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.

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About Anna Paige

Anna Paige is a writer, poet, and photographer advocating for live music culture, visual and performance arts, and the creative class in Montana through writing. More >>