At 78, W. Steve Seltzer is at the top of his game. His eyes are sharp. His hands are steady. His skills are as refined as ever. Where some artists experience a decline in their golden years, Seltzer continues onward and upward—a blessing he owes to good health, luck, and an interminable sense of curiosity.
“If anything, I think my art is getting better,” he says.
Collectors and critics would be hard-pressed to disagree. Seltzer’s mastery of color and value has become even more polished with each passing year. His continued study of
art, across all genres, has produced more versatility in his techniques and more distinct originality in his style. His love of Western subjects manifests in artworks which are not only truthful in a historical sense, but in spirit as well. In fact, of all his attributes, Seltzer’s most valuable may be his perception of the West and how we, as a culture, connect with it.
“I love to paint Montana’s landscape, but I’ll often add in a Native American camp or figures from the 1800s because that’s what resonates with patrons,” he explains. “The only indication of time period is the figures’ costuming.”
In this, Seltzer reveals that these Western landscapes—and his depictions of them in art—are timeless.
It Runs in the Family
Art has always been the backdrop of Seltzer’s life. His father, Walter, had the talent to be a great painter, but he was a product of the Depression years. In those days, you were lucky if you had any job; you couldn’t hope to make a living selling paintings. (Who would buy them?) Pursuing a career in art was out of the question.
“He felt strongly he had a responsibility to feed his family,” Seltzer reflects. “I think it’s unfortunate he missed his opportunity. I got mine.”
Steve Seltzer painted his first oil painting at 17. By 23, he sold his work in the very first C.M. Russell Art Auction, and by 28, he was a full-time artist. Everyone was quick to draw parallels between him and his grandfather, O.C. Seltzer, who was (and arguably is) Great Falls’ most prolific artist after C.M. Russell. In fact, O.C. and C.M. were good friends.
“Grandpa used to sell watercolors for Russell. He did it as a favor so that Nancy wouldn’t know about the transaction. It gave Russell some walkin’ around money,” laughs Steve Seltzer.
“Russell didn’t drink, but he liked to buy drinks for his friends, Grandpa being one of them.”
O.C. Seltzer first met Charlie Russell in 1897. He was twenty years old and Charlie was thirteen years his senior. At the time, O.C. was working as a machinist (his attention to detail serving him well in the profession). Despite the age difference, O.C. and Charlie became fast friends, bonding over their mutual interests in Montana and the Old West. As the sun began to set on the Open Frontier, both men sought to record the vanishing era through art.
O.C. quit his job as a mechanist and became a full-time artist in 1926, going on to paint more than 3,000 original paintings. That same year, Charlie Russell passed away.
While many have compared the work of the two men, Steve Seltzer doesn’t think his grandfather would have taken issue playing second to Charlie.
“Nobody will ever be bigger than Russell,” he says. “But Russell was a really modest man. I think he’d be pleased with what’s happened with his legacy. And I think he’d be pleased that my grandfather is there along with him.”
Steve Seltzer has great respect for both men and is proud each time he visits the C.M. Russell Museum, which now contains the “O.C. Seltzer Room,” a rotating collection of 145 original O.C. Seltzer paintings.
While the legacies of C.M. Russell and O.C. Seltzer were already closely tied, Steve Seltzer’s career in art has only further entwined them. For years, he has worked with the C.M. Russell Museum to authenticate original Russell artworks, and he is locally renowned for being the sole artist to have participated in every Russell Art Auction since its inception in 1969.
“There were only like 20 to 25 artists that first year. When it was over, the Tribune printed an article that said ‘$25,000 Worth of Art Sold,’” he remembers. “That was the sum total. Now it’s grown to millions in sales.”
This year marks the 53rd Russell Auction and the 53rd time Seltzer will have participated in it. (The 2020 auction was cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.) Over time, the auction has experienced ups and downs, seen its fair share of celebrities, and had an immeasurable impact on the community of Great Falls.
“It’s grown into something very important,” says Seltzer, “and it’s endured.”
Seltzer doesn’t shy away from the reality of his career; it’s drawing nearer to an end. But as long as his senses remain sharp, he plans to keep painting. And he plans to keep improving.
“You never stop learning,” he says. “The best thing an artist can do—and the hardest thing an artist can do, especially if they enjoy some success—is to let go of the tried and true formula and experiment with new techniques.”
He hopes that up-and-coming artists will take this advice to heart, including local high schoolers, for whom the Seltzer family has set up an art scholarship program. At C.M. Russell High School, they have even established an O.C. Seltzer Gallery on the student campus.
You could say this completes the circle for Steve Seltzer, by linking those who inspired Steve and those who are sure to be inspired by him. For more than sixty years, he has captured the West’s enduring truths on canvas. It is his heritage. It is his legacy. And it is one of the greatest joys of his life.
The West can never die so long as great men continue to paint it.
“I’ve got a few more in me,” says Seltzer.