The Blaine County Journal News-Opinion - We've Got The County Covered

Alert reader identifies artist of old mural in Kuhr's Clothing Store


August 26, 2020

This 1920's photo shows Martin Gardipee, Sr. as a young man. He liked working with livestock and broke horses for Miller brothers. This picture hangs in the shop in Shelby now owned by grandson Duke Gardipee. Visitors to the shop often ask, "Where did you get this photo of a young John Wayne?"

Alert "Journal" reader Shirley Gardipee, who lives in Shelby, read the recent "Journal" (August 5, 2020) story about the unknown artist of the 40-foot long western mural in the old Kuhr Clothing Store in Chinook. She called Daniel Dahl, the new owner of the building and told him, "I know who painted that mural. It was my father-in-law Martin Gardipee, Sr."

Daniel shared the message with me. I talked a bit by phone with Shirley, then made a road trip to learn about her father-in-law. Shirley's husband, Edward, was a mechanic in the Chinook area for a number of years before moving to Shelby where he eventually operated Ed's Diesel, a repair facility. He died in 2018. I spoke with Shirley and her son Duke, in Shelby, about Martin Gardipee, Sr.

Martin Gardipee 'spent most of his life' in around

Chinook and Harlem

Gardipee was born in 1903 to a family with 15 children. As a youngster Martin was sent to Flandreau Indian School in South Dakota. During that time the goal of the off-reservation boarding schools was to eliminate traditional American Indian ways of life and replace them with mainstream American culture. The schools were often harsh places with bad living conditions. Martin ran away from the school and never returned.

At a young age Martin showed an aptitude and interest for working with horses. As an adult he worked as a hired hand for several ranches in the Blaine County area and broke horses for the Miller brothers who ran a large sheep and cattle operation. Shirley described him as a "real cowboy."

He also worked as a sheepherder and sheep shearer. In 1962 he moved to Browning where he was helping shear sheep. Shirley said, "He had lunch with the crew, went out to begin shearing again and keeled over dead from a heart attack." He was 59 years old. His funeral was held at St. Gabriel's Catholic Church in Chinook and burial in the Kuper Cemetery near Chinook.

Asked what Martin, Sr. was like as a person, his grandson Duke said, "He was easy-going. But, if you misbehaved, he'd take a switch to you." Shirley added, "I could tell you stories all day about Martin, like the time he came home from hunting with a live coyote lassoed and tied to his saddle." She laughed just recalling the story.

Martin Gardipee, Sr. as artist

Martin did art most of his life but it was not until sometime in the 1940's he began to do his art "in public." He was self-taught. Grandson Duke Gardipee was six when Martin died but "recalled seeing little sketches on scraps of paper around the house." Duke said of his grandfather, "He was like most native artists with no art formal training. His life experiences translated into realistic works of art."

Martin likely did the mural in Kuhr's Clothing Store sometime in the 1940's. Both Duke and Shirley said Martin always signed his work. I mentioned I didn't see a signature on the mural at Kuhr's and Duke replied, "Maybe it was on the section that got painted over a few years ago." No one seems to recall if the mural at Kuhr's was signed. Shirley did remember that Martin often would say, "Peg Kuhr (Ed J. Kuhr who was active in the clothing store from 1931-88) gives me free Levi's when I need them." She assumed the "free Levi's" were pay for the mural.

Slim Bornn operated the Elk Bar in Chinook (the bar at the 'girl in the glass' sign in the 200 block of Indiana Street) and would trade Martin's paintings for drinks. I shared with Shirley that I'd heard Martin also did some paintings that were in the Stockman Bar. Shirley said, "I've heard the same thing but have no proof that it's true."

Martin Gardipee, Sr. is shown on the left of this photo. The other two men are unidentified. This photo was likely taken in the 1940's. Martin worked with horses and sheep most of his life. He died in 1962 while working with a sheep shearing crew near Browning.

Martin had a special way he signed each of his artistic works-sort of a circle with his complete name in the circle. At Martin's death most of his paintings and drawings were disbursed with his estate. Shirley said she is aware of one painting owned by someone in Great Falls but is not aware of any others still around. She'd like to know of other pieces that might exist.

Family members said Martin Sr. would paint art on just about any flat surface, including inside walls of buildings. Marty Dirden, a grandson of Martin, said the family has a framed painting that is said to have come from a wall of a bunkhouse on the Kuhr Ranch. Alvina Dirden Allen, Martin Sr.'s youngest daughter, is thought to have rescued the paitning. It's a classic scene of a cowboy on a bucking bronc. The painting has the signature of Martin Gardipee in the lower right hand corner, in a circle.

Martin Gardipee, Sr. likely did many paintings but few are known to have survived. The mural in Kuhr's Clothing store remains a rare tribute to the local native artist.


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