House, estate of famed Montana artist Ben Steele for sale
By Jackie Coffin,2023-06-02
From the paint spots on the floor to the towering pines planted by the family decades ago, the Steele family home is full of personal touch and memory.
Shirley Steele, 98, remembers the day the family moved into the custom built split-level on Cascade Avenue more than 60 years ago.
“Everything that you keep, you keep because of the memories of the people and the events and all the friends. That's what's hard to give up. It's not the actual thing it's the memories connected with it," said Shirley Steele, a Billings artist and widow of artist Ben Steele.
The house itself has a story to tell, but it's the family inside who left a legacy in the world of Montana art, and Ben Steele's story is part of American history.
“He always thought art and artists was like a big mystery. It was magic and never dreamed of being an artist growing up," Shirley Steele said.
Ben Steele, originally from Roundup, joined the Army Air Corps in World War II and survived the Bataan Death March and 1,244 days in a Japanese POW camp.
Shirley said it was the art that helped him survive.
“They all had dysentery and malaria. And I think he also had pneumonia, and he had an infection in his foot. He had a whole list of things. So while he was trying to get his health back, he couldn't walk. He was so weak and he felt he was losing his mind. So he started to draw," Shirley said.
His drawings of life in the prison camp led him to national fame, but Shirley remembers the years of sketches, watercolor, and oil paintings of his beloved Montana, done in the family home.
"He had a lot of favorite rivers," Shirley said. "The Madison, the Stillwater, the Yellowstone and the Bighorn. And he fished them all."
Living with an artist, Shirley says it soon became apparent that Ben needed a space to work.
“Our son would paint with Ben, and I think he was about four. So he was going down and painting on Ben's watercolors. And then when Ben painted with oils, the fumes would come up. So we built the studio," Shirley said.
Ben died in 2016 at the age of 99 and Shirley moved out of the home three years ago into an assisted living facility.
Her daughter, Julie Jorgenson, says getting the sale together has been a long process, especially in handling Ben's large catalogue of art.
"We took a lot of paintings and donated them to different museums," Jorgenson said.
Most of Ben Steele's paintings are held by family, private and museum collections, in his namesake middle school on Grand Ave., and in a new art museum opening on the University of Montana campus.
“I want to share him. I hope everyone gets a piece of him, because he was so amazing. I’m willing to share as much as I can," Jorgenson said.
The Steele House at 2425 Cascade Ave. is on the market and the estate sale goes on through Saturday.