Washington Road Trip Journal

"Lee Steen Information"

Kindly provided by the Paris Gibson Square Museum

used by permission, copyright 2007


(photo courtesy of Paris Gibson Museum, copyright 2007)

“I just make a few cowboys and hope that those folks driving by will stop and give me five or ten dollars for one.” – Lee Steen

Lee Steen: A Montana Original 

Thirty years ago, a person passing through the town of Roundup, Montana, would have happened upon a strange and wondrous sight.  The home of twin brothers Lee and Dee Steen featured an assortment of odd mechanical constructions, exotic animals, and an unruly crowd of figurative sculptures which Lee had created from cottonwood branches and discarded objects.

The Steen brothers, arguably two of the most eccentric artists to live in the state of Montana, were born in Kentucky in 1897.  As a young man, Dee enlisted in the army to fight in World War I, and ended up serving in World War II as well. Meanwhile, Lee worked on the railroad in the state of Washington.

The twins reunited and settled in Roundup in the late 1940s.  Dee, having learned airplane mechanic in the military, occupied himself by deconstructing and rebuilding all sorts of machines. Lee spent hours searching the banks of the Musselshell River in search of cottonwood branches that suggested particular human gestures. By adding bottle-cap eyes, flowerpot hats, and beer-tab belts, Lee transformed these branches into to the hundreds of curious figures that adorned the brothers’ porch and yard. 

The sculptures’ long journey to Great Falls began in the early 1970s. Lee, whose health had deteriorated after Dee’s death in the late 1960s, was admitted to a Missoula nursing home in 1972. At Lee’s departure, his small house, and the fantastic kingdom that surrounded it, was in eminent danger of destruction. Fearful for the sculptures’ safety, John Armstrong, then the director of the Yellowstone Art Center, transported approximately 250 sculptures to Billings for an exhibition at the Center. Sadly, at the close of the exhibition in the fall of 1973, the collection again became homeless. Armstrong was forced to place the sculptures in temporary storage in a chicken coop as they awaited a permanent home.

Lee, who failed to adapt to life in the nursing home, died in 1975. It was not until 1976 that the collection found a home at the newly-founded Paris Gibson Square Museum of Art.

The Museum is grateful for the efforts of the dedicated individuals who have worked over the years to preserve Lee Steen’s creations. Without their intervention, the only remaining evidence of the unique environment in which the Steen brothers lived would have quietly passed out of existence  – another roadside attraction faded into obscurity – and an important part of Montana’s cultural history would have been lost forever.

James Todd describes his first encounter with the Steen brothers in the summer of 1963:

“Several friends and I were driving through Roundup on a trip to Chicago.  We had not intended to stop until I noticed some large, totem-like figures placed near the side of the highway in front of what appeared to be a junkyard. 

Our curiosity concerning the “totems” forced us to stop.  We eventually began wandering about in what we thought was a junkyard, but, as we looked closely at the things around us, we realized that we were surrounded by a systematically structured arrangement of trash and wooden sculpture. 

Plastic dime store Buddhas were glued to Kleenex tissues, which were nailed to lawnmower handles, which were wrapped in catalog papers, which were placed on Texaco oil cans, which were strung with dolls with jar lids of hats, which were next to beer bottles filled with stones. 

And among this endless array of manipulated objects stood the sculptures. Some were untouched pieces of trees that were so self-evidently suggestive of human shape that it would have been superfluous to have added or detracted anything from their forms. Others had been carved and painted, but were badly worn from exposure to sun and rain.

(The Steen brothers) were hospitable and willing to show us their home.  Conversation continued to be difficult because we realized that these men took their art and surroundings so much for granted that it would have been irrelevant for us to have asked “why” or “for what purpose”.  We might as well have asked a farmer the same questions about his wheat fields.”

Lee Steen: Outsider Artist?

 The difficulty that John Armstrong and others faced in their quest to preserve Lee Steen’s artistic legacy stemmed, in large part, from the rather tenuous position self-taught artists held for many years within the art world. The sculptures’ rather haphazard quality, combined with the erratic lifestyle of the man who created them, contributed to a general belief that Lee Steen’s creations should not be regarded as “art”.

The arguments of those who denied Lee Steen status as an artist had some merit.  He did not sculpt his figures in the traditional sense, but combined tree limbs and trash in comically expressive ways.  Technically unsophisticated, the figures are in a constant state of disrepair.  Lee himself did not consider the sculptures to be “art” and refused to exhibit them during his lifetime.  Rather, he seemed to have considered the sculptures to be a natural part of his world. Given these factors it is not surprising that, thirty years ago, the art world would have considered Lee Steen a fringe character at best.

Times have changed, and Lee’s status as an artist has undergone a remarkable transformation in recent years.  The very qualities that once excluded him from the realm of “fine art” – his lack of artistic training, his hermit lifestyle, and his over-identification with his creations – now admit him into a special art historical category, that of Outsider artist.

 Outsider Art refers to art made by mental patients, prisoners, illiterate people, cultural hermits, and residents of isolated regions.  Regardless of the exact circumstances, the common bond between all Outsider artists is their isolation, whether social or geographic, from mainstream culture.

Art historian Rodger Cardinal coined the term Outsider Art in 1972 in his search for an accurate translation for Jean Dubuffet’s idea of Art Brut or Raw Art.  Dubuffet, an early 20th century artist and collector, rejected art created by professional artists, advocating instead for art produced by those outside the bounds of “civilization”.  He believed that only art produced by those who occupy society’s margins could stand in opposition to a corrupt world.  Today, perhaps in response to our increasingly complex society, Outsider Art has become highly prized. Many private collectors and museums now actively collect work by artists who exist outside the “mainstream”.

Whether one accepts Lee Steen’s categorization as an Outsider Artist, it is undeniable that his sculptures possess a magical quality that defies precise definition.  Removed from their natural habitat and placed in a gallery, the figures still vividly evoke the magic of their creator’s world.

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