Last summer, I had the opportunity to be one of two artists selected for an artist in residency in the Bob Marshall Wilderness of Montana. I’m now working on the art inspired by the time I spent in the Great Bear Wilderness in Montana. I’ll be creating a body of work that will be on exhibition in Montana some time next year. I’m also writing a curriculum that I will focus on teaching visual nature journaling as well as using art to communicate the need for environmental conservation.
The residency took place last summer for two weeks in late July to mid August. My wife and I were in the Great Bear Wilderness which is part of the broader Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex that stretches from Glacier National Park to just north of Helena. The residency is called “Artist Wilderness Connection” and is made possible by a collaboration between the Flathead National Forrest Service, The Bob Marshall Wilderness Foundation, and the Hockaday Art Museum in Kalispell, MT, and Swan Valley Connections.
For the residency, my wife and I were brought in by a mule team to one of the ranger cabins that is situated on the Middle Fork of the Flathead River. This river one of the reasons that the Wild and Scenic Rivers act exists. John and Frank Craighead were key conservationist whose tireless work prevented a dam from being build at Spruce Park (where I stayed) on the Middle Fork.
We stayed in a ranger cabin for the two weeks. I trapped about 15 mice and one pack rat that were residing in the cabin before I gave up. We saw deer, black bear, grizzlies, osprey, bald eagles, squirrels, chipmunks, and a lot of ground squirrels.
During the residency, I hiked, fished, and created art for two weeks. Usually, when I spend time in Montana I’m either hunting or doing really long distance hikes. My wife and I hiked over 300 miles over the course of 30 days for our fist long distance hike around Beaverhead County in southwest Montana along the Continental Divide Trail. The following summer, we actually through hiked the Bob Marshall complex from south to north (212 miles) over 12 days. I’m still creating work inspired from that trip! For this residency, many of the trails in the area had not been cleared for a few years, so hiking them was literally impossible (alder and deadfall). Because of this, our focus really was on the river itself. The rocks have a distinct multi colored palette to them. There is a lot of red to the rock which juxtaposes the blue/green water. The water is clear, but with a tint of that glacial blue green. We also focused on fishing. Lots and lots of fishing! For me, the big take away for fishing was my fascination with the mountain whitefish. The clear water allowed me to watch them use their narrow snouts to pluck bugs from between the rocks. In the late evening they would stack up towards the back end of long pools and feed aggressively on hatching insects (tiny white flies that I used a pale blue wing olive to sort of match. Size 18). It was a feeding frenzy!
When painting landscapes, the grand…the sublime, is much easier when it comes to subject. If I can get my technique dialed in, I know that a spectacular mountain scene or a cascading river will work. For the residency, I literally could not see all of the peaks that surrounded me. Glacier was only 6 miles away, but I couldn’t’ see any of the grandiose peaks from the cabin. The river was incredibly beautiful and I did create some works inspired by the cascades just upstream of the cabin. Being in one place for two weeks, however, I kept being drawn to the more subtle subjects – the flash of a whitefish as it feeds in the last light of the day – the way the light descends down the ridge in the morning and ascends in the evening – the contour of a single tree on a skyline. I’m just now starting to piece together some of these ideas into an art form, and it is lending itself to a more introspective, experiemental approach.
I know that I can paint a fish. I have plenty of work to do to develop my skills in this area, but I know that I can do this well if I work at it. Painting a single tree using only black ink…that I’m not sure I can pull off. And that is why I need to do this for a while. I keep doing what is safe. I do what I know and keep doing that. It is a good way to get really good at something…but it can also be a way to create technically advanced, but ultimately boring art. That is why I’m pushing myself to try new mediums, techniques, and even philosophical approaches to my artmaking.
The more traditional fish paintings and landscapes will always be there. I will always be drawn to this type of art. But I feel that I am still seeking out my unique voice with these subjects.
I feel like I’m entering the next phase of my artistic career, in part due to this residency.