Artist Jay Rummel was born in the Prickly Pear Valley north of Helena in 1939. He studied ceramics at the University of Montana under Rudy Autio in the '60s, and, after a nine-year stint as a production potter and mold-maker in Los Angeles and Sausalito, returned to Montana for good in 1976, settling in Missoula at the tail end of the city's cultishly remembered "hip" era. In the 32 years that remained to him (he died on New Year's Eve, 1997), Rummel produced an enormous body of work: the large, fantastically detailed engravings for which he is best known (and to which any algebra-book doodler can instantly relate), but also ceramics, watercolors, music and much, much more besides. Rummel's oeuvre has yet to be catalogued to anyone's satisfaction, and discoveries are everywhere: Your Indy writer recently found a custom-painted Jay Rummel Chevy hood leaning in a corner of a dusty warehouse. Rummel's immediately recognizable art and hand-lettering grace dozens of posters for old rock shows at the Top Hat and long-gone venues like Luke's and Eddie'sonce your standard urban paper scurf sprouting up weekly on hoardings and telephone poles, now priceless ephemeral finds. Rare as hen's teeth are copies of the 45 rpm album Rummel recorded (with a dobro player whose identity is still amicably debated) and released on one-off local label Epson Records. Even Rummel's most ardent collectors acknowledge they can barely guess what might still be out there.
You wouldn't really call him obscure, though—not in Missoula. But everywhere else, it would seem, that's exactly what Jay Rummel is. The most recent edition of Smoke Signal, a comic/graphics broadsheet based in New York, prefaces 16 extravagantly beautiful pages of Rummel artwork with the astonishing claim that this portfolio has never been published outside Montana. This portfolio, it should be noted, includes some of Rummel's best-known imagery, including the so-called "Five Valleys Trilogy"—a psychedelic distillation of frontier mythology, Depression-era WPA mural and turned-on Fillmore West poster. Nothing like it anywhere, and yet: "...[T]racking down material for print was a difficult task that became an obsession. Mr. Rummel was prolific but almost completely unknown outside of Missoula, where he is considered the artist laureate of bikers, drunks, Native Americans, and women of the night," the broadsheet writes.
- Jay Rummel’s “Lady from Missoula County” is featured in New York-based broadsheet Smoke Signals.
Poring over Rummel's eye-scrambling accumulations of local minutiae, it's thrilling to imagine "discovering" him for the first time. So how did Smoke Signal discover Rummel? In a nutshell: online shopping. Publisher Gabe Fowler (who could not be reached for comment) saw a Craigslist posting for some original Rummel artwork and, intrigued, followed the online trail back to Missoula and local seller Cory McIlnay. McIlnay, who attended UM in the 1970s and returned in 1997 to raise his family, purchased his first Rummel five years ago (from local Rummel dealer/aficionado Eric Hanson) and has been collecting ever since.
"I enjoy them quite a bit," McIlnay says. "They're prominently displayed in my house."
Even so, McIlnay explains, he had recently decided to sell his collection with an eye toward retiring, and he Craigslisted accordingly. He did not anticipate having to literally dismantle his carefully framed collection for electronic scanning at the behest of a New York comics publisher who wanted to reproduce the work first. But this publisher, Fowler, was willing to pay for the necessary un-framing and re-framing, and that undertaking, McIlnay can tell you, was not cheap. He gives a terse figure: two and a quarter. Wait, is that in hundreds or thousands?
With half a century to go before 70-year posthumous copyright protections expire, it was also necessary for Fowler to obtain permission from Rummel family members to reproduce the work. McIlnay says he was attracted to the art itself as well as its potential value but harbors no mixed emotions about selling. "I'm a collector, they're an asset," he says.
Smoke Signal is a free publication. You can also download "Lady from Missoula County" and "Montana Blue," the two tracks from Rummel's folk record, free of charge at vintagevinylrevival.com. For an original Rummel, however, at this point you'll want to save a good deal more. Folks looking to spend somewhere in the middle might consider Buck's Last Wreck—a book of streetwise verse by Missoula poet laureate Dave Thomas, with illustrations by his late friend Jay Rummel—with used copies starting at just $1.39.
As of press time, limited copies of Smoke Signal were available—thanks to the efforts of local artist Theo Ellsworth—at Shakespeare & Co. and Radius Gallery. For more info, check out desertislandbrooklyn.com.
This article was updated Tue., Aug. 23, to correct the title of Buck's Last Wreck by Dave Thomas and Jay Rummel.