WSU Press book receives critical praise for focus on post‑WWII art

A book cover for 'Montana Modernists: Shifting Perceptions of Western Art' by Michele Corriel.
"Montana Modernists" presents stunning artwork and illuminates a little-known art movement. Divided into three sections, Michele Corriel’s exploration concentrates on place, teaching/artistic lineage, and community.

Michele Corriel had a story to tell.

While writing about the arts, Corriel learned about an exceptional yet understudied group of artists who crafted distinctly Western depictions with a postwar sensibility.

Six of the principal artists behind the movement serve as the central characters in Corriel’s book, “Montana Modernists: Shifting Perceptions of Western Art”, published in 2022 by WSU Press.

Since its publication, the book has received unprecedented critical praise for a WSU Press title.

Montana Modernists recently won the 2023 Joan Paterson Kerr Award — presented to the best illustrated book on the history of the American west — from the Western History Association. Corriel’s book also received the High Plains Book Award for Art and Photography, the Big Sky Book Award, and was named a 2022 Honor Book at this year’s Montana Book Awards.

“It’s definitely so validating to see someone else viewing these artists the way I see them, and to be able to share that joy with others,” Corriel said. “I feel so much gratitude to WSU Press for helping to bring the stories of this movement and the artists behind it to readers.”

The unvarnished West

Montana Modernists focuses principally on six artists — Jessie Wilber, Frances Senska, Bill Stockton, Isabelle Johnson, Robert DeWeese, and Gennie DeWeese. Together, alongside their contemporaries and students, these artists redefined the art of the western United States, shedding the romanticism of the generation that came before them.

“These artists had experiences that had shaped them in such a different way than western artists that came prior,” Corriel said. “They lived through the Great Depression and World War II. They experienced the beginnings of the Cold War and the rise of McCarthyism. They understood the world in ways that needed a different visual language; you couldn’t look to Charlie Russell to understand what these artists were feeling.”

How individuals in post-WWII America came to be artists was also radically different. A wave of recently discharged Americans sought formal art training at colleges and universities across the country on the GI Bill. This demand drove institutions of higher learning, particularly Land Grant institutions like WSU, to rapidly hire artists and build out whole departments.

Many of the Montana Modernists were as much teachers as artists, and saw fit to hang their works alongside those of their students.

“This movement created a whole new voice in the west,” Corriel said.

In order to help canonize and bring greater awareness of the movement, Corriel knew she needed a doctorate, prompting her to pursue a PhD in American Studies and a Master’s degree in art history from Montana State University. Corriel’s dissertation served as the backbone of the book, and after asking friends and colleagues about publishing options, she contacted Linda Bathgate at WSU Press.

“Michele sent a proposal to me, noting that she had just finished her dissertation on this topic, and asked if we would be interested in publishing,” Bathgate, who serves as editor-in-chief of WSU’s university publishing division, recalled. “I love art books, so I told her yes, we would very much like to explore publishing your book.”

Titles published by WSU Press go through a rigorous editorial process, complete with an internal review of the manuscript, formal peer reviews, and approval by the WSU Press editorial board. In order to be picked up by WSU Press, a work must also disseminate knowledge to the larger community. Montana Modernists also came with the added challenge of reproducing vibrant and beautiful art on the page, which required significant time to get just right, Bathgate said. The books were designed, printed, and bound by WSU’s own Design and Printing Services department.

More critical acclaim for WSU Press

Montana Modernists is the latest title from WSU Press enjoying critical or commercial success.

Nightmare on the Scottie: The Maiden Voyage of a Doomed King Crabber” landed on the Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association’s bestsellers list at the end of last year. Nightmare on the Scottie is one of nine books published so far by Basalt Books, an imprint of WSU Press that focuses on titles of Northwest interest that would appeal to general audiences.

David Edward Walker, whose most recent book, “Coyote’s Swing: A Memoir and Critique of Mental Hygiene in Native America” recently received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the International Society for Ethical Psychology and Psychiatry. In Walker’s award citation, the group noted that Coyote’s Swing is “the only comprehensive history and critique of the U.S. mental health system in Indian Country. It is a courageous exposé of the violations within the system and his ongoing attempts to provide real help despite opposition.”

Several events related to WSU Press and its authors are happening in December.

Betty Houchin Winfield, editor of “We Few, We Academic Sisters”, is hosting a discussion on pioneering women in academia at a Town Hall Seattle event Dec. 4. More information is available on the WSU Press’ website.

The WSU Press is also hosting its 32nd annual Holiday Book Fair on Wednesday, Dec. 6, in the Terrell Library Atrium on the WSU Pullman campus, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Sale prices will be valid for phone and online orders using coupon code HBF2023 throughout the week, Dec. 4–10.

More information about WSU Press and Basalt Books’ titles are available online.

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