By Pat Biby Teeters
The Valley Messenger
Prologue: As most The Valley Messenger readers now know, my summers are not complete without a visit to Montana. This year was exceptional, however. Not only did I attend my Hassler family reunion (mother's side), I also had the good fortune to interview lifelong Montana resident Don Greytak, who I believe is that state's finest living pencil artist. At the request of our readers, we are printing my story on Mr. Greytak's life and work in its entirety rather than a two-part series. He can serve as an inspiration to all of us that it's never too late to discover and pursue our own true "creativity."
When you look at many of Montana artist Don Greytak's pencil drawings of days gone by in the American West, you're overcome with a wide spectrum of emotions ranging from nostalgic reminiscence to knee-slapping laughter.
A smile crosses your face when you see a small boy trying to shift gears in his dad's big grain truck. A chuckle slips past your lips when you see a young groom struggling to fire up his old Model T while his impatient bride supervises from the sideline. And you burst into a loud guffaw when you look at a drawing of a little girl squeezing her startled kitty cat a little too tightly.
"Each (drawing) tells a story, conveying an emotion, not merely the visual details of stationary objects. The works come alive; you will find yourself entering into the scenes with your own personal stories," Greytak's Internet Web site states, and these words catch the essence of his extensive collection of work.
Better yet, this Big Sky Country native has his own unique story to tell about how he did not seriously begin drawing his illustrations of rural Americana until he was 42 years old. Now, at age 68, he wastes no time in pursuing what he refers to as "his creativity," which he let lie fallow in Montana's High Plains for many years while he worked as a rancher, pilot and designer-builder of horse and stock trailers.
"I drew in grammar school," Greytak recalled. "Friday afternoons were 'art afternoons,' and my third-grade teacher, Elmer Gwynn, who is still alive, remembers my drawings. But we had work to do. Drawing was like whistling - no value."
During those years of hard, physical labor, however, Greytak stored up and savored memories of all aspects of ranching, and now he brings them back to life with pencil and paper. His life-long experiences lend authenticity to every line he draws.
Greytak's Montana family roots are as fascinating as his drawings. They go back more than 100 years to 1894 when his Slovakian grandparents, Jacob and Elizabeth Greytak, came to the Treasure State from Pennsylvania. His grandfather went to work in the coal mines in Stockett near Helena, where Don's father, Albert Greytak, was born in 1902.
"In 1910, my grandparents moved to Great Falls where my grandfather built a house for $1,500," Greytak said. "When he filed his homestead in 1914, he rented out the house in Great Falls for $35 a month. That was a lot of money in those days."
That money afforded Greytak's grandparents, then 44 and 45 years old, the opportunity to homestead what would become the family ranch 46 miles northwest of Havre, close to the Canadian border, near the Milk River breaks.
"My dad, after attending high school in Great Falls partly through his freshman year, came out to the ranch in 1916 and never left." Greytak said.
Well, his father did make at least one trip into Havre, on Jan. 6, 1930, to marry a pretty school teacher, Gladys Thompson, who was born in Wolf Creek and reared in the small community of Townsend. After graduating as valedictorian of her class in 1926, Gladys attended the normal school in Dillon, where she earned her teaching certificate.
"Mom was teaching at Spring Coulee School (near Havre) when Dad met her," Don said. "Dad later had to get to Havre in the snow to marry her. He had a couple of friends who helped shovel snow, but he didn't tell them he was getting married. They drove over the ice on the Milk River because it was easier than driving through the snow drifts on the prairie (to reach Havre).
"Mom and Dad got married at 5:45 a.m. because the Catholic church had Mass at that time on weekdays. It was 20 degrees below zero. It was just Mom, Dad, the priest and altar servers, an aunt and uncle, and an old lady sitting in back of the church." (Sounds like a perfect scene for a Greytak drawing.)
The Greytaks' union produced 12 children, all of whom grew up on their grandparent's original homestead, which expanded to a sizeable cattle ranch and grain farm.
"I was born at Sacred Heart Hospital in Havre," Greytak said. "Today, I can see the room I was born in from where I live. I didn't get very far in life, did I? "With 12 kids in the family, nobody said, 'I won't eat this.' We learned if there was something to eat, you ate it."
During their child-rearing years, Greytak's parents learned that educating 12 children would not be inexpensive. Regardless, they paid tuition for their large family to attend Havre Central School at St. Jude's Parish. Eight of the Greytek children graduated from Havre Central, including Don in 1954, and the remaining four children graduated from Havre High School.
"After high school I went to airplane mechanics school in Tulsa, Oklahoma," Greytak said. "I also got my multi-engine pilot's commercial license in my early 30s. I took all the flying tests and passed them, but I went back to the ranch for eight years with money borrowed from my family. I missed the land and the cattle. You never get over that."
Greytak, who owned an airplane, did aerial photography for insurance purposes and took photos for fire insurance companies. He also helped his father with the yearly harvest and relatives with calving and haying.
"I loved parts of ranching, but in the fall of 1964, we had one of the worst storms ever recorded. I lost 50 head of cattle, became discouraged, and I wasn't using my creativity, but I didn't know that at the time."
In 1971, Greytak began a successful business designing and building horse and stock trailers for ranchers throughout the state.
"When I was building the trailers, I spent evenings drawing new suspensions and new gate latches, but guys wanted 'a trailer just like that one.' I was getting bored.
"Then, about 1973, a young guy told me they were having a statewide antique car gathering here in Havre, so I did a sculpture of a Model T with a guy in it. It turned out a whole lot better than I expected. (The sculpture sold at an auction last year for $1,200.)
"I did likenesses of people using steel, a grinder and a torch. They should (instead) be done in wax. Then I did a tractor, then a dozen other pieces and decided I'd had it with the trailer business.
"I loved designing and didn't realize my creativity until then, so I turned the business over to my brother in '76 and started doing art full time. I'd saved some money that helped me get started.
"I did 10 art shows before I sold a piece, but after I started selling, I did OK. When my money ran low, Dad talked me into taking back the cattle in 1978 so I was a full-time rancher and artist with no time left.
"I started to draw that year, too. I'd built up a following with my sculptures. Pencil wasn't very well accepted at the time, but pencil is a lot easier. I did start to paint a little, but I have no feel for color. I'm not color-blind, but I really don't 'see color.' I like black and white and also black-and-white photography.
"I'm self-taught and have perfected techniques over time. After six or eight years, I remember saying, 'I've learned everything I can.' That was wrong.
"In the last 10 years, 99 percent of what you see is done with one pencil on the best paper possible, which allows me to get the shades I want. I started with a handful of pencils, what you would think professional artists would use. I used the best ones I could get, but they gave me lots of trouble. Then I began using a mechanical pencil - the $3.50 kind - Pentel, .3 millimeter, which is small enough.
"I've never kept track of how many prints I've sold, but I have made prints of 400 (or so) original pieces of art. I've probably done another 100 drawings. I did 70 sculptures, but not since 1979. I just burned out (on sculptures).
"Then I messed up my arm when I had an accident with a cow and calf in 1979 - several tendons - thumb wouldn't retract. So I spent the good part of the next year getting things put back together. Looking back, I've made a lot of false starts in life."
Greytak was fortunate to find a business partner to not only keep track of his growing body of work, but to sell his art for him. Kathleen Shirilla began taking his drawings to art shows throughout Montana in 1984. She had been working for the Havre school district, but soon discovered she could earn as much working with this talented artist.
"It gave me the freedom to choose where I want to go, what hours to work, and I'd hear interesting stories (along the way)," Shirilla said. "I've traveled all the way from Wisconsin to California, including an art show in Palm Springs."
"Kathy liked to travel, so I bought her a new van and sent her off," Greytak said. "She mostly was doing it herself, but then the artist had to be at the shows, too."
In the spring of 1986, Shirilla bought Havre's historic Carnegie Library, an 1,800-square-foot brick structure built in 1914, and turned it into the Old Library Gallery.
"Kathy was the only bidder at the sale," Greytak said. "Otherwise, it would be a parking lot today. The building was still in good condition, with the original boiler. We just put in a new boiler this year."
"The building has 58 windows, which provides a lot of good, natural light," Shirilla said.
Hanging on the walls of the art gallery, visitors will find a wide array of Greytak's rural Americana scenes. They include farming, ranching, airplanes, trains, classic and antique vehicles, rodeo, and family scenes, which are especially poignant: a little tike bathing in an old tin tub near the cookstove in the kitchen; kids with their dog dragging home a freshly cut Christmas tree; a nun about to discover two kids cleaning erasers on the school wall; and a stunned young man falling off his three-legged stool when old Bessie kicks over her tin milking pail.
"I recently took 200 photos of two kids for a picture for a neighbor," Greytak said. "My drawings almost grow. I will get a wonderful idea, then I start working on something and say, 'Wait a minute! Why was this a wonderful idea?'
"What's the best piece I've ever done?" he said. "The one I haven't done yet. I think nothing else is going to work, but this one will work. I'd never do another one if I didn't think it would be better than the last one."
For inspiration for his drawings, Greytak has collected between 5,000 and 6,000 old photos of times gone by in rural Montana. An avid photographer, he had also taken 65,000 to 70,000 of his own black-and-white photos.
"They're all for research," he said. "Old buildings, old cars and tractors, horses, cows, people, motorcycles ."
Greytak keeps to a regular schedule.
"If I'm actually drawing, it's so intense, five hours is enough," he said. "I have done seven hours, but that's too much. I take an hour walk every day. When it's 40 below, its not very crowded, but I'm there. I walk down to the river out at the ranch once in awhile. I work every day, but I never work on Sundays. I think we need a break."
Greytak's dedication and hard work have paid off. He's now one of Montana's most respected artists, and can be likened to another renowned Montana artist who traveled the High Plains long before Greytak.
Artist Charlie Russell immortalized 19th century life in Montana with his oil paintings, and Don Greytak, using pencil and paper, has done the same for 20th century life there. Both men have recorded and preserved for posterity wide swaths of the history of that area of the American West.
"All my success?" he pondered. "I never really knew how bad my stuff was, so I never got discouraged," he chuckled with a sense of modesty and good humor befitting a true Montana rancher.
His sense of humor, by the way, he said, probably came from his mother.
"My mom had a sense of humor," he said. "In ranching, if you didn't get something to laugh about, you probably didn't get anything out of it.
"I've pretty well quit doing shows though. I did only about 12 shows last year - Washington, Oregon, Colorado. I've cut it all out. Being I'm 68, my time is less. You start realizing if you're going to get this work done, you've got to do it now. I've still got lots of ideas, but one at a time.
"How many other people are 42 years old and are not going off in a new and exciting direction? If you've got it in you, it has to come out. In the end, I need to be true to who I am. I'm creative and the next one's gonna work."
Greytak's pioneer rancher father recently died at age 102. His longevity was most certainly a testimony to hard work and clean air. Havre, with 10,000 residents, is no longer the small town it once was, but even now, Greytak runs into people he's known his entire life who say, "I didn't know you could draw."
"I've been a surprise to some people," he said with a chuckle. "I've been given a little bit of a lot. I wish I'd been given a lot of a little bit."
Regardless, Greytak keeps on drawing, and, fortunately, a little bit of "rancher" still resides in this creative artist's soul.
"I loved riding out on the ridge when the sun was coming up," he said. "I still love to ride a good horse ."
To commemorate America's 2004 Corps of Discovery Bicentennial Celebration, Greytak has created a "Lewis & Clark Portfolio, Journey in Montana, 1805-1806." You can see and purchase this signed and limited edition on his Internet Web site: www.dongreytak.com, along with his other drawings of rural Americana scenes. The telephone number at the Old Library Gallery is 265-8165. The address is 439 Fourth Ave., Havre, MT 59501.