Jay Joseph Contway was born February 13, 1935 in Malta, Montana and passed away November 21, 2019 in Great Falls, Montana. He was divinely blessed with a God-given talent for western art. He painted in watercolor and oil, but as we all know, his greatest gift was his ability to sculpt in clay and cast in bronze. No one made a better cow horse than Jay Contway. His attention to detail and action made him one of the best cowboy sculptors ever known.
Jay was educated in Malta, graduating from high school in 1953. He took a job that summer with an oil crew in Oklahoma, thus beginning a life of constant travel and education. Jay later obtained a teaching certificate from Northern Montana College in Havre and took his first teaching position in Loring in 1955. He taught in Lodge Pole, Dupuyer, New Miami Hutterite Colony, Cutbank, and Great Falls. When the school year ended so did the paychecks so Jay went to work in the arena calf roping during the summer rodeo season. He won the North Central Montana Rodeo Association calf roping championship in 1964, ’65, ’66 and filled his Professional Rodeo Cowboy’s Association permit.
When the art began to sell, Jay retired from teaching. Jay bought his property west of Great Falls in the spring of 1967 by selling a rope horse to J.O. Anderson to make the down payment. Eventually Jay was able to build his own foundry, thus controlling the entire process of his work from clay to casting. He closed his foundry at the age of 77 when his legs no longer had the strength to lift a crucible filled with boiling metal. His one constant was Shirley Turner, who helped him operate his foundry for 39 years. Her contribution to his art production was as important as his own. Jay moved his casting to Montana foundries and the work went on but for Jay, it was never as much fun as when he had complete command.
The Calgary Stampede in Alberta, Canada contributed to Jay’s worldwide recognition. For 31consecutive years the rodeo committee gave a Jay Contway bronze as part of their trophy program, allowing the provision of over 160 pieces of art for the stampede. During those years Jay displayed his art at the Calgary Stampede Western Art Show. Beginning in 1984 Jay contributed to the Quick Draw Program, a scholarship fund for southern Alberta youth. Jay continued to donate for 27 years becoming the only artist to make such a contribution. He displayed his art at the National Finals Rodeo Cowboy Christmas in Las Vegas for over 30 years. Jay featured and sold his art from box stalls and auction rings, to ballrooms and exhibition halls in more towns and cities than he could count, all while gathering a following of hundreds.
Jay’s travels took him through western United States and Canada, Mexico, the islands of the Bahamas, and among the art galleries of Europe. The art in Paris was outstanding but it was a small museum in Madrid that provided Jay the greatest inspiration of all. It was here that he saw the beginning of the Bronze Age. No explanation was necessary. Jay understood what he was looking at.
Over the years Jay won numerous awards but the most important recognitions of his career were the inductions into the Calgary Stampede Western Art Show Hall of Fame in 2009, the C.M. Russell Museum Skull Society of Artists 2014 & 2015, the Montana Cowboy Hall of Fame and Western Heritage Center in 2015, and the Montana Pro-Rodeo Hall and Wall of Fame in 2016. His final salute came in September of 2019 when he received the Saddle of Honor Award from the Montana Cowboy Hall of Fame and the C.M. Russell Museum.
Jay is survived by his wife, Lynn Contway of 23 years, his children from previous marriages, Bruce Contway (Kathy), Heidi Valdez (Jerry), Ross Contway (Tina), and Jayson Contway, three grandchildren Caitlyn, Mathew and Garrett, two great grandchildren and siblings Myrtle Pence, George Contway, Cathy Kuether, Doug Contway, and Lee Dorsey. He was predeceased by his daughter, Jennifer Keller, brother James Contway and sister Patsy Burckhard.
Jay will be greatly missed by his adopted brother, Ervin Watson. Jay was deeply loved by his large Canadian family including his step children Ryan (Kellie) Cartwright, Holly (Sean) LaBrie, grandchildren Kelsey, Kayla, Connor, Cole Cartwright and Taryn, Dalton LaBrie, many brothers and sisters-in-law, nieces and nephews, many of which shared his love of horses, notably Jordan and Carson Richardson.
Donations can be made in Jay Contway’s memory to the Phillips County Museum in Malta, Montana or the C.M. Russell Museum in Great Falls, Montana.