The Legendary Director Says Farewell to His Precious Art
BY TANNER STRICKLAND
Don Ellis was never into modern art until it was forced upon him by one of his clients. After running a resort outside Cooke City for many summers, he and his family moved to Livingston, where previously they had spent winters. Their home was at first merely a “basement with a roof,” but as Ellis expanded the house it became large enough to house his sizable collection of Native American and Western art and artifacts.
Few would ever guess that the house also once held almost a dozen works painted by the most renowned artist of modern times, Pablo Picasso. And the paintings’ owner-none other than the late movie director Sam Peckinpaugh.
During and after his brush with modern art, Ellis did carpentry and remodeling for Livingston residents, including the famous director (The Wild Bunch, Straw Dogs, The Osterman Weekend). Ellis remembers the day years ago when Peckinpaugh arranged to meet him at First Interstate Bank. Peckinpaugh had several original Picassos stored in the bank’s basement vault, and he needed them taken to the airport in Bozeman. Peckinpaugh was planning to sell the paintings in London, and had arranged for them to be shipped on the last flight out of town. “In those days, it wasn’t unusual to still be waiting on Sam to get out of bed at four in the afternoon,” Ellis said, “and I knew there was no way we were going to get those paintings on that flight.”
Each one of his paintings had to be uncrated, inspected, documented, then re-sealed for the long journey. While it is unclear exactly which of Picasso’s famed works were actually in the First Interstate vault, Ellis is certain they were among the larger ones: some up to four by four feet. By the time the inspection was complete, Sam was anxious to get to the airport. “He just told me ‘Do the best you can’,” Ellis said. “I knew there was no way I was going to make it, but I had to try. I think I may have broken the speed limit a little bit that day.” When asked if there was a speed limit on the Montana Interstate in the late seventies, when all of this took place, Ellis admitted, “Well, I guess I had one for myself. And I sure did break that.”
Ellis had worked for Peckin-paugh quite a while by the time he was asked to transport the precious cargo. “I guess I remodeled his entire suite up there at the Murray [Hotel].” In addition to renovating the director’s living quarters in town, Ellis also built the man a cabin “way up in the woods” and supplied him with a teepee to go with it. Since then, Ellis had built and then sold his teepee-building business, with his teepees ending up in places as dispersed as Ted Turner’s ranch, the Crow Reservation, and the Smithsonian Museum. Many of his teepees are painted with original and traditional designs by his wife, Marcy. These teepees and the artwork that adorns them are as useful as they are aesthetic, and while not readily apparent, one wonders if the lines and geometrics recurring on almost every teepee have some relation to Picasso’s abstractions.
For all of his concern and haste, Ellis was correct in his assumption that the precious cargo would never make its scheduled flight. He was left at the airport with eleven, or-so, paintings by the most famous artists of the 20th century, paintings that heretofore had reposed in a federally insured bank vault. Ellis reviewed the facts: the bank was closed, he knew better than to disturb the artwork’s owner, and the only option for the evening seemed to be not a basement vault, but a basement-his own. With great care and respect for their worth, he unloaded and stored the works with as much secrecy as is possible in a small town.
Although Ellis’s hand-built home is stuffed full of fascinating Western memorabilia, the house does not necessarily lend itself to impressions of modern art, and Ellis himself professes no love for any of Picasso’s works. However out of place the paintings might have been, they made their stay for the weekend in his home-millions of dollars worth of precious art. Some people would have been mightily impressed by this honor, but for the most part, Ellis recalls, he was just scared something would terrible would happen.
Ellis arranged for the paintings to go out on a plane the next Monday. He delivered them intact and without incident, relieved to be rid of his beautiful burden. And while Livingston now boasts a Main Street dominated by art galleries, summer art walks, and an active arts community, sentiments toward housing such high-value works would probably be met with ambivalence here, given the town’s jadedness toward such things. Don Ellis certainly wouldn’t trade his arrowheads and teepees for any of those “colored lines,” as he puts it. Beauty is truly in the eye of the beholder.
Since those days, Ellis has been creating his own art. He crafts crosses out of nails and wire, some large enough to be “cowboy alters” and some dainty enough to be worn as necklaces. A man with diverse lines of work, and a home décor ranging from windows made from Yellowstone National Park wagon wheels to teepees perched in his backyard, Ellis has many more stories about Sam Peckinpaugh, a man known for raucous antics, but those might be best left untold. Or perhaps they’re just not fit to print.