ve never made that perfect piece. I’m always learning.”
If not perfect — at least in his estimation — Charlson’s works are stunning in their form and detailed beauty. At first glance, many look like finely woven Native American bowls and baskets. “I look at a lot of Native American designs,” he says. “It’ll spark something in my mind, and I’ll rearrange that whole design and come up with a bowl.”
The patterns and colors are created with natural wood, meticulously crafted with thousands of individual pieces, laminated together, lathed, sanded, and polished. The work is incredibly time-consuming. Shattered Dreams, a Russell auction entry, was built of 12,000 pieces that took six weeks to complete. But the artist gets lost in the work he loves. “It’s kinda like fishing,” Charlson says. “It’s real relaxing. No one bothers you. All the worries in the world go away. And it keeps me out of my wife’s hair.”
His better half keeps him grounded. “I have some of my old bowls,” he says. “When I get cocky, my wife brings ’em out and says, ‘See where you started?!’”
Charlson still lives and works on his family farm near Great Falls, Montana. The property, which started with his great-grandfather’s homestead, celebrated its centennial in 2012. Raising wheat, barley, and peas, the now semiretired farmer spends the slow months of winter creating his bowls and other art, working seven days a week from October to March. Virtually every piece displayed on his website is sold, but Charlson brings about 40 new works every year to the popular Cowboy Christmas show in Las Vegas during the National Finals Rodeo. Along with those special pieces created for The Russell, Rich also sells his works at The Great Western Show in Great Falls during Western Art Week.
Reflecting on his artistic journey and the fact that his pieces now reside in the homes of collectors all over the world, Charlson describes this second act by the creative process itself. “I come up with the designs, sit down, and start building it. Once you start, it’s an adventure.”
And he might never have embarked, had it not been for that hailstorm almost 40 years ago.
This article appears in our January 2024 issue.
The Russell exhibition and sale will take place in March 2024 as part of Western Art Week in Great Falls, Montana. For more information about Rich Charlson’s art, visit charliwoodart.com.