Ben Steele was a 19-year-old ranch kid when he went to work for the Snook Art Co. in downtown Billings in 1937.
“I did all the flunky work,” he said, including filling bottles of turpentine for the art-supply and framing business. The artist and writer Will James spent a lot of time at the store, and since he didn’t drive, another of Steele’s jobs was to drive James to his house on Smokey Lane on many an evening.
J.K. Ralston was another regular, often painting on a balcony inside the store.
Although he watched both men paint during his two years working for the Snooks, Steele said, “I didn’t do anything in art at the time. I didn’t think I’d ever become one.”
He only began to draw to preserve his sanity, during the three-plus years he was held as a prisoner of war by the Japanese, after he had already survived the infamous Bataan Death March in the Philippines in 1942.
Only two of his drawings made it through the war, but in the years after his release from captivity Steele compulsively documented what he had suffered and witnessed, eventually creating the 93-piece collection of drawings and oil paintings now held by the Montana Museum of Art and Culture at the University of Montana.
And tonight, during the Billings ArtWalk, Steele will be going back to his roots in a way, with a showing of works in what used to be the art studio of Virginia Snook, the daughter of Snook Art Co. owners Earl and Eleanor Snook.
Artist Loren Entz bought the old Snook house on Second Avenue North in 2001 and created the Snook Art Co. Gallery in what used to be Virginia’s studio at 2420 Second Ave. N., just west of the house. He gutted the old studio to build the gallery, finishing that project about a year ago.
Entz studied under Steele at Eastern Montana College, now Montana State University Billings, and has remained friends with him over the years. He wanted to show Steele’s work as a way of honoring the artist and authentic hero.
“To me it was really important,” Entz said. “He’s 98 and pretty much bound to a wheelchair.”
Steele and his wife, Shirley, are planning to arrive at the gallery around 5 p.m., according to Jacquie Pritting-Kittson, a friend and fellow painter who has been helping Steele get ready for the show.
They will stay for as long as Steele feels up to it, Kittson said, probably an hour or an hour and a half. Mayor Tom Hanel and his wife, Robin, will honor Steele at 5:30 and Steele said he’d “probably say a few things” himself.
Steele will show some larger pieces that aren’t for sale, including an oil painting of his family’s home place in the Bull Mountains, which hangs in the living room of Ben and Shirley’s house. He will also have 19 small, framed watercolors, painted this year and in 2015, that will be for sale.
Mainly, Entz said, the event will give people a chance to pay their respects to Steele, the recipient of numerous state and national awards and honors, and for whom a new middle school on the West End, scheduled to open this fall, was named.
“It’ll also be a chance for a lot of his students to stop by and say hello,” Entz said.
There’s another reason Entz wanted to honor Steele now: Entz is retiring from his life as a full-time painter and he is selling both the Snook house and the gallery. Entz wants to be closer to his children and grandchildren near Omaha, so he plans to spend half the year down there and half in Montana, at a place he owns in Fromberg.
The Snook house is a rare beauty, with a large, high-ceilinged living room where Entz does his painting, stucco walls, an interior balcony overlooking the living room, a variety of antique lighting fixtures and a bedroom meant to look like a stateroom on a ship, complete with porthole windows next to each of the built-in bunk beds.
It is also significant for its historical connections. In addition to frequent guest Will James, the house played host to Ernest Hemingway, whom Earl met after Hemingway broke his arm in an automobile accident near Columbus in 1930. The novelist spent nearly two months recuperating in Billings.
He became good friends with the Snooks and visited them in later years, sometimes sleeping on a couch that still sits in the basement.
The Snooks collected paintings by many artists, many of them friends. Virginia Snook donated a collection of paintings by James, Joseph Henry Sharp, Charlie Russell and others, valued at $1.5 million, to the Yellowstone Art Museum in 1993.
After Virginia’s death in 2000, hundreds of other objects and artifacts from the treasure-stuffed house were sold in a two-day auction at the Shrine Auditorium. A collection of Hemingway books, inscribed to Earl Snook, was sold by Sothebys.
In addition to works by Steele, Entz will also be showing some of his own paintings and works by Kittson, Bob Barlow, Joe Trakimas, Josh Elliot, Chessney Sevler and Jayme Mitchell.