From Lake Highlands, Actor Jim Crump Paints a Living Portrait of Artist Charlie Russell
In his backyard studio, behind a house packed to the rafters with books, photos, sculpture and paintings, Dallas actor-writer James Crump, 65, has re-created the world of early 20th century Western artist Charlie Russell. Crump has built a 30-foot-long wooden stage, which serves as the floor of Russell's own studio for the one-man play Crump has written and stars in, Charlie Russell's Recollection of the Old West.
Crump will tape a free performance of the two-act play at 7:30 p.m., January 4, at In Motion Imagery, 922 Dragon St. After that, he'll take the show to live theater venues, first in Dallas and then to points west, where Russell lived and made art until his death in 1926.
The details in the props and furniture on Crump's stage set are best appreciated up close. There's a 100-year-old magazine cover, reproduced by hand by Crump. Bits of taxidermy and chalky-white cow skulls. Pieces of Native American costume made of beaded leather, also handmade by Crump. And dozens of other items that reflect the life, work and times of Russell.
It's all part of the fabric and texture of Crump's show, in which he plays Russell, sharing yarns about those bygone days in Wyoming, where Russell worked as a cowboy and wrangler as a young man and grew to love the Plains Indians, whose culture he studied, then painted and sculpted in some 4000 works of art.
Back in the 1970s and early '80s, Crump was a member of Paul Baker's resident acting company at Dallas Theater Center. He played the role of "Skip Hampton" in the original Texas Trilogy plays by Preston Jones and starred in DTC's production of Tobacco Road. Since then, he's run a wedding cake business, been a cabinet maker, traveled the world and become a Zen Buddhist.
At Crump's kitchen table recently, surrounded by photos of his trips to Southeast Asia and books about Buddhism, we talked about the Russell play and his obsession with the artist and art in general.
Wait, from actor to wedding cake designer?
Jim Crump: I got fired from DTC so many goddamn times. You might say I got crossways with management. Then I married a woman and she and I got this company, Ida May's Wedding Cakes, making cakes for movie stars and all the rich-ass people of Texas back in the 1980s. That sumbitch wedding cake business made money hand over fist. I was driving cakes all over the goddamn country. Then we started getting all sorts of competition and I got crossways with the wife and we got divorced.
No better reason to return to the theater then?
I haven't done any acting in 20 years. But the Charlie Russell thing goes way back to my days at Dallas Theater Center. Fort Worth has a great collection of Russell works. When I was at DTC, Mitch Wilder, who was then director of what was called The Amon Carter Museum of Western Art, talked to me about doing a Russell play, a one-man show about 30 minutes long based on Russell's illustrated letters. I started working on it and then Mitch died and everything got cut loose.
So I decided to do it myself and started doing research, interviewing people who had known Russell and visiting the Russell Museum in Great Falls, Montana, and the collection of his bronzes at the University of Nebraska. I've read every book, every letter. He was uneducated but brilliant. And he was always dedicated to being an artist.
How much of his life do you present in your play?
I start off with his early days in school, hanging out in mule barns in St. Louis. Then I take him through getting up to Montana and Wyoming. He'd skin animals to study how their muscles were connected, like a cowboy DaVinci. At 17 or 18, he became a "nighthawk," a cowboy who rides the herd at night. Then he'd sketch during the day. I take him right up to the end of his life. He died of congestive heart failure, but there may have been a connection to some bad whiskey.
As the character, I talk to the audience like a longtime friend. But there are costume changes and I become various characters as Russell tells his stories. I tell Russell's life through his stories. And I use his colloquy. He'd say "a Montana winter was as cold as a bartender's heart."
Charles Maron Russell
You've spent years on this show. And maybe a lot of what you earned baking those fancy cakes?
I've spent about $150,000 on the set and costumes. The planks on the stage, that wood was salvaged from the floor of a home in Highland Park.
And what do you love most about Russell? What do you want to audience to appreciate about him?
Besides being a great artist, here was a guy who detested corrupt people. He had a lot of integrity. He lived through the time of the robber barons of the 19th century - the same thing that's going on now. And he lived completely off his talent.
And you have to appreciate the quality of his art. He was influenced by the images of Gibson girls. There are the colors of Maxfield Parrish in Russell's skies. He met these artists in New York studios and borrowed liberally from them to create his own style.
The early Hollywood Westerns were influenced by Russell's pictures. He said that he never understood why the Hollywood cowboys - he called them "movie punchers" - wore two guns.
From your backyard stage to ...where?
I'd like to end up in Bass Hall in Fort Worth eventually.
Try not to get crossways with anybody between now and then, OK?
I'll do my best.