[The Artists Refuge Studio where I immersed myself in painting, first floor of the Hewitt Bank Building, Basin, Montana, January 2008. The set of paintings, Basin in Winter, is on the back wall.]
Yes, it is winter in Montana, perhaps extra wintry in Basin, Montana, 6000 feet above sea level.
And, it is also winter in Helena, Montana, that city with its beautiful Historical Society Museum as well as slippery black ice on its hilly sidewalks.
Jer and I spent December and January 2007-’08 in Basin, Montana and visited beautiful slippery Helena a couple of times.
So it is appropriate that Basin in Winter, a set of nine paintings done in Basin (150 or so population) should be delivered in January back to the state, to Helena.
Through a fortuitous set of circumstances, the Montana Historical Society Museum now has Basin in Winter in its art collection. When I had my Open Studio exhibit in January 2008 in Basin, Janet Sperry, a museum consultant in Helena, told me that if I ever wanted to part with Basin in Winter, to contact her. In 2011, as I was tweaking the paintings for an exhibit at Full Circle, I remembered her and somewhat to my surprise, had kept her business card. And so, after some negotiation and discussion, the paintings have been shipped and delivered to the Museum.
[This is a closer look at the set in 2008, which in this view includes a painting I ultimately took out (bottom middle) as not delivering useful information, painterly, visually, or socially. But the rest of the set, with some reworking in 2011, is pretty much the same.]
Basin is a mining town, so rocks, flung up from the bowels of the earth, were irresistible. And while I was there, I ran across a Japanese concept, the “obo,” which is a cairn-like stack of rocks, carefully selected and placed, signifying “I was here.” I loved the concept, since my interest is in being in a particular space and place. So two of the paintings are obos: I was here.
And with the “I was here” theme comes the map of where I was — a personal map, of course, not merely because it was winter and our travels mostly restricted to what we could manage on foot, but also because we were only in Basin for two months, scarcely enough time to start on our acquaintance.
This is the “map” that contains the town, with the Artist’s Refuge to scale as it appears in my mind, with Interstate 15 and the Boulder River whooshing past it. The map is more than 5 feet (66″) long so its details are lost in this web presentation. And it’s definitely a personal rendition of where we walked those icy mid-days, visiting our friends Mariah and Eli (home-schooled children who often came out to join us) and talking to the town dogs and characters. We visited mine openings, head frames, compounds of local residents, art studios, the church, many homes, and a big flume up a side hill which proved to me that I could still scramble through unprepossessing snow-covered slopes.
Unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately) our blog entries from this time were lost when we changed our blog service to WordPress (some blog posts done at the time, on the Art and Perception site still exist: links included below.) However, what stands out for me about that time and this set of paintings today is two-fold.
First, this was a most intense, complete immersion in painting I’ve ever had, and it worked perfectly for my artistic needs at the time. The apartment we lived in was in back of the studio; the studio faced the main street of Basin. I started painting in the studio around nine AM, stayed there except for meals, and often worked until 10 or 11 at night. Aside from our short wintry walks, I painted, and painted, and painted. I learned that painting tree-covered mountains or wintry abstracts differed from painting trucks and differed again from painting small town architecture and dogs. I learned that whatever kind of project I might mentally propose to do would be changed by local conditions — space and place. I learned I could figure out how to do what I dreaded and could bring myself to love the challenge.
This is the studio, or at least one version of the studio, where I worked, from the outside:
Those big windows in front were my view of the town; the dog was always referred to as the town’s mayor. Our apartment was through the gate in the very back of the long building.
The second thing I learned is that I have a need to do more than single paintings to express space and place. I did not consciously know this as I worked in Basin, but Basin in Winter is an obvious example of my unconscious already directing the nature of my work. I couldn’t be satisfied with one painting or even 22 paintings which didn’t somehow cohere into a whole. I did about 70–80 paintings in those two months, counting discards and abstracts, but it is Basin in Winter that encapsulated my experience of the place. It is more magical realism than straight landscape or abstract painting. Since being in Basin I continue to start with reportage, doing plein air paintings, but then I proceed to take the seeds that I harvest from my single paintings and produce something that goes beyond the literal land- or city-scape.
The Artists Refuge had to cease operations this fall, done in by the cost of heat and the recession. A Google search will lead you to an article in the Billings paper. For some reason, I can’t link directly to it from this blog.
And for more information on Basin, Montana, a good source is Basin, Montana, in Wikipedia. The big brick building on the left in the first photo in the Wikipedia article is the Hewitt Building in which I did my residency.
My favorite painting from this set is this one:
The High Note, the espresso bar behind the dogs, was another of the projects of the women who began and ran the Artists Refuge for so many years.
The closing of the Refuge makes me doubly grateful that my snitch of experiences, as captured in Basin in Winter will have a permanent place in its collection. Thank you Janet Sperry, Jennifer Bottomly-O’Looney, and Amanda Street Trum for helping to make that happen. And of course, even more gratitude to the Artists Refuge founders and workers, M. J Williams, Debbie Sheehan, and their many colleagues, who provided a refuge for so many of us so we could continue to grow and learn as artists and human beings. –June
For more Basin paintings,in particular the single hamlet-scapes that led to the larger set, you can check out this page on my website (click on the thumbnails for larger photos). The “Portal” paintings, shown as thumbnails on this page, were done in Basin as well.
Some observations written during my time in Basin can be found on Art and Perception: here , here, here, here, and here. The last link has full photos of all the 2008 paintings . The comments in Art and Perception are, I think, as valuable as the posts.