Hockaday exhibits rare display of private art and artifact collection

In a letter dated Jan. 14, 1931, the great Western painter O.C. Seltzer thanked a Great Falls doctor for elk meat. Seltzer told Dr. E.D. Hitchcock that he received the meat “just at the right time, and it was fine.” He went on to wish Hitchcock the best of luck in getting the elk’s head mounted, “so it will be a credit to your den.”

The artist illustrated his letter’s background with a hunter approaching a fallen elk, a herd of elk on a grassy hill, and a grizzly bear – or a “Silver-Tip,” in Seltzer’s words – standing on its hind legs in front of a yellow-orange sun.

“The next time you (sic) back into the sticks,” Seltzer concluded, “I hope you’ll get that much cherished prize, a Silver-Tip.”

The relatively mundane conversational content of Seltzer’s letter does nothing to diminish its historical intrigue. On the contrary, it provides a more enlightening glimpse into early-20th century Montana life than any policy-weighted exchange between political figures that might make a history textbook but, outside of academic and political wonk circles, is less interesting than an earnest celebration of unspoiled elk meat.

Through its words and brush strokes, Seltzer’s letter carries us to a specific time and place from our collective Western past, a trip worth taking, and we have a doctor to thank for having the opportunity to take that trip. Not Dr. Hitchcock, but Dr. Van Kirke Nelson.

Dr. Van Kirke Nelson, right, and his wife Helen.

Dr. Van Kirke Nelson, right, and his wife Helen.

The Seltzer letter is from the private collection of art, artifacts and books that Dr. Nelson, a longtime physician at Kalispell Regional Medical Center, and his wife Helen have accumulated over the course of more than a half-century. The Nelsons are recognized across the West as major collectors, donating to a long list of museums, historical societies and public schools nationwide.

Now the Flathead’s general public gets a chance to see this celebrated private collection firsthand at a Hockaday Museum of Art exhibit entitled, “A Journey Through History: Art and Artifacts from the Collection of Dr. Van Kirke and Helen Nelson,” on display through July 26.

The Hockaday is touting the exhibit as a “rare public display of elements of a world-class collection.”

“We are honored and humbled the Nelsons graciously agreed the Hockaday was the appropriate venue to present this remarkable show,” says Elizabeth Moss, the museum’s director and exhibit’s curator. “This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for the community to share the Nelsons’ passion for collecting.”

Last fall, Nelson was awarded the Kalispell Chamber of Commerce’s 2013 “Great Chief” award, a prestigious lifetime achievement honor reserved for someone who has profoundly impacted the local community through civic and volunteer work. Nelson’s legacy has left an imprint across the Flathead all the way to Helena and even to distant U.S. Senate chambers in Washington D.C.

“Every day he changed lives and made the Flathead Valley and Montana a better place to live,” former Sen. Max Baucus said on the Senate floor after Nelson announced his retirement in 2002.

Among the many highlights from his 41-year career as a physician, Nelson delivered nearly 5,000 newborn babies; helped found the ALERT Air Ambulance and Flathead Outpatient Surgical Center; lobbied in the political sphere for patients receiving inadequate treatment; carved a reputation as the valley’s largest and most welcoming provider for pregnant women on Medicaid; and mentored countless young doctors.

But through all of his tireless professional and community work, Nelson managed to find time for his other passion: collecting. He started collecting antiques six decades ago when he was a medical student, a casual hobby that blossomed into a serious pursuit over the years.

Nelson first came to Montana in the early 1950s after answering a newspaper ad for a summer camp counselor position. Working at Flathead Lake’s Blue Bay, he fell in love with Big Sky Country. He returned the following year for the same job and then for good in 1962, when he set up his Kalispell practice.

Then in 1964, as they were building their reputation as collectors, the Nelsons were invited to join the Montana Centennial Train, which, covered in murals, carried 300 Montanans on a 30-day trip to 16 cities. In Washington D.C., the Nelsons presented a Montana Centennial gold coin to President Lyndon Johnson.

Through the decades, the Nelsons’ private collection swelled to include troves of work by many of the West’s most famous late-19th and early-20th century artists. The Hockaday exhibit features pieces by Seltzer, Edgar S. Paxson, Charles Fritz, Fred Fellows, John Fery, Joseph Henry Sharp, Carl Rungius, Edward Borein and the legendary Charles Marion Russell, among others. Indigenous artifacts are also on display.

“What our overall impact has been is to try to tie in the best way that we can to keep artifacts in Montana,” the Nelsons said in a statement. “We have never sold artifacts. We have given them away to museums that have a like interest.”

Throughout the exhibit, visitors can learn more about the collection by taking a docent-guided tour on either Thursday or Saturday mornings at 10:30 a.m. Admission is $5 for adults, $4 for seniors, $2 for college students and free for both K-12 students and museum members.

The nonprofit Hockaday is located at 302 Second Ave. E. in Kalispell, and is open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Tuesday through Saturday. It can be reached at (406) 755-5268 and found online at www.hockadaymuseum.org

C. M. Russell

“Yes, The Mice People Always Make Their Nests in the Heads of the Dead Buffalo People, Ever Since the Night.” – Nelson Collection – C. M. Russell 1864-1926

O.C. Seltzer

Letter to Dr. Hitchcock of Great Falls – Nelson Collection By O.C. Seltzer

“Farewell to Yesterday” - Nelson Collection O.C. Seltzer

“Farewell to Yesterday” – Nelson Collection O.C. Seltzer