by Ann M. Colford & r & Assassination, political intrigue and courtroom drama, set against a backdrop of xenophobia and class tensions -- sounds like the plot for a Hollywood thriller, not the subject of an art show. But sculptor Scott Fife found inspiration in a true tale of murder, state-sponsored kidnapping and legal oratory to create "Big Trouble: The Idaho Project," opening today at the Northwest Museum of Arts and Culture.

Fife fashioned three-dimensional portrait busts of the players in the 1907 Boise trial of labor boss William "Big Bill" Haywood, accused of planning the 1905 murder of Frank Steunenberg, who served as Idaho's governor from 1897 to 1901.The murder came in retaliation for Steunenberg's declaration of martial law following labor unrest six years earlier. Along with Fife's bigger-than-life heads, the show includes artifacts from the murder scene on loan from the Idaho State Historical Society and items from the MAC's collection related to the mining industry.

The title refers to the 1997 book by J. Anthony Lukas, Big Trouble, a 900-page tome that details the murder, the investigation, the trial and the social, cultural and political context in which the events unfolded. Fife says he read a review of the book and picked up a copy during a visit to Boise.

"I grew up in Idaho, in Moscow, and I'd never really heard of this event," Fife says. "I read it with great interest, finding names that are familiar. It became very intimate."

As he reflected on the story, Fife was struck by the cast of characters: "The people involved in the trial were important in American history. It was a time of concern about labor groups, about socialists and anarchists. It was a cultural upheaval, there was a lot of fear, and that made it a bigger event, especially for Idaho."

One hundred years ago this month, Steunenberg walked from his bank office in downtown Caldwell, Idaho, to his home less than a mile away. It was a Saturday evening, the day before New Year's Eve, and light snow had fallen for most of the day. The ex-governor had spent the afternoon meeting with an agent to renew his life insurance policy. He bought the evening newspaper and lingered for a time in the bar at the Saratoga Hotel, then headed for home. He opened the gate in front of his eclectic Queen Anne home and a massive explosion threw him 10 feet across the yard, shattering the front windows of his house. His horrified daughter and wife ran outside and found him lying mortally wounded in the snow. He died a few hours later.

The assassination triggered a massive manhunt. Authorities questioned a drifter whose list of aliases read like a passenger manifest. He confessed to the crime but implicated the leaders of the Western Federation of Miners, the union that had been barred from North Idaho mining districts following the bombing of the Bunker Hill and Sullivan mine concentrator during the 1899 labor dispute. After the Bunker Hill blast, Steunenberg -- then the governor -- called in the cavalry, who rounded up hundreds of union miners, the innocent as well as the guilty, and held them for months in makeshift bullpens. Several men died in captivity. Mine owners effectively shut the unions out of North Idaho's mines from that time forward; miners and union bosses blamed Steunenberg for throwing the game to the owners with the help of federal troops.

"Among miners, there were hard feelings, a lot of anger and animosity directed at the governor," Fife says. "He had been in a union himself -- he was a member of the printers' union. The union miners saw him as a friend of labor, and they felt he turned on them."

Plenty of threads in this story lead back to Spokane as well. Many of North Idaho's mine owners -- including May and Levi Hutton, John Finch and Amasa Campbell of the MAC's Campbell House, to name just a few -- lived in Spokane. Campbell and Steunenberg were close associates, and Campbell even loaned the ex-governor some money. Following the murder, Campbell sent a note of condolence to Steunenberg's brother, along with an offer to extend the term of the loan. The wealth Campbell and others gained in the mines -- wealth realized thanks to luck and the dangerous work done by miners -- enriched the civic environment of Spokane and gave the city many of the architectural and cultural treasures that we value still today.

With the characters and the history surrounding the trial, it's easy to forget that this is a contemporary art show at heart. Fife is an accomplished sculptor who has chosen to tell this particular story through the medium of cardboard and glue.

"I was taken with the book, with this story, and yet I had no idea how I could portray it in a sculptural piece," he says. "I had been in Rome and was looking at a lot of Greek and Roman republic work in which portraiture was done three-dimensionally. The pieces in Rome often had been vandalized and yet they were still intact. I wanted to bring that aspect to these pieces, so you can see glue traces and screw holes. I wanted them to have that energy, portraying a sense of a worn personal history to each piece."

Fife may draw from the artwork of antiquity, but his material -- archival-quality, acid-free cardboard -- is thoroughly contemporary and is used often behind the scenes in the very museums and galleries that show his work.

"Cardboard is a material I've used often before in making sculpture," he says. "It also helps our familiarity as a viewer. With the material, we have a real understanding of the feel of it, so the viewing then enters into another realm. Through that familiarity we have a real ease with the material, a comfortableness, and it becomes intimate."

When the trial ended, Haywood was acquitted. No one other than Orchard was ever charged in the crime. Whether justice was done is subject to speculation. In the book, Lukas concludes that Haywood and company got away with murder.

"There was a lot of money floating around, and who knows how it was spent?" asks Fife. "This is a story of people representing those with no voice against those with all the wealth. It's a bigger story than just what happened in Idaho."

"The Idaho Project" opens on Dec. 15 at the MAC and runs through May 7, 2006. Scott Fife's presentation is in the MAC Gallery at noon on Dec. 15. Tickets: $7; $5 for students and seniors; kids under 5 are free. 2316 W. First Ave. Call 456-3931

American Original: The Life and Work of John James Audubon @ Northwest Museum of Arts & Culture

Tuesdays-Sundays, 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Continues through Sept. 19
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