genre / form: historical picture book
age range: 4-8 years
Jeanne Bowman’s website
Please tell us about your book.
Charlie Russell and the Gnomes of Bull Head Lodge, written by Emily Wilson, is a story about the famous western painter Charlie Russell and his search for creativity.
Charlie Russell (1864-1926) was known as “The Cowboy Artist” because he started painting while he was working as a cowhand in his youth. He loved to paint the working men and women of the frontier, the Native people of the plains and mountains and the wildlife that lived in the beautiful country stretching from New Mexico to Montana.
This story is an interesting look at a small slice of his life. Charlie owned a small cabin in the middle of Glacier National Park. He spent summers there with his wife and friends, including his fellow artist and student Joe De Yong. Not many people know that Charlie also loved to make sculptures out of found objects. This story focuses on the life he infused into such creations, and how they helped to stir his creativity within the awesome backdrop of Glacier National Park.
What inspired you to illustrate this story?
The South Dakota Historical Society Press (SDHSP) approached me to illustrate this story. I was interested because of the gnomes, and because of the little bit I knew about Charlie Russell from my art history classes in school. I love all things magical and mystical, and what is more mysterious than a forest filled with gnomes and art?
This story was a fantastic excuse for me to spend more time researching Charlie Russell and the time period in which he lived. I have lived in both New Mexico and Montana and it gave me new insight and appreciation into the history of both states as well. (Although this story only takes place in Montana, Charlie made many trips to the south and made many paintings of the Navajo People, which were present in the biographies I used to research for this project.)
Could you share with readers how you conducted your research or share a few interesting tidbits you learned while researching?
I began this project by reading biographies about Charlie Russell and Glacier National Park. Here are two of the main texts I used to work on this book:
Charles M. Russell, The Life and Legend of America’s Cowboy Artist by John Taliaferro and People Before The Park, The Kootenai and Blackfeet Before Glacier National Park by Sally Thompson, Kootenai Culture Committee & Pikunni Traditional Association.
I also took a trip to The Glacier National Park to photograph the landscape the book takes place in. This is not possible for every book, but luckily I live just 10 hours away (and my best friend lives near the park).
I was also lucky because the author of the book, Emily Wilson, is also the curator of The C. M. Russell Museum in Great Falls so she and the wonderful Art Director at SDHSP sent along many fantastic photographic references of the real gnomes Charlie had made.
I also utilized the wonderful digital archive of photos from The Gilcrease Museum in Tulsa Oklahoma to learn about what Charlie’s home in the woods looked like.
As an illustrator, what I am looking for mainly is photographic reference. Charlie’s life luckily overlapped the invention of the camera and his family was fond of taking many photographs. What I found most interesting in my research was the lifestyles of the Salish, Kootenai and Pend d’Oreilles tribes that live in the park. The way these people lived off the land in a sustainable way, moving with the seasons to harvest food, and acting as stewards of the land was very inspiring. It was also incredibly sad because of the way they have been displaced and mistreated. This was not something that I was taught in school and it offered a whole new perspective about living in the West that I had not considered before in depth.
What were some of the challenges you faced in illustrating this unique story, with it’s historical setting and characters, but fictional narrative?
Consistency is the hardest part of illustrating a picture book. Making sure that the characters look the same from page to page, especially if they have different emotions or are placed in a different perspective, is quite tough. Since Charlie and Joe were actual people, I needed to make a simplified version that still looked like them and that I would be able to replicate over and over again. In addition, I needed to find ways to create an image that told the story without repeating it, or that added something more through emotion or atmosphere. There are some pages within this story where I feel like I accomplished that, and some where I feel like I could have pushed it further. I hope that works overall. I am still really new at this and am learning with every project how to do it better.
The truly hardest part was painting all the TEN MILLION LEAVES! I have a tendency to over detail things, and it came back to haunt me when I needed to paint everything. I use watercolor and gouache. I paint by building up layers in glazes and it felt like it took an eternity, even with all of the stylistic shortcuts I took, to finish this book.
What topics does your book touch upon that would make it a perfect fit for the classroom?
This book has some wonderful overlapping topics. Charlie Russell and Joe De Yong were great artists in their own right. There is also the history of Montana and Glacier National Park to consider. I highly recommend looking into the life and history of the Salish, Kootenai and Pend d’Oreilles tribes that live in the area. There is a fantastic museum in Polson, MT called The People’s Museum that would be a great resource to learn more about this topic. You could even use this book to discuss art, artistic process, inspiration and the concept of the artist’s muse. (This book has three of them!)