Mountie exhibit, book highlight Tweed specialty

Even though the University of Minnesota Duluth's Tweed Museum collection contains more than 5,000 pieces of artwork, the 374 Mountie illustrations sometimes seem synonymous with the museum. A new book and display will help put the Mountie collect...

Even though the University of Minnesota Duluth's Tweed Museum collection contains more than 5,000 pieces of artwork, the 374 Mountie illustrations sometimes seem synonymous with the museum. A new book and display will help put the Mountie collection in context.

"For a lot of people, when they think of Tweed, they think of the Mountie paintings," said Martin DeWitt, the museum's executive director.

The works are connected to the region in a unique way, DeWitt says. Most prominently, they originate through an advertising campaign by Northwest Paper Company and later Potlatch, which played an important and ongoing role in the region's history.

But there are also the connection to the North Woods and the link to neighboring Canada that are strongly felt in northern Minnesota. Plus, the Mounties by now have become almost iconic. Pop culture references include Zane Grey books, Dudley Do-Right cartoons and even Mountie Barbie and Ken.

And those iconic virtues of integrity and competence were among the reasons the paper company started the advertising campaign in the 1930s and continued it until 1970. Particularly in the midst of the Great Depression, the image of honest Royal Canadian Mounted Police was one a company would hope for, says Peter Spooner, the Tweed's curator.


But Spooner says there was also a more pedestrian reason -- the red coats, which used a color difficult to reproduce on some kinds of paper.

"It became sort of a proving grounds for Potlatch to be able to print that red coat," he said.

The campaign started out of a Chicago ad agency and was originally a business-to-business kind of advertising. Up to 16 artists -- the records are lost -- made Mountie illustrations, and Potlatch spent up to $50,000 a year on the campaign. The images ended up in calendars, posters, notepads and even the names of Potlatch papers, such as Mountie Matte and Mountie Gloss.

"What a successful image. How could you go wrong?" DeWitt said, surveying the more than 100 images on display for the current exhibit.

It certainly lives in the memory of many who have been associated with the company over the years. This week, Edwin Jankowski, who worked as chief forester for Potlatch and spent almost 40 years at the company, was looking them over with his son, Steve. The elder Jankowski said that on a {IMG2}snow-bird trip to Arizona, he befriended an actual Mountie who became fascinated by the images. Jankowski ended up giving his new friend most of his personal collection.

"I think it's just great," Jankowski said of the exhibit. "... I really enjoyed just remembering and going back."

He added that he was particularly captivated by Mountie-related artifacts, such as actual red coats.

Spooner said one of the interesting characteristics of the exhibit is that it shows the progression of the paintings, from the early, pre-World War II works that have the flair of an adventure novel and tend to be rather stark to the fully evolved later works with American Indian themes, more emphasis on landscape and themes of prosperity and commerce.


There's also a sense of showing how the different artists vary in their approach to the theme, Spooner said. One famous painting depicts a Mountie flirting with a stereotyped American Indian girl, which Spooner says would not be politically correct today.

"At that time, it would have been totally accepted," he pointed out. "Nobody would have thought about it at all."

Another illustration blends totem poles from the Northwest, teepees from the Plains and pottery from the Southwest in one stereotyped tribe.

That's in direct contrast to the work of Arnold Friberg, the best-known and most prolific of the artists who worked on the illustrations, DeWitt said. Friberg would go out of his way to do research, and people actually now study the illustrations for their historical accuracy.

"He really wanted to come to a deep understanding of what he was painting," said DeWitt, who also highlights the artistic qualities -- the mood, light shading and details -- of Friberg's paintings.

Spooner points out that it's rather unusual for a commercial illustrator to do so much research.

And while some of the artists only did one or two illustrations, a few did several and had distinct styles. The Mountie exhibit at Tweed gives a deeper appreciation of some of those artists, like Paul Proehl's work from the 1940s and the 1930s illustrations of Hal Foster, the original Mountie artist.

DeWitt and Spooner are both excited about the book project, done in collaboration with Afton Historical Society Press and with substantial support from UMD Chancellor Kathryn A. Martin.


The book, which carries the same title as the related exhibit, "Looking North," was written by Karal Ann Marling, who teaches art history and American studies at the University of Minnesota.

Marling has written or cowritten 18 books, three of which have been New York Times notable books of the year. The themes of her work -- such as Norman Rockwell, theme-park architecture and the TV culture of the 1950s -- seem to share something in common with the Mounties.

"Looking North" traces the ad campaign and also has glossy, full-color representations of many of the Mountie images. Tweed officials believe it will find a home with Mountie fans, and the book is already moving toward its second printing, DeWitt said. They also believe it will offer a Mountie "fix" for times when space limitations don't allow the illustrations to be displayed at Tweed.

Spooner says the book also provides a context. "The Mounties will always be special for the museum -- there's no doubt about it," he said. But that must be balanced with the museum's other work.

The context offered by the book will allow the Tweed to exhibit them more confidently.

"I think we'll be able to exhibit them to greater effect now," Spooner explained.

The Tweed also plans to revive the tradition of Mountie calendars carried on by Potlach for years, and it has many new Mountie-related items in its store for sale.

The book is available at the store and retails for $35. The exhibition is featured in the main gallery at the Tweed through June 22 and then in another part of the museum through Oct. 5.


News to Use

A book signing event for "Looking North" is scheduled for Thursday at the Tweed from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. The event will feature author Karal Ann Marling, along with comments by UMD Chancellor Kathryn A. Martin. Food, beverages and music will also be part of the event, and those who become museum members receive a 15 percent discount on select Mountie merchandise. Call 726-7823 for details.

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