Rudy Autio’s legacy is tangible in his work, represented in his signature ceramics in public places and private collections around the globe. But beyond the art, he also leaves behind a vibrant community of Montana artists and thinkers that he, in no small way, helped raise.
“Rudy lived with wonderful dignity,” said Beth Lo, ceramics professor at the University of Montana and a former student. “He’s touched people deeply in many, many walks of life.”
Autio died Wednesday at his home in Missoula after a battle with leukemia. He was 80.
Born on Oct. 8, 1926 to Finnish immigrants, Autio’s father was miner and his mother worked as a cook. He learned to draw in depression era Butte, Montana and later, upon returning from navy service, earned a Bachelor’s degree in art from Montana State University. There he fell in love with ceramics and his wife, Lela.
In the early 1950s, Autio met Helena brick-maker Archie Bray, and with lifetime friend, Peter Voulkos, formed an artistic union that would turn the ceramics world upside-down.
Autio and Voulkos were the first resident artists at the Archie Bray Foundation in Helena, a nonprofit dedicated to the enrichment if the ceramic arts. Taking a cue from the abstract impressionists of the time, they experimented with “wild sculpture in clay.” And after obtaining a Master’s in fine art from Washington State University, Autio became the resident director of the Archie Bray Foundation. The move helped cement the foundation as a hub of creativity for ceramicists from all over the world.
“I would be hard pressed to find a ceramicist in Montana that wasn’t affected by his talent, his generosity and his inspiration,” said Mike Kurz from the Clay Studio in Missoula.
In 1957, Autio founded the ceramics department at the University of Montana. He sculpted the life-sized, bronze grizzly bear that sits in the center of campus, saying later it took him a year to create UM’s trademark statue.
During his 28-year tenure at UM, Autio inspired thousands of students and retired from the school as Professor Emeritus from the School of Fine Arts.
Local artist Doug Baldwin took a ceramics class from Autio in 1958 and never looked back. Autio arraigned for Baldwin to receive a ceramics scholarship from the Brooklyn Museum Art School. This was characteristic of the support Autio shared with his students, Baldwin said.
“We could never have had the opportunity to do what we did without his support,” Baldwin said.
And while Autio could have moved to a more lucrative art market, he preferred to stay home in Montana, Kurz said.
“He was trying to make a living as an artist,” Kurz said. “He really did make an effort to stay here.”
Autio continued working until shortly before his death. He created large figures, often of the female form or based on the western experience, as with the horse sculptures he was famous for. His public art pieces are on display in Tokyo and Helsinki and include the tile mural on Missoula’s Madison Street Fire Station and a tapestry in UM’s Performing Arts Building.
“He just took ceramics to a totally different level,” Hannah Fisher, clay studio diretor said. “It’s a sad day for us all.”
Memorial services are not yet scheduled and will be arraigned by the Cremation Burial Society of the Rockies.