Watercolor painting of a deer jumping through the woods

Clarence Monegar: Between Two Worlds

Watercolor of whitetail deer leaping in forest

 I had stopped at a small out-of-the-way used bookstore in Madison, looking for anything that caught my eye. In the back corner on the floor leaning against the wall were a number of framed art works. The last one was a detailed wildlife watercolor, glass and frame covered with dust. Closer inspection showed a small arrowhead drawn in the lower right corner; I knew I had found a Wisconsin treasure and was glad to pay the small asking price.

Signature on a watercolor with the shape of an arrowhead

Clarence Boyce Monegar was born in Wittenberg Wisconsin in 1910, into a life of pride, prejudice, ancient tradition and modernization. Like many Native Americans of the time he was caught between two worlds, one that his ancestors had occupied for thousands of years, another being forced upon him. He was a full blood member of the Ho-Chunk nation, and great-grandson of Chief Joe Monegar, a legendary leader and Medicine Man. 

Clarence’s father, Thomas, grew up living the traditional life of the seminomadic agrarian, hunter gatherer of the Ho-Chunk Tribe. However, those traditions that had so long sustained his people had begun to vanish. The Ho-Chunk people, unlike most tribes, refused to be settled onto reservations out west and clung fiercely to their Wisconsin homeland. The land still supported his family, earning money harvesting cranberries and cutting wood. At a very young age Clarence began to exhibit incredible artistic talent but his father strongly discouraged him, finding no value in these skills. Hunting, fishing, trapping, harvesting cranberries, and chopping wood put food on the table and a fire in the fireplace. His mother, on the other hand, was widely known as an artist skilled in the making of traditional baskets. Impoverished as they were, she still found the time and resources to allow her children the chance to explore their talents. Scraps of paper and a charcoal were a luxury, but it was with these simple things that helped her son develop his talent. She recognized Clarence was truly gifted.   

Then tragedy struck the family; in 1918 an influenza pandemic swept the countryside.  Many people died, among them Clarence’s father and four of his siblings. It was devastating. Clarence was eight years old. Without his father, his mother struggled to survive. 

In the 1800s, Lutherans established the Bethany Indian Boarding School at Wittenberg, Wisconsin but faced difficulty from the start. Its goal was to educate native children, “and above all instruct them in that which pertains to eternal life,” wrote founder Reverend T.M. Ryyken. “These people [Ho-Chunk] seem contented with the great woods. There were plenty of wild animals for food and clothing and they saw no need in changing.” 

While the influenza outbreak brought tragedy for many, it meant prosperity for the boarding school. The school, which was closed, reopened in 1919 with Reverend Rykken as the superintendent. Children from tribes across Wisconsin were taken in at the school where they were fed, clothed, and educated. One hundred thirty-nine students in all, Clarence Monegar among them.

It was his first exposure to formal education. Art was one of the required classes. Reverend Rykken, amazed by Clarence’s innate ability, transferred him to the Indian School in Tomah where he could receive more art education. However his time there was short lived; he had to return home to help support his mother and remaining siblings. Art became a distant thought as he harvested cranberries and chopped wood, returning home each night too exhausted to even think about painting.     

A restless wanderlust was part of his nature, and at age 16, Clarence ran away and joined a wild west show. His grandfather had been a noted trick rider with Miller 101 Ranch Wild West Show, working with such notables as Geronimo, Buffalo Bill, Will Rogers and Tom Mix. Clarence worked as a wagon driver and it was this job that allowed him to first see the world, taking him all the way to California and the great Pacific Ocean. 

California, was far from home and his heart was seized by loneliness for his people and land. He longed for Wisconsin’s woods and waters. So he hopped an east-bound freight train and rode all the way back to Wittenberg. He often said that he never felt more in touch with Mother Earth than when watching the country go by from the top of a box car. 

Once back in Wisconsin, Monegar took a job as a sign painter in Black River Falls.  His reputation and success grew along with the community. He married Emma Stacy the daughter of a prominent Ho-Chunk family and the couple had four children. The loving Emma encouraged her husband to continue his wildlife painting. Their family thrived until again disaster struck.

Emma Monegar contracted tuberculosis and died. Clarence was a kind and gentle man but he was poorly suited to a role as a single father of four young children. That combined with loss of his wife drove him to the depths of despair. As is consistent with tribal tradition, Clarence married his late wife’s sister and she took over care of the children. Soon though he became unsettled, started to drink heavily, and was frequently absent from his home for days on end. He lost his job as a sign painter and the drinking got worse. Before long Clarence ended up in the Clark County jail for nonsupport, abandonment and public drunkenness. 

His time in jail had a profound effect on his life. Sober with time on his hands, he spent hours in his cell drawing detailed sketches of wildlife.  The sheriff and district attorney were so impressed by the quality of his work they provided him with art supplies. The Clark County District Attorney at the time of Clarence’s incarceration was a man that would eventually rise to great prominence, becoming chief justice of the Wisconsin Supreme Court, Bruce F. Beilfuss. 

In an unusual move, Beilfuss had Clarence paroled into his custody. They travelled together to Madison where Clarence was introduced to the artist-in-residence at the University, John Steuart Curry.  Although retired from teaching, Curry agreed to mentor the talented Monegar. Soon Clarence became well known among conservationists and wildlife enthusiasts, including Professor of Game Management Aldo Leopold. It is said that Leopold was very kind to him allowing him to spend hours studying and sketching taxidermy animals in the University collection.   

Curry entered Monegar in the University Rural Arts Show. Every painting he displayed was quickly sold and for the first time since painting signs on truck doors, Clarence was paid for his art. It was during this time that Curry encouraged him to do something that would denote his native heritage. Clarence began to draw an arrowhead in the lower right hand corner of his paintings. 

If there was anything consistent in Clarence’s life, it was change. As his popularity began its ascent, he was drafted into the army at age 35 and sent overseas to work as an ambulance driver in World War II.

When the war ended, he came back to Wisconsin only to find his mentor Curry had died. He drifted back to Black River Falls and moved in with Tilly and the children. It was short-lived; the children didn’t know him and Tilly didn’t need someone else to take care of. 

Clarence took his art supplies and walked away from his family again. Drifting from town to town he sold paintings and bartered them for things he needed. It was not uncommon to see him walking the streets of big cities and small towns with paintings rolled up under his arm. 

Then he made a bold move. Using the GI Bill to pay for his education, he enrolled in one of the most prestigious art schools in the world, The School of the Art Institute of Chicago. He stayed long enough to further refine his skills, but his spirit became restless and again he moved on. 

As always drawn back to his homeland, he returned and tried to reconnect with his family and friends but soon alienated himself to the point that he had only two things left in his life his art and alcohol. Clarence Monegar was a man trapped between many worlds. He went from a jail cell to a successful art career, from a proud father and husband to a drunken wanderer. 

In 1968 at the age of 58, Clarence Boyce Monegar died. He was sustained by the one thing life could not take from him: his talent and passion for outdoor Wisconsin. It is estimated that he created and sold several thousand paintings, most for just a few dollars.     

Today his work is held in high regard. Recognized as one Wisconsin’s most talented watercolor wildlife artists, the value of his work has steadily increased. Yet because of the vast number of paintings and how they were sold, there are still bargain priced hidden treasures to be found at flea markets, garage sales and, in my case, in the dusty corner of a used bookstore.       


Clarence Monegar: Between Two Worlds was originally published by the Wisconsin Outdoor News.

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