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Clarence Boyce Monegar loved his landscape and knew it well. A Winnebago Indian, Monegar was born near Wittenberg, Wis. in 1910 and was also known by his Winnebago name, Red Arrow. He was never famous outside Wisconsin but was one of the state’s most beloved painters during his lifetime, executing commissions for patrons and finding a ready market for his renderings of the local landscape among professionals and institutions. Monegar’s watercolors could often be found in doctor’s offices and bank lobbies. Since his death in 1968, his work has only increased in value and interest in his paintings has surfaced as far away as California.
It’s safe to say that every state in the U.S. has had its Monegar, a local hero who touched a responsive chord for his sympathetic depiction of the land and its creatures.
Monegar was a man to whom stories clung like iron filings to a magnet. He was said to have come from a line of Winnebago chiefs, and naturally in the usage of the era, his white friends called him “Chief.” By the time of his birth, his family survived by harvesting cranberries in the marshes. His visual inspiration came from watching his mother weave, design and decorate baskets; his training came at the Tomah Indian School. Monegar turned professional while serving a jail sentence. His cell became his first studio and the sheriff kindly supplied him with paper and brushes. Reminiscent of the legend of blues singer Lead Belly, pardoned by the governor of Texas on the strength of his songs, the sheriff released Monegar in appreciation for his wilderness scenes, painted from memory and anatomically accurate.
Monegar was a free man for the rest of his life, living in Milwaukee and elsewhere in Wisconsin and experiencing many financial ups and downs. According to one tale, he traded a painting with a dentist for much needed work on his teeth.
Monegar’s watercolors often looked airbrushed, which they were not. There is a particular Monegar kind of sky composed from lavenders and blues. Occasionally, his colors were more storybook than natural. Even then, the ducks, geese and deer inhabiting his canvases appeared very much alive and minutely detailed. He particularly loved birch trees and included them in many of his landscapes. Usually, Monegar signed his work with an arrowhead next to his full name in token of his Native American heritage.
Self-taught and inherently adept with a brush, he studied print making on the G.I. Bill at the Art Institute in Chicago after serving in World War II. His interest in lithography came years earlier, when, after early parole, he had the astonishing good fortune of being introduced to the Regionalist painter John Steuart Curry, who was serving as artist in residence in Madison. Monegar was driven to Curry’s campus studio by none other than the district attorney who paroled him. Curry was taken with the young artist’s distinct interpretive style of the natural environment. His encouragement led to producing more work and exhibiting. Eight of his works were featured and sold in a rural art exhibit. He stayed in Madison for several months, becoming a name among local conservationists and wild-life enthusiasts while producing his first print, titled Feeding Grouse. Instructed by the master print maker Curry, Monegar rendered a drawing of grouse on a lithography stone which was sent to New York for printing. The edition of 60 sold out shortly and is nowhere available today.
In Chicago, he worked at a commercial art company, dabbling with silkscreen but lost interest in printmaking and the full-time pull of employment. His personal responsibilities and a habit-forming wonderlust spirit had become roadblocks to any commercial success he might have enjoyed.
Monegar had married at 22 and became a widower with four children after his wife died of tuberculosis. Unable to support his young family, his relatives complained to authorities which landed him in jail on a “non-support of a kinsman” warrant. While the abbreviated jail sentence became the catalyst for unleashing his remarkable talent as an artist, the financial course of a career artist can be filled with uncertainty and often times, unemployment.
After the war, he married his sister-in-law, who had been caring for his children after her sister’s death. With no steady employment, Monegar continued to paint in watercolor, peddling his product from door-to-door, to local businesses and anyone who would give him $2 or $5 per piece or trade for art supplies or liquor. A quote from Monegar from Rural Artists of Wisconsin (published in 1948 by University of Wisconsin Press), suggests his struggle: “Maybe I’m too much like my ancestors. I don’t know why I can’t lead a more settled life.”
As an artist, a good fellow and a polite man he was revered by many but in the end, the wonderlust lifestyle took its toll and Monegar died in 1968, at his home in Black River Falls. A discussion board posted at Askart.com contributes to the artist’s legend and includes about a dozen stories from collectors and acquaintances and friends who knew him. Most are polite and endearing and relay such stuff that legends are made of. He was a unique painter with a very recognizable style, painting scenes inspired by the sacred land of his ancestors, bearing names such as Horicon Marsh, Lac de Flambeau, Black River Falls and Fountain Head near the Mississippi River, among countless others.
Published auction records for Monegar indicate a Midwest audience with several watercolors selling for $125 to $350. Five auction sales listed on Askart provide excellent examples of his works including geese in flight with that recognizable Monegar sky and his beloved birch trees, fly fishing with a brook trout about to become the fisherman’s catch and an unusual logging scene with a rugged man precariously balancing atop a bundle of logs on the rapid river flow. The action scenes are remarkable. Monegar could create swift movement without the stiff hesitation and overworked brushwork apparent by lesser talents. Retail sales in Wisconsin suggest higher numbers with sales from $500 to $1500.
Mary P. Manion is acting director of Landmarks Gallery and Restoration Studio in Milwaukee, and director of its framing department. For more information, visit www.LandmarksGallery.com, or call 800-352-8892.
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