A Reading of Her Own

An evening dedicated to Women’s Voices will take place Thursday, Oct. 19 at MoAV Coffee (2501 Montana Avenue), hosted by Billings Area Literary Arts (BALA) and presented in conjunction with the High Plains Bookfest, which kicks off in Billings on Thursday afternoon.

When BALA was formed, it was done so in the nature of inclusion to provide a platform for literary arts and for access to the growing variety of voices in our community.

We decided to begin hosting a reading event modeled after the work our sister organization (Helena Area Literary Arts) is doing in Helena dedicated to women because it is humbling, grounding, and unifying when women speak their truth in a shared environment.

Playing off of Virgina Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own, A Reading of Her Own brings nonfiction stories from women writers and challenges the audience to connect to their experiences. These stories are often impassioned because they are so personal. Stories are not curated, but each woman who participates is given mentorship and community in which to create her work, if she needs.

I am proud of the work BALA is doing to create a space for female writers to express the things that they may not feel comfortable expressing in other settings. It is rare to attend a reading of only women writers, and that’s why we host these events.

This event is open to the public, and is pay what you will, with a suggested donation of $5 – $20 going to support Free Verse Writing Project, bringing creative writing to Montana’s Youth Detention Centers.

Get to know the women sharing their stories:


Laura Bailey is a storyteller with more than 18 years experience in journalism and freelance writing. She’s a regular contributor to numerous regional publications, and has helped dozens of entrepreneurs share their stories online. Laura’s curiosity and compassion fuels her writing process, and she’s known for her thoughtful, in-depth personal profiles. She lives in Red Lodge, where she shares her everyday adventures with her husband, three-year-old daughter, and two dogs.


Cara Chamberlain is the author of three books of poetry, Hidden Things, The Divine Botany, and Lament of the Antichrist in a Secular World and Other Poems. Her poems have appeared in numerous journals, including Nimrod, Boston Review, Passages North, Crab Orchard Review, and The Southern Review. She has received four Pushcart Prize nominations and has been a finalist in the Ashland Poetry Press, Lo-Fi Novella and Blue Light Book Award contests. She lives in Billings, Montana, and works as a freelance copy editor.


Born and raised in Montana, Ellen Kuntz spent her formative years in Billings, MT. After being gifted a camera for her 17th Birthday, Ellen developed her style of vulnerable and melancholic self-portraits. Currently, Ellen uses many mediums to make art including video, textiles, and photography. Ellen resides in Billings, MT with her two Shih Tzus’ Birdie and Frankie.


Amelia Danielle Marquez has always been an advocate for the arts. She was born and raised in Billings, and throughout her youth, Amelia enjoyed assisting theatre classes and productions at Venture Theatre. After graduating from Montana State University Billings with a degree in Communication, Amelia has shifted her primary focus of her life to politics. She now sits as the Vice Chair of the Yellowstone County Democrats, a candidate for House District 52 in Billings, and plans to continue to dedicate her extra time to the arts. Finally, her overall mission is to give a voice to trans youth all over Montana.


Molly Ouellette is a senior at MSUB studying Elementary Education and Reading. She has participated in several poetry slams and took second place at the Grand Slam held in conjunction with the High Plains Book Fest last year. Some of her hobbies include writing and performing poetry, reading, identifying different kinds of birds with an app, taking Buzzfeed personality quizzes, and trying super hard to not to hook trees while fly fishing. She aspires to be a crusader for social justice and a beekeeper. One last thing: she is a Sagittarius with a Leo Moon and a Capricorn Ascendant.


Kate Restad is a freelance writer and graphic designer hailing from Billings, Montana. Her published works, which span the realms of poetry, journalism, and academia, have appeared in Noise & Color Magazine, the Billings Gazette, the Oval Literary Magazine, the National Conference on Undergraduate Research, and others. In her free time, Kate enjoys acting, and can be seen in the upcoming production of The Whale, produced by Sacrifice Cliff Theatre Company.


Penny Ronning’s commitment to the arts, social justice, and protecting wildlife habitat is reflected in her more than 30 years of professional and volunteer service. As a business owner in Livingston, MT, she successfully served as the president of the Livingston Downtown Association and has served on the Board of Advisors of the Missoula, MT based Vital Ground Foundation since 2005. Penny created and co-founded HATCH, a non-profit organization based in Bozeman, MT. She is a co-founder of the Yellowstone County Area Human Trafficking Task Force, serves as CASA, and in 2013, founded Operation: Billings Child. Penny is a filmmaker and nature photographer. She has a Bachelor of Arts degree in Film, a Master’s degree in Business Administration, and enjoyed law school.


Ashley K. Warren began her artistic career as a ballerina and musician. She attended Concordia College on a music scholarship but graduated with an English degree, and went on to receive her MFA in creative writing from University of Southern Maine. Her fiction and poetry have appeared in Typehouse, The Examined Life, Easy Street, and in the anthology Poems Across the Big Sky II among other places. She teaches writing at Montana State University-Billings, the Big Sky Writing Workshops, in Billings public schools through the nonprofit organization Arts Without Boundaries, and in juvenile detention centers through the organization Free Verse. In 2016, she co-founded Billings Area Literary Arts out of desire to create more opportunities for writers in the community.

Ekphrasis: A Poetry & Collage Pop-up Show

Ekphrasis: orig. Greek: a vivid, often dramatic, verbal description of a visual work of art, either real or imagined.

Ekphrasis. In short, it’s art about art. It’s a beautiful word. It’s an awkward word. It’s hard to spell. It’s also hard to pronounce. I usually end up saying “eggsphrasis,” and then it becomes a brunch dish. But this word catalyzed a group of writers and artist together. Along with Michelle Dyk, Pete Tolton, Ashley Warren, Matt Taggart, Kelly Mullins, Meagan Lehr, I am pleased to announce Ekphrasis: A Poetry & Collage Pop-up Show, taking place at 6PM on Friday, September 15 at 2905.

For the past several months we’ve been prepping for Friday’s event. Now that it’s a week away, I’m feeling a bit crazy. Not only are we showing the work we’ve produced and reading the poems we’ve written (or….if you’re like me….still writing), we’re literally packing up our living rooms and reconfiguring them in the venue space, named for its address (2905 Montana Avenue). We’re calling this “sudden spaces,” a pop-up of a magnitude I feel a bit overwhelmed by (especially given the fact I just sold my home and packed up all my things, unpacked them…and am now repacking them to unpack…you get the idea).

Why? Why not, really. These little living areas transplanted from our homes will be arranged throughout the event space and serve multiple functions: exhibition galleries, performance halls for poetry readings, and art studios for expository creations. Just as we share our work, we wanted to share the spaces in which we live and work, a reflection of us as artists and writers.

Bringing all those spaces, art, and words together in one night is the culmination of our cooperative efforts, a diptych of visual media and written word. (Yeah, I didn’t know what that word meant either…but it’s art consisting of two hinged pieces).

Collage artist Matt Taggart says collage comes from the “detritus” of the world. (ANOTHER AWESOME WORD that I didn’t know before this project!)

“What drew me to collage was your tools are always right in front of you. It’s easier to visualize an outcome,” Taggart said. “With collage, your visual stimuli is already there. It’s breaking it down into a usable form. It’s already been built, but you get to restructure it.”

Writing poetry from another artist’s viewpoint isn’t without its challenges. But the artists have been very open to the poets interpretation of their work. “A picture inspires a thousand words,” said artist Michelle Dyk. “I wanted to see what poets’ words would do, even just ten words.” The results are diverse—impressionistic, playful, heartfelt, and most of all, inviting.

Join us on Friday, starting at 6PM for this one-of-a-kind-never-to-be-reproduced (mainly because I don’t ever want to move again) show. We’ll have beverages provided by Last Chance Cider Mill and Pub, though we do ask that you BYOB in the sprit of the living room. Visitors are invited to participate in producing their own small works of collage and poetry, so bring any bits of poetry or print media you may like to adapt into a new work of art. We’ll have supplies handy and a lot of good people to share their knowledge and enthusiasm for exploratory art forms.

See you there:

Ekphrasis: A Poetry & Collage Pop-up Show

2905 Montana Avenue

6-9:30PM

Accidental Gravity and Lament of the Antichrist in a Secular World

I recently had the good fortune to sit down with poets and dog lovers Bernie Quetchenbach and Cara Chamberlain for Yellowstone Public Radio. As a married couple, their literary lives intertwine in many ways and both released new books this spring.

“What we play is the music of circumstance, a ragged, delicate hymn, the soulsong of our shared and lonely lives,” writes Bernie in “Accidental Gravity,” a collection of essays that is part poetic, part introspective, but in fullness a most lovely almost lyrical composition.

I was particularly struck by the way Bernie sandwiches climate change with music of his youth. Here’s a passage from the chapter Summertime:

“Summertime. Long hot (but not so very hot) days by the lakeshore, the water not clean, but better than it was, sure, and always cool. Black terns skim the shore. Ospreys will return, with DDT banned. So much time. Out of school, lying back with the transition radio, BBF tossing out “Day Tripper” and “The Kids are Alright” along with harmless fluff like “Incense and Peppermints,” as lampreys sail in on the Saint Lawrence Seaway, waterfront houses pop up faster than cat tails along Long Pond, the war in Vietnam inches across the years toward my 18th birthday. But for now, Janis, the living is easy.”

Cara’s collection of poetry, titled “Lament of the Antichrist in a Secular World,” is wildly inventive with quite the cast of characters – therapists, virgins, prophets, apostles, kings, queens, maidens, feminine archetypes, Satan and the son of god – Adam and Eve, Delilah and Samson, Mary Magdalene, Ezekiel Among the Mall Walkers…to name a few.

As well, there’s such a strong sense of place, from the glaciered peaks to the grace of deer, the plowed fields and vanishing farms, subdivisions and retail stores.

In our interview on Yellowstone Public Radio, Cara and Bernie discuss their literary household (just like anyone else’s, with probably a few more words rolling about).

The Chinooks of Jussila YAM hosts storyteller, poet and artist Neil Jussila

Neil Jussila will tell you stories. An abstract painter, poet, Vietnam veteran, and the current artist in residence at the Yellowstone Art Museum, Jussila has a knack for painting pictures with words.

When Jussila was 16, at the urging of a family friend, he timidly took some of his art to the Montana Institute of Arts in Butte. This social organization took him in, and he began to hang with a crowd of painters. After their art sessions, they would gather at the Log Cabin Bar.

“I was intimidated. I was a real amateur,” Jussila said. “They accepted me as another adult, treated me to a beer. Real grown up stuff to a 16-year-old.”

As Jussila tells it, one night around the bar, Jackson Pollock is mentioned. The group asks, “Do you think that’s art?” Local artist Fred Mass, who had taken Jussila under his wing, lights a pipe. As a billowing cloud of smoke rolls from him, he begins to describe the arctic front that Butte was in the grips of. “It’s going to come to an end. When it comes to an end, you’ll know right away. The skies will be leaden and you’ll feel a warm wind coming in—that’s the Chinook. By the end of the day, you’ll see streams coming down the streets of Butte, people waking in the slush, and it will just feel good.”

Jussila continues to narrate the story. “Fred said, ‘I don’t think that you could depict the sensation of a Chinook any other way than through abstract painting and expressionism.’ I was young at the time when I came across that information. It stuck, and it has been one of the guiding principles in my life of art.”

Jussila, whose work is dashed with abstraction, thick brush strokes and primary colors, is working on a new series of scroll paintings. His residence at the YAM has allowed him the freedom to work with these large-scale prints, crafted from his original abstract paintings, featuring his poetry handwritten in Jussila’s characteristic script.

“It was a lot better than having ‘#48, Red Sun at Dawn,’ on there, which people cannot connect with,” he said.

Jussila, “halfway through 73,” is living a contemplative life. His paintings are about being fully in the moment, the celebration of spirit, freedom and energy, life and mind, and love.

Being the YAM’s artist in residence has been prolific for Jussila. He launched a series of miniature watercolor paintings, which he placed for sale for $55 at the front desk of the YAM. “Some days, I would make about 30 watercolors, fast and one after another, and then I did so many of them I got tired of them. I just ran out of steam.”

Jussila decided if he were to stay a full year as the resident, he “better get busy and start doing something that I’ve always been interested in doing.”

“I have to really concentrate on creative work, so I have to get cracking and doing things that I think are important.”

While in Japan during the Vietnam War, Jussila was first introduced to scroll paintings and purchased one from a pawnshop in Tokyo.

“It is my most prize possession,” he describes. “I have looked at that and looked at that over the years, and I have experimented with the idea of scroll paintings for many years.”

Many false starts and failures later, he started playing around with digital printing, which allows the paintings to be enlarged and that print hung in an affordable, elegant way.

Jussila will be in residence through October 2, 2016. His studio hours at the Gary and Melissa Oakland Artist-in-Residence Studio at the Visible Vault are Tuesday through Friday 10:00 a.m.–12:00 p.m and 1:30 p.m. – 4:15 p.m.

The Business of Art Billings creative class propels local art trade

Billings has a new claim to fame. The city is now home to the largest Artwalk in the state, featuring nearly 40 participating galleries.

“Artwalk has reached critical mass and people want to be a part of it,” said Virginia Bryan, president of Billings Artwalk, which is heading into its its 22nd season. Indeed, for Billings, the arts scene has never been more vibrant.

Part of this growth is simply economics. There’s an audience and a market. But the part that is less tangible is the enthuastic support of a diverse and vibrant artist culture and the grassroots beginnings of Artwalk.

Parties centered on creativity, with art on display, live music, bites of food, and splashes of wine, Artwalk has grown into a vital Billings event, though its beginnings are quite humble as a member-run organization with a handful of participating galleries. The first galleries to consistently hold events helped grow five attendees to a thousand plus people mingling across downtown Billings for the event.

“We only have Artwalks this good because we have been building on them for 21 years,” said Mark Sanderson, who co-owns Toucan Gallery with Allison O’Donnell. They purchased Toucan nine years ago, but the business has been in operation nearly 30 years.

Before owning Toucan, O’Donnell was an employee. She recalls the early years of Artwalk, when they would serve wine in glassware that they hand-washed. Now on average 500 people come through Toucan during an Artwalk evening.

“It’s such an open event,” O’Donnell said. “People can come and go as they please. Downtown feels so vibrant on those evenings.”

This year, Artwalk Billings merged with the Downtown Billings Association. Being under the DBA umbrella has given Artwalk much-needed administrative support, an office presence downtown, and though it was an integral part of downtown in the past, it’s now officially part of Downtown Billings.

Part of Artwalk’s success is the density of art galleries in the downtown core. Artwalkers can park and walk to a majority of galleries on the tour. Gallery presence is strong along Second Avenue, North Broadway, and Montana Avenue, and a bus takes patrons to outlying stops as far west as Crooked Line on Division and east to the edge of MetraPark.

“Billings is embracing its art community,” Bryan said. “People are genuinely excited about art and excited about the artists that live here.” She refutes a long-standing notion that there’s no culture east of the Rockies. “We are taking that outdated notion, and we are refusing to accept it. When I look at the number of artists who have either come out of Billings or who live and work in this area, or have national recognition, it’s astounding to me.”

Indeed, the walls of Billings are lined with Theodore Waddell, Sheila Miles, Kevin Red Star, Harry Koyama, Carol Hagan, Kira Fercho, Jon Lodge, and many others who choose to make Billings and the surrounding area their home and workplace.

“There are fabulous artists that choose to live and work here,” Bryan said.

Hardin-based artist Harry Koyama has run his gallery on Montana Avenue for nine years. Koyama looked at other places around town in which to open his gallery, but Montana Avenue made the most sense. “Montana Avenue is the hub of the arts district,” Koyama said. “The minute I moved to Billings things changed dramatically. Having access to large numbers of people—Here success multiplies.”

Koyama’s cultural investment in Billings has proved to be a fruitful one, but it was patiently nurtured. “It takes a community effort,” he said. “As long as the people want to see more art, there will be more.”

Indeed, you won’t find more art per square foot anywhere else in Billings. Montana Avenue is the hottest strip arts and dining real estate in town. Walking into Koyama’s gallery, a narrow building sandwiched between other galleries, restaurants, and retail shops, one is struck with a palette of vibrancy. His impressionist style allows imagination to run, placing familiar subjects as you’ve never quite seen before.

A few doors down at Toucan, the entire store is filled with handmade and regionally sourced art. From Carol Spielman’s distinct stick-legged horses to glass artist Kathy Burk to folkloric pottery artists Theresa Gong and Sue Tirrell, the range of work on display spans paintings, pottery, glass, metal, turned wood, and more.

“Small business is defined by adaptation, and that is why this place has survived,” Sanderson said. “We wanted to offer a broader selection of art with the idea that everything is handmade by an artist. Nothing in here is made in China.”

Further west, on 14th and Grand, The Frame Hut owner Helen Tolliver has artwork for sale from nearly 70 artists—many from Billings and the surrounding area.

“We have a fabulous client base that supports the local artist that we carry,” said Tolliver, who purchased the gallery and frame shop in April. Her decision to invest in the arts was a pivotal moment in her life.

“I did not want to have any regrets, and I jumped.” Tolliver was no stranger to the gallery life, having worked at The Frame Hut for 14 years prior to purchasing the business.

The Frame Hut is rich with textures and mediums of all kinds, from jewelry to the massive towering paintings. Tana Patterson’s hand-built ceramics, the fused glass creations of Mary Knapp, frescos and cleaned gourds of Sharon Fred, A M Stockhill’s paintings atop old pages of books, chunky, brightly painted originals by Kira Fercho and giclées of her 12 Tribes of Montana—it’s in each piece that Montana comes alive.

Originally published in Magic City Magazine, Dec. 2015

The Diary of David Sedaris Hilarious journal entries provide fodder for new book

I could listen to David Sedaris read from his diary for hours. He’s been keeping a log of his life since 1977. Early diary entries are painful, Sedaris describes, because he would write about his feelings. “I never write about my feelings anymore; I don’t think I have them.”

Sedaris has amassed enough entries to publish in his next book. These aren’t your typical drudge of daily reporting. Sedaris’s brain works in clever quips, and he can turn any situation into a quick-witted retelling.

“I always wonder what people do when they don’t write,” Sedaris said. “What do they do with all that?”

For Sedaris, it seems, everything is a story; it’s in the telling.

Sedaris, who has sold 10 million books worldwide in 29 countries, is a rock star of literature. With only his words and wit, he hits 44 cities every spring and fall, and appeared in Billings at the Alberta Bair Theater on Nov. 2. Considered one of the great American humorists of our time, Sedaris is incredibly approachable, staying after each reading to sign books till the line is gone.

What is most striking about Sedaris’s writing is how pleasing it sounds to the ear. His works read as though they were meant to be read out loud.

“I used to write for me to read out loud, but now I write for anyone to read aloud,” Sedaris said. “I hope that the breaks are in there, that all the signposts tell you where to pause and when to speed up. I hope that is written onto the page.”

This was my first time sitting with Sedaris, listening to him read from his body of work and share stories of his experiences—most centered on family. “Every time I walk away from my family I have a story,” Sedaris said.

I felt so normal listening to Sedaris. Since first stumbling into Naked, I’ve amassed his entire collection, reading and rereading each book for laughter, for style, to relate, to find comfort, and to just cuddle up with such well-written works.

And, as a practicing writer, I felt quite hopeful. “When you’re young, you start off copying other people. It’s normal—you do the same thing as an artist. You paint like so-and-so, and eventually you forgive yourself.”

During each tour, Sedaris gives a shout-out to a writer. Plugging Akhil Sharma’s Family Life, he continued, “I will never be able to write like Akhil Sharma. Boy I admire him, but I’m myself and at some point you accept yourself. You try to do the best you can.”

Ahh, such poignancy. Add a little wit, and his advice was complete: “I’ll do what I do and he’ll do what he does, and at the end of the day we’ll see who’s rich.”

Dance Stories Modern dance pioneer Lula Washington motivates and captivates with movement

Lula Washington didn’t grow up going to ballet on Saturday mornings. So when she first saw live dance, she was mesmerized.

“It was never part of my upbringing,” Washington said. She was the oldest of eight children growing up in poverty south Los Angeles. “The only dancing we did was in the living room around the radio or television.”

Washington was 22—a junior studying nursing at Harbor Community College—when a professor took her class to see the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. While watching the performers, Washington realized she wanted to dance professionally. Her application to UCLA’s school of dance, however, was rejected, because she was “too old” to begin a dance career.

Reflecting back, Washington said, “I did not need to allow my goal and my quest and my desire to dance hinge upon someone else’s opinion. I just felt very strongly that (dance) was what I really wanted to do, and decided I was still going got pursue it.”

Washington appealed the decision and was granted admission. She established the Black Dance Association at UCLA and founded the Los Angeles Contemporary Dance Theatre, later renamed to the Lula Washington Dance Theatre, in 1980 with her husband, Erwin. Their goal: to provide a creative outlet for minority dance artists in the inner city.

“Part of the reason I did not discover dance growing up is that I don’t recall it being readily available to me in my community. Neither were the arts prominent,” Washington said.

The contemporary modern dance company performs globally Washington’s own experimental works, as well as the works of legendary pioneers in African-American dance. Washington is the founder, creative director, and main choreographer.

“The works I create happen because of what I have experienced personally in the life that I have lived so far,” Washington said. “They are a part of who I am and where I come from.” The company’s choreography includes ballet, jazz, tap, hip hop, fusion movement styles, and traditional African dance.

In addition to Lula Washington Dance Theatre, Washington established an inner city-based school in South Los Angeles.

“It is very important that young people explore the art of moment, whether they want to be a dancer or not, because dance is a very healing art to explore at all ages,” Washington said. “It was extremely important to be able to provide this in my community.”

The organization holds an after school dance program that provides low cost and free dance classes to neighborhood children. The program, called “I Do Dance, Not Drugs!” has taught dance to more than 45,000 inner-city students.

“I believe that all the arts play a key role in motivating young people,” Washington said. “When youth have the opportunity to take part in the arts, they will naturally gravitate to what it is that will touch and motive them.”

Lula Washington Dance Theatre Company company’s performances—thought-provoking and high energy—are designed to motivate and inspire. Dancers perform works from the company’s repertoire at the Alberta Bair Theater on Wednesday, Nov. 4.

“We enjoy the opportunity to share our dance stories and be a source of inspiration, as the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater was for me when I got a chance to see them,” Washington said.

Prior to the performance, Washington will give a talk on Tuesday, Nov. 3 at 7 p.m. at the Billings Public Library. Tickets at AlbertaBairTheater.org.

Above photo courtesy Alberta Bair Theater: Lula Washington, at left, and members of Lula Washington Dance Theatre pose with students at Billings West High School on Nov. 2, 2015.

{UPDATE} View the gallery from the show here >>

Hanging with Habeck Party like it’s the Triassic

We just don’t know, do we? We live our lives planning for the next great unknown, never seeing the asteroids. Sharp reminders of our mortality, dinosaurs have intrigued humans since we first unearthed their bones.

Like many of us, Louis Habeck’s fascination with dinosaurs began when he was a kid. There’s something about the enormity of these creatures, their global dominance, and their sudden extinction that captivates childhood imaginations.

“There is so much that we can’t study. Instead, we imagine what they were,” Habeck said.

Habeck, a Billings-born artist, always wanted a life-sized dinosaur mount on his wall, though he lacked the space to create and hang one. Partial to the triceratops, Habeck envisioned creating a to-scale head and using the giant bony frill that juts from its forehead as a canvas on which to paint.

Creating a life-sized triceratops head became a reality when he was asked to be Yellowstone Art Museum’s ninth artist in residence from April – July 2015.

Liz Harding, Yellowstone Art Museum Associate Curator, described the residency as a path to becoming more established at the museum and in the artistic community. “It’s a good launching pad,” she said.

Looking at the scope of Habeck’s talent, he doesn’t need a launching pad. He’s already working on the moon. During his time at the YAM, Habeck settled into the studio, hanging mounts of imagined animals he’s created on the walls. On display were casted creatures, from bird fetuses to a donut-shaped character with a bite taken out of him to wearable masks that could be used by Muppets guesting on Where The Wild Things Are.

Meet the Creator

Habeck, born in Billings and raised on an acre and a half of land in the Heights, grew up surrounded by family pets and livestock. Habeck’s parents provided him a plethora of children’s books filled with colorful illustrations and creative, sometimes dark creatures.

“I don’t think I ever really read them,” Habeck said. “I’d just go through and look at the images. I still do. That really motivated me and informed my work.”

Habeck’s work spans many mediums. He draws, often informed by old photographs he’s collected. Others portray imagined creatures or personified animals in human attire. He paints with watercolors, dressing up his drawings in soft pastels. He sculpts real and imagined creatures, creates prints using intaglio techniques, runs a photography business taking unique portraits, and shoots events for Lilac restaurant.

Habeck’s line of business animals began as a birthday card and evolved into a series of drawings exploring the various personalities of animals through expression and attire.

“What would a moose do if he could be a human? Would he enjoy going to work?” Habeck asked. “I could be doing portraits of humans, but that’s less interesting to me. These animals are relatable and compassionate. You can feel emotions for them and treat them as if they were real.”

In his Subboreal Studios, Habeck runs what he’s dubbed the Imaginarium. This is where his three-dimensional creations come to life. These whimsical creatures are dark, yet playful, with a worried look to them.

“They might look creepy and intimidating, but they are not malicious. They are misunderstood,” said Habeck. “They have something that looks like it could be real and you believe—even though you’ve never see it before—that it could have been alive.”

Just as a person has distinctive facial features, Habeck’s creations have a relatable, sometimes worried look. They personify glum in an approachable way, their past life and struggles on display through the upturn of their eyes and the downward angle of their mouths.

“Through the eyes and a creature’s gesture and posture, I am not saying everything about them, but allowing people to look into their personality,” Habeck said. “They didn’t just become a piece on the wall without a story, a little scar, a missing tooth.”

Suspension of Disbelief

When the YAM residency was offered to him, Habeck finally had the space he needed to create a life-sized triceratops head—the largest piece he’s ever constructed. “I wanted that feeling of something massive, something that is bigger than us,” he said.

To prepare, Habeck studied drawings from fossilized records and photos of triceratops skin impressions. He read extensively on detailed bone structure and measurements of the skull. Part of his challenge to himself was to make it feel real.

“You take this bone artifact and cover it with imagination. There is a lot of flesh and muscle we can’t study,” Habeck said. “I tried to get as accurate as possible, but at a certain point, you have to take creative control.”

You take this bone artifact and cover it with imagination. There is a lot of flesh and muscle we can’t study.

This triceratops head began with sheets of pink foam board glued together to form a square. Habeck began whittling away, creating a series of gentle curves to shape the skull, imagining what muscles would be there, knowing he would add clay later.

After the foam base took shape, Habeck skinned the surface with a half-inch of oil clay, which never dries or hardens. Adding shape with clay made the form incredibly realistic, and Habeck began to tell a story with the skin details.

Avenue of Function

Building a triceratops to actual size involves a lot of simulated skin and imagined life. The push and pull of flesh over the form, the blood vessels coursing though the frill, and the varying sizes of scales and scars gives the sculpture life and a sense that it existed. In recreating and inventing scars, dimples, a smile or a frown, Habeck began to tell a story of how this dinosaur moved and lived.

“They were living and thriving and evolved for millions of years. This isn’t a dragon that someone made up,” Habeck said.

Habeck was able to view a mummified dinosaur in Bismarck, which inspired him to shape the clay with a softer, more wrinkled skin. Dinosaurs in the past have been represented as very reptilian with hard skin, yet it’s theorized that dinosaurs were more birdlike than reptile.

“You could see the layers of skin. It was incredible,” Habeck said. “I knew I wanted that esthetic.” He began implementing skin scales, obtuse hexagonal and pentagram shapes he created by stamping the clay with the end of a brass pipe, varying them in size based on the proximity on the dinosaur.

“When I started putting scales on it, I didn’t initially like the way it looked,” Habeck said. “It was a smooth form for so long, but as I added more and more, figuring out where they should be, what sizes, the mechanics of it, it started looking better. Now it’s just a matter of completing the scales.”

Habeck anticipates the final scale count will exceed 20,000.

Moving Spaces

Once the clay (more than 100 lbs of it) exterior has been carved to satisfaction, Habeck will make a silicone rubber mold of the sculpture. The process is a bit meticulous to ensure a clean mold.

Removing the silicone rubber will destroy the clay’s detail, but Habeck can recycle the clay. “If you rush the mold and have a bad cast, you are wasting hundreds of dollars.”

The final steps are to inject expanding lightweight foam into the mold to create a hollow cast. The finished cast can be painted and reproduced as many times as Habeck needs.

Though he wanted to start molding the project before leaving the YAM, Louis is content with the progress made. He moved the triceratops out of the YAM open studio into his home studio to continue working on the clay and scale details.

“I had no idea how long this would take, having never done anything of this scale and complexity,” Habeck said. “Sometimes you can’t work on something every day. I wish I had more time, but it is enjoyable to step back after working on it all day and saying, ‘It’s looking good.’”

Every step of the process, the life force of this creation seemed larger. Its presence, the grand scale of presentation struck me every time I visited Habeck. I could see the skull underneath, the saggy flesh of the neck from years of movement, the vessels popping from the frill, coursing blood into this growing bone structure.

Of his creations, Habeck said, “To empathize with them, to believe they are real—that is a big compliment to me. To treat them with a human-like compassion…If I have been successful, that is how I measure it.”

Habeck will debut his finished work at the Northwest Gallery in Powell in January, and a show date at the YAM TBA.

More info: Habeck.daportfolio.com


DID YOU KNOW?

  • Triceratops have the largest skull of any land animal in the history of the planet. A life-sized triceratops skull can reach more than eight feet across.
  • Created from foam and covered in clay, Habeck’s creation measures 6 feet tall, 4 feet wide and weighs just under 140 pounds. When cast it will weigh an estimated 30 – 40 pounds.
  • An actual Triceratops head is estimated to have weighed 1,000 pounds–10 times as much as a moose or bison head.
  • It’s been suggested that dinosaurs developed a birdlike characteristics: they were less like mammals with horns and skulls built for colliding and fighting each other and more like birds with decorative frills. The triceratops frill was a type of bone ornament for display that could be used for defense, but was not developed solely for such purpose.
  • A triceratops frill took upwards of 30 years to grow, and it grew faster when conditions were favorable, though not constantly. Triceratops went through tremendous growth periods; in a couple years they were as big as an elephant.
  • The frill was a living piece of the dinosaur, and the supraorbital horns and frill were constantly growing, creating a balancing act to help leverage and wield such horns while supporting the neck. Jaw strength was also tied to the frill. With a sharp beak for eating woody vegetation, the triceratops had huge muscles to chew such roughage.
  • Once the sculpture is finished, it will be molded so copies can be cast and painted. If cast in solid milk chocolate, it would contain 2.7 million calories. At a caloric consumption of 2,000 calories today, it would take 3.7 years to eat it.
  • More than 700 hours so far have been spent researching and sculpting this piece, which includes carving and shaping of roughly 7,000 individual scales across approximately 35% of the head’s skin surface, with an anticipated final count 20,000 scales.

This article originally appeared in Noise & Color’s final issue, published September 2015. Cover image and progress photos by Louis Habeck.

The Chrysalis Metamorphosis of the Billings Artwalk, in one live art installation

The Billings Artwalk has never been so vibrant. With nearly 40 galleries to explore, each with a plate of art that continues to change, Artwalk is no longer a strolling affair. It’s a marathon.

Autumn’s annual Artwalk, held this year on Oct. 2, is rich with new works. Art seemingly busts from its creators this time of year, a symptom of the falling leaves, or perhaps remainders of summer’s playful imprint.

To name just a few (as my art marathon was focused on a few specific artists), art enthusiasts could enjoy Louis Habeck’s molded vignettes of skin samples at the Good Earth Market—the muddled wrinkled segments painted in creatively unrealistic ways set amongst Emily Davidson’s wickedly playful and lucid paintings of creatures in aquatic tones. Cartoonist Jason Jam’s devilish monsters in pencil were crawling off the walls of the Carlin Building, while his wife Wendy’s mandalas gave a more grounding vibe. Next door Connie Dillon’s three-dimensional paintings with miniature scenes were so rich and tempting, you could almost leap into them. At Del Alma Gallery, Kevin Rose’s calming scapes of abstract impressionism made me want to curl up and sip IPAs all night and just stare at the rolling monochromatic textures. Across the street at Better To Gather was perhaps the most eccentric collection on this particular artwalk: a living art installation featuring human canvases.

Billings-based artists Michelle Dyk and April Dawn took on the subject of metamorphosis for the installation, titled “The Chrysalis.” The display, visible from the shop’s window facing Montana Avenue, featured four models treated as living canvases, their body art progressing inside as Artwalk took place.

Dyk concepted the installation to feature a surreal setting of aspen poles and a glowing chrysalis, set against a dark backdrop. Dyk’s models were painted in earth tones to resembled tree gods covered in moss with long branch-like fingers. One could imagine them crawling from the cocoon, their whimsical bodies just beginning to stretch out in the scene. Dawn painted two models with geometric patterns and donned them with floral headpieces. The two painted women, one who was nearly nine months pregnant, resembled Grecian goddesses rich with life, temptation, and fantasy.

Artwalkers strolled throughout the installation, interacting with the in-process and finished people, watching the art unfold. “There was a lot of traffic,” Dyk said. “People seemed to enjoy and be intrigued by the living art dynamic.”

One Hundred Faces Michelle Dyk on the art of connection and flash portraits

Photos by Sometimes Bryce Turcott Takes Photos

“Don’t move,” comments Ted Kim, who lingers in the doorway of C Space, watching Michelle Dyk intensely paint my 15-minute portrait. She smiles, readjusts the canvas, and gives me full attention. It’s an intense process, her brush vigorously scrolling across an emerging face while thick globs of paint traverse the canvas.

Michelle shares C Space with fellow artists Aaron Nathan and Sarah Wright. Located in Billings Open Studio (the construct of Ted Kim), C Space is one of several studios in what was formerly the wide-open third floor of the historic Kress Building in downtown Billings. The place buzzes with creation along an expansive hallway of doors, each opening to a separate workspace, yet the feeling is still open, collaborative. You can hear the shutter clicks, the paint brush flicks, and conversations buzz about you, giving a sense of excitement and energy to the space.

Michelle, whose family moved to Billings when she was 7, has a contagious enthusiasm for life and a laugh of warm, girlish charm that makes you smile. She has been cycling around art her entire life, and graduated from MSUB with a degree in fine art in 2005. She comes across unbroken, excited at the everyday, intently focused on her immediate surroundings.

Though Michelle often can be found in the studio, she’s a mobile painter. She paints in her living room, her studio, at her grandma’s, at the pub. Across all these venues she’s been painting 15-minute portraits, and she’s finally amassed 100.

The project, which she began in early 2015, wasn’t deliberate at first. She started with one. Then painted another. Her husband suggested she continue to 100. Now she has a tower of faces she’s readying for an installation at Yellowstone Valley Brewing Co. on May 15.

A mix of fluid, expression-filled faces highlighted by daylight, bar light, flashlight…the pieces are as wild and diverse as Michelle, whose fluorescent pink hair has been one of her defining features since childhood. Each portrait has a rich, deliberate color palette with striking eyes that pulse as the heart of each piece—and each was created in just 15 minutes.

Painting so many faces has taught Michelle how to be more decisive and expressive. “When you have a limited amount of time, it forces you out of your head and out of the box,” she says. “For 15 minutes, I can’t think about anything but the paint and capturing a person’s essence.”

It’s a bit excruciating when the timer goes off, Michelle admits. She’s literally had to restrain herself, hurling around the studio instead as she steps back from the painting she gave herself such a short amount of time to produce.

To begin, her subject selects from a stack of canvases primed with bright acrylic paint and glitter. “This whole thing is about a moment to create something,” Michelle said. “It’s an interactive experience, because people have a bit of control over how they present themselves to me, and picking a canvas gives them another way to participate.”

Michelle likes glitter, another indicator of her shimmery, festive personality. “It’s reflective and plays with light. I find people are like little pieces of glitter, always changing,” she says.

As she shows me various finished pieces, glitter dropping from the canvases, she reflects on the colors. “Goodness gracious, I would not have made any of those decisions if I had all the time in the world!”

The process has connected Michelle strongly to her subjects. “I look at someone, at their nose and the glean in their eye, I notice the line that their smile makes—even briefly.”

There is no revisiting. I find the beauty in what I’ve done, and I learn from it. Michelle Dyk

Through 100 portraits, Michelle has learned to accept what she’s created. “There is no revisiting. I find the beauty in what I’ve done, and I learn from it,” she says.

Michelle has painted toddlers to 80-somethings, though her subjects aren’t all hand selected. From her husband to her best friend to local artists, Michelle has painted people she’s intimately familiar with, but she’s also painted complete strangers.

“I’ve painted faces I know just as well as my own. Like breathing, it just happens. And I’ve painted faces I am not used to. If you haven’t seen someone else before, it’s brand new information.”

Michelle has painted several local artists of which she holds in high regard. When she painted John Lodge, he moved around the entire time, singing, whistling, and asking her if she could do the same.

“At one point, I was painting so fast I knocked the canvas off the easel and then caught it. John hollered, ‘Wonderful! Wonderful!’ … That may have been the best moment in my whole series.”

Looking at the body of the work, Michelle feels nothing but delighted. “All these faces…they make me happy.”

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Of the creative process, Michelle said there are faces she knows so well (including her own), it's like breathing when she paints them.

Bryce Turcotte

To get ready for my portrait, Michelle has me sit where we’ve been interviewing, a space she says I’ll be most comfortable. Around me water drops hit buckets, as the aging ceiling of the historic building gives way to the springtime rain. Her painter’s palette is rigid and mountainous, covered in colorful splats from previous portraits.

I pick a canvas of orange and red with gold sparkles. It reminds me of David Bowie. I wanted the pink one, but I’m still getting over my pink rejection from the Pepto-Bismol walls and carpet of my youth (why, I figure, I dressed in black for most of my teenage life). Still, I put on a pink lip gloss to get a bit of that girly feeling, which I hope picks up in the paint.

Michelle takes a swig of kombucha, dons an apron, and begins to gather her paints, picking colors while assessing my face. She aligns her paintbrushes, varying in thicknesses, their bristles dyed murky blue. She sets the timer and launches in.

There is a sound to what Michelle does, a scratching of brush against glitter. She grabs the canvas, picking it up off the easel as she traverses the painting with urgency. She soon quiets her stroke, but there’s deliberate movement across the canvas, her eyes raising to meet mine every handful of seconds.

I look back at her face, framed by signature pink hair and painted with yellow and blue eye shadow. She swoops in close; I smell her perfume, a scent that is instantly familiar from the many hugs we’ve exchanged.

An Abba song comes into my head…“Watching me watching you…” Damn it…why do I soundtrack everything? I find myself avoiding direct eye contact. As her eyes bounce from my face to the canvas and back, I question my inability to maintain eye contact. When our eyes meet, she smiles. I raise my right eyebrow.

“We’re going down fast,” shouts Ted. The space lacks buckets to catch the continuing rain. “Full speed ahead,” shouts Michelle. I decided to sit up straight. My head feels heavy, and I can’t stop smiling. She keeps a small, subtle upturn of mouth as she works. I watch the way her face move while she paints, the pout of her lips and the focus that she brings to the canvas.

The first 10-minute timer goes off. Michelle steps back from the work, giving herself five minutes to assess the situation before finishing the full 15 minute session. The last five minutes are a bit slowed as she focuses on detail work and the nuances she’s been observing. I do wonder about my smile—is it real? Do my eyes look tired? How’s my hair?

I consider the process, this ticking clock and being immersed in the minutes. What happens when we let our creative brains run wild? What do we gain when we allow connection to flow between us and allow imprints from other people in this fluid movement of time?

Existence is the process of painting, a fluid, experiential, conscious attempt to communicate feeling, show our unique perception, illustrate that we are the sum of our moments to moments: a snapshot and you move forward. Each interaction is just a brief stamp on our lives…but here…in this painted moment…This…It’s all we have.

The timer goes off, her lip curls up, and she exclaims, “AH!! I hate that!”

This article originally appeared in Noise & Color 5.2015. Photo outtakes from the cover shoot: