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

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:


  • 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.”


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:

Sarah Morris Conjuror of Solace

A Sarah Morris painting seems lifted from a familiar drive, where expanses of highway open across hundred of miles, where mountains parade across the skyline, and where the road seems endless—only the sky can cap its winding existence. Like driving such a long, familiar road, Sarah’s paintings inspire comfort, a sense of time and place, and a luminous feeling only Montana can give.

We're living in the middle of this world-class scenery. I let my imagination take it from there. Sarah Morris

Sarah paints in long expanses and bright, vivid colors with the aide of photos she takes on road trips. These familiar images are rendered new though Sarah’s filter, one of lucid lines and dynamic tones, where she captures some of the most insanely beautify skies cut by curving roads leading into Montana mountains.


It’s a familiar scene, one we’ve passed a thousand times, yet perhaps never fully acknowledged. Amongst the sound of highway—the monotonous whirr of the vehicle’s engine lulling us into contemplation—the mountains loom, their presence a form of therapy, a conjuror of solace.

“Being on the road is really therapeutic—almost scary,” Sarah said. “You can be so deep in thought while also operating heavy machinery.”

Painting through pain

Sarah has always felt like an older person in a younger person’s body. She was widowed at age 19, shortly after her daughter was born. From such pain she found art a comfort, something tangible to create from her anguish. Now her mid-20s with a 7-year-old, Sarah embraces her surroundings and the creativity that has evolved our of her circumstances.

“So many females don’t realize what a struggle it was 50 years ago (to be a female artist). I feel that I am privileged to be doing this and actually be taken seriously,” Sarah said.

Sarah and her daughter’s home, which she purchased on the south side of Billings in her early 20s, provides her a painting studio and a sense of peace, and it grounds her. Like a cook creating a meal from scratch in a home kitchen, Sarah paints in her dining room, often while friends gather in the adjacent living room, plucking guitars and talking amongst themselves.

“Some artists are really reserved, but I’m the opposite,” Sarah said. “I choose to paint in my dining room; it’s where people gather. Even if I don’t say anything, I am still part of a conversation.”

Sarah likens painting to problem solving. “I like to think that painting puts my brain in order and brings clarity to any issue that I have,” she said. “This has aided me in getting over things.” Other times Sarah feels stagnant, but she sees this as part of the creative process. “Sometimes you have this block—sometimes you have to be unproductive. That is human character.”

Becoming Sarah Morris

Sarah was 15 when she finished her first painting, which currently hangs in her best friend’s kitchen. “Hopefully she can sell it and retire someday,” Sarah said with a sly grin. A charming 26-year-old and Billings native, Sarah’s charisma stems from her intensely personal nature. She surrounds herself with the things that bring her happiness—friends, music, and art. Her smile is contagious, her curly hair charismatic, and when she paints, all that personality pours onto the canvas.

Sarah attended Montana State Univerisy-Billings, originally pursuing an art education degree. Realizing she lacked patience to teach art, but had the passion to create it, Sarah switched to a fine arts major. In MSU-B’s art department, Sarah cultivated an interest in watercolor.

“(Watercolor) really developed how I paint with acrylics,” Sarah said. “I’m not that patient, and watercolor made me a little more patient in that it’s less forgiving than other mediums. You really have to plan your work and wait for it to dry completely before moving on.”

Such a technique set off Sarah’s anxiety, an anxiety she feels made her grow as an artist and evolve into her main medium—acrylics. “I like to handle anxiety in a productive way,” Sarah said. “Having (anxiety) means I’m taking a leap—it is not something that makes me curl up.”

In an idealistic world, Sarah figures she could paint pictures that aren’t about selling. But for her, there’s always hunger involved, which makes her paintings all the more urgent.

To pursue this hunger, Sarah left her home for the Hawaiian island of Oʻahu. “It was there that I felt this drive to feel real hunger,” she said. “If I wanted to eat that day, I had to sell enough paintings to pay for my gas and my food.”

Merging Hawaii and Montana

It wasn’t long on O’ahu till Sarah got island fever. “I needed our wide open spaces and our friendly faces,” she said. “I needed to get lost.” She returned to Montana in mid-December, and spent the frigid end of winter in her house painting.

“I did nothing but paint how I felt,” Sarah said. “I didn’t realize was how many people in the world are so envious that we live here. Hawaii was paradise to me, but I also realized what a paradise I had here.”

This was a new start for Sarah. Feeling so much emotion for Montana, her painting took on a different style.

“I wanted to bring back this young, contemporary art going on. Everyone appreciated the beauty of Hawaii, yet here so many of the young artists aren’t grasping that Montana is a part of them. It is emotionally overwhelming. It’s like sitting in front a 40-foot wave.”

Sarah’s art has evolved since her time in school and her time in Hawaii. “I eventually reached this point of not needing to prove my artist ability, which gave me the freedom to paint things that my emotions wanted me to paint,” she said.

Not setting out to prove herself, Sarah found her niche. “When I switched to making my painting about me and not what people think about it is when I created a fan base.”

Originally published in Noise and Color, January 2013. Photos by Ben Cooper.

Carol Spielman Color and Community

The walls of Carol Spielman’s childhood bedroom weren’t plastered with posters of teen heartthrobs and movie stars. Instead, she pinned the art of Matisse, Rauschenberg, Picasso, and The Fauves.

Spielman grew up on Orcas Island, the largest of Washington’s San Juan Islands. Though the island was rural, the location cultivated creativity. Spielman recalls residents growing their food, working with leather, crafting jewelry, and painting watercolors to sell during tourist season.

Spielman started working at age 14 and graduated in a class of 25 students. Her pension for art was cultivated by her great aunt, a modern artist living in Seattle. She would take Spielman to contemporary art exhibits and encourage her to analyze art, its textures, layers, and the varying degrees of color—even within a seemingly stark, white Rauschenberg. After such outings, Spielman would return home with a poster of her favorite artist to hang on her wall.

“After Midnight” by Carol Spielman

Spielman, who now lives in Billings, has developed an unmistakable, uniquely western style. Her elongated horses, created by layers of acrylics and washed and scraped numerous times, have a personality derived from childhood.

While living on Orcas Island, Spielman was captivated by horses and would ride bareback along the beach. Her love of horses translates into her majestic pieces, full of evocative colors and rich textures. Her background in modern art also makes an appearance through techniques of minimalism, where she’ll strip the subject down to its essence, embodying the horse with overlapping layers of paint and texture.

Spielman left Orcas Island to attend the University of Washington. She began taking art classes, but it would be another 20 years before she finished her degree. Spielman’s life diverged from college into the fashion world, where she worked her way from gift box assembly to becoming a buyer for the northwest department store.

While buying for Nordstroms in Utah, Spielman met her husband Jim, a ski instructor, and their path brought them to Billings where Jim—in an effort to find work during the off-season—started up a successful road striping business. They’ve been residing in Billings for 20+ years, raising their two daughters, and consider Billings their home.

“I like that you can go in the grocery store and you know people,” Spielman said. “I grew up that way, so for me it fits. I don’t like to be in a big city where you’re an unknown entity; I like the interaction.”

It wasn’t until Spielman’s children were grown and off to college that she ventured back to finish her degree. She obtained her Bachelor’s of Fine Arts from Montana State University Billings. During her schooling, she poured bronzed, painted, worked with melting glass, photography, silkscreen, prints, welded, and toyed with ceramics.

“It’s under the radar how great MSUB’s art program is,” Spielman said.

A minimalist approach

Spielman’s horses are well known around Billings, yet her portfolio is full of images of the west: cowboys riding in a line, animals in the wild, farmers in the field.

The rich colors and thick textures of Spielman’s work remind of oil paintings, yet she’s strictly an acrylic painter. Perhaps by default, as when she was obtaining her degree the classroom didn’t have proper ventilation, so oils were out of the equation.

Spielman makes acrylics her own, evolving her style into more primitive forms, similar to pictographs. “I want the viewer to figure out what my images are,” Spielman said. “It’s ambiguous in a way, paired down to the essence of what you see—shapes and color.” She’s also heavily influenced by art of the 1950s, when bright colors reigned supreme.

Spielman was the fourth Artist in Residence at the Yellowstone Art Museum. During her time at the YAM, Spielman worked closely with the educational department and taught children and high schoolers alike the joys of painting. She also taught an art class at Crow Agency.

“In Billings there’s a wealth of people from all over,” Spielman said. “I meet so many interesting people. I find their insights and thoughts fascinating.”

Giving back

Spielman has a philanthropic approach to painting. She donates art to auctions and charities to help raise money for worthy causes. “I love doing it, and the rewards are huge. I’m thrilled that someone wants to buy my work, and that money can go toward a good cause.” In 2012 alone, Spielman donated 14 paintings, with three months still to give. “It’s so rewarding and worth it to me.”

Teaching is another way Spielman gives back. “Children are really open. It’s fun to get their insights, reactions, energy, and spirit; it’s contagious. I’m a messy painter, so I like to get them making a mess. Art is a great way to express yourself, and the horse—especially with kids—is such a beloved animal.”

Find Carol Spielman’s art at Toucan (2505 Montana Avenue), Visions West Galleries (Bozeman, Livingston, Denver), Dana Gallery (Missoula), RARE Gallery of Fine Art (Jackson Hole), Terzian Galleries (Park City, Utah), Coda Gallery (Palm Dessert, Calif., Park City, Utah).

Originally published in Magic City Magazine, Nov. 2012

Clyde Aspevig’s symphony of oils

At first glance, a Clyde Aspevig oil painting appears to be a snapshot from a moment in time—something you’d imagine only a photograph could capture. Looking deeper into the layers of paint, brush strokes converge into a melding of color and shape, as though the painting were a musical composition.

“A photograph is going to show a very cold, mechanical image,” Aspevig said, “but a painting shows all the human intuition and qualities that make our interpretation of nature beautiful.”

Aspen Pond
Aspen Pond

Aspevig paints naturalistic landscapes in the ways that composers create music—describing the syncopation of shapes in his paintings like visual notes on a page. Orchestrating his works, Aspevig softens the scene as a musician would apply pianissimo to a quiet section of music, then builds toward the center of interest in the piece with powerful brush strokes—building a crescendo of oil paints and textures.

Music, just like art, is innate. It's something that we have to do. It's a part of us. Clyde Aspevig

Aspevig describes art and music as interrelated, as both are the earliest forms of expression. “Music, just like art, is innate. It’s something that we have to do. It’s a part of us,” he said.

When Aspevig paints, he looks at his surroundings in an abstract form, taking into account the shapes. Even though his paintings seem detailed, his landscapes are composed of abstractions. “I don’t paint every leaf on a tree and every blade of grass. I paint the idea of it—a symbol of it.”

Aspevig, who grew up near Rudyard in rural northern Montana, didn’t have access to an arts education, but was fortunate to have parents who understood and encouraged his passion for painting. Though he dabbled in watercolors in college, Aspevig said oil painting has consumed his life. “The fun thing about oil painting is that it’s more forgiving than watercolor. Oil paints have a lot more flexibility and you get to try all these different possibilities.”

Big Sur
Big Sur

What brought you to the medium of paint?
From kindergarten on, I was always dabbing in art: watercolor, drawing, pen and ink. One summer, when I was 10, I broke my leg in a horse riding accident. I was staying with my uncle at the time, and he got me started in oils.

How did growing up in Montana influence your artwork?
Growing up on the highline, the big sky and the flat plains dominated the landscape. Sitting on the tractors as a young boy, looking at the sky and nature, watching the raptors and hawks following the plow, I developed this attachment to the land that any farmer or rancher understands. That had a huge impact on my life. Landscape is what I was destined to create.

Tell me a bit about your technique.
I used to think if I copied every detail, the painting would be more realistic, but that is not the way the human mind sees. We don’t see with our eyes, we see with our brains. I don’t pay attention to detail. I rely on an intuitive reaction to the environment—I have to make up certain symbols in a very immediate way, which helps create my own personal style.

Aspevig’s fifth book, “Visual Music – The Landscapes of Clyde Aspevig” is available for order at Aspevig’s website or by calling Juniper Ridge Studios at 294-5677.

Article originally published in Magic City Magazine, April 2012.

Carol Hagan Colorful Intoxication

The beauty of a Carol Hagan painting cannot be quantified, but rather its allure rests in the richness of vivid color and thick texture, and in the visual honesty her artwork offers.

When Hagan paints, the eyes of her subject are the first to immerge—bright, vivid, and the gateway to understanding Hagan’s work. Through these expressive eyes, Hagan communicates the virtue and integrity of her animal subjects, most of which she’s photographed before beginning to paint.

Fiesta Coyote
Fiesta Coyote

Hagan begins her work by building a relationship with the animal, photographing it, and working from these photographs to capture the essence of their interaction. Such a process makes Hagan’s animal subjects spring from the canvas, their personality further heightened through her use of color.

I’ve always worked with as many colors as I could get my hands on. Carol Hagan

“Color is intoxicating to work with,” Hagan said. “I’ve always worked with as many colors as I could get my hands on.”

Hagan, a self-taught artist, describes vibrant color as the backbone of her work. Though she began painting in acrylics to avoid introducing toxic paint fumes into her home, she switched to oils to achieve richness and viscosity only an oil paint can provide.

With the support of her husband Pat, Hagan moved her studio from the family kitchen to a workspace attached to the couple’s home south of Billings, and she has been working in the medium ever since.

Hagan’s studio—permeated with the aroma of oil paints—is crowded with her works in process. Baby barn owls peer out from the canvas, their majestic allure captured in layer upon layer of warmly colored oils. Animated bears, their disheveled fur carved from palette knife strokes, gaze from the canvas. And horses, their dignified faces conveying much personality, evolve in the workspace.

“Obviously I love animals,” Hagan said, indicating her favorite subjects to paint are bears and horses. “What little girl never wanted a horse?”

Along Moose Creek

Hagan describes herself as fortunate to live in a pastoral setting where beauty and inspiration are in such abundance. “(Horses) are such an elegant animal, and I’ve always been drawn to them. Bears, too, are a favorite of mine. They have such personalities, and their coats lend themselves incredibly well to experimenting with different colors.”

To achieve such rich texture and color, Hagan’s paintings have upwards of 30 layers of paint, so she rotates the art around her studio, working on a handful at a time as others dry.

“(Painting) is a slow process for me,” Hagan said, explaining a painting will typically take upwards of three weeks to complete. “The fun part is building it up and standing back and taking my time with it.”

Describe your process of painting.
I try not to box myself in by trying to be someone else’s style. When you look at someone’s work and can say, “That’s a Kevin Red Star,” or “That’s Rocky Hawkins” just by a glance, it is because that work comes out of them uninhibited, and it’s their personal style. It comes out and flows through them, and that is what I want to see through me is what flows out of me. I paint by feel; it’s more of an expression.

What led you into painting?
I picked up the paintbrush purely as a form of self-expression. I did not have any intention of selling my paintings or showing them; they were just for me. Someone saw one and asked if they could buy it. It took me by surprise. I loved painting and just the fact that someone would want to having it on their wall meant a lot to me…I really didn’t think that it would continue to evolve into this full-time business.

Hagan’s original works are on display in art galleries in Bozeman, Livingston, Whitefish, Red Lodge, Jackson Hole, and Santa Fe, and her prints can be viewed at Rimrock Art and Frame in Billings. For gallery listings or to contact Hagan, visit

Originally published in Magic City Magazine, Nov. 2011

Julie Pederson Atkins Detail in Graphite

Julie Pederson Atkins describes working with pencil on paper as though she’s working with clay. “It is a matter of caressing the paper,” Atkins said. “I baby it. Paper isn’t just a surface to me. Right from the beginning I want it to be transformed.”

Adkins is drawn to people, animals, and landscapes for subject matter. Each piece of art has distinct mystery with a sense of a captured moment in time. Each line of the pencil is blended into a perfect replication of the subject, the subtle grays melting together to create form. She describes her technique as “all over the place” because she uses black to white and all the grays in-between.

“I love to draw people and their expression. I want to capture them as them—not as a posed person, but more so a true representation of them,” she said.

Graphite drawing of Julie’s father

Born in North Dakota, Atkins grew up mainly in Montana from a young age. She studied fine art in Bozeman, and has resided in Billings since the late 80s. She turned to visual arts because she’d always loved to draw.

“My first memory is from when I began drawing,” Atkins said. “I must have been four and I don’t know if I had seen a lot of other drawings, per say, but I do remember thinking I want to make that look as real as possible.” The drawing, a simple coffee table and loveseat in her family’s living room, began her obsession with the medium.

“I just drew all the time,” Atkins said. Trees, animals, blades of grass—her atmosphere became her muse. She was drawn to the medium because a pencil and piece of paper “is always there; it’s always available,” she said.

Atkins reflected on her father, who would sketch small pictures for her as she watched. “He wasn’t an artist, but he just had fun doing it. He’d laugh, and I thought, ‘Hey, that’s what I want to do.’”

Was drawing an easy form to embrace?
I am the kind of person that has to have something to create. My hands have to be busy creating something all the time. There are times that my husband might say ‘Let’s do something else,’ and I can’t because I am stuck in that mode where it is all that I can do. I do think a lot of artists are like that; hopefully I am not the only one.

What attracts you to portraits and landscapes?
I mostly paint landscapes. There is detail, and I like to create large-scale with lots of contrasts. Pencil work lends itself to more realism. For portraits, it’s the natural person, not a posed person. If I can catch them off guard that’s better. I love textures and portraying hair and fur and things like that. I like tall blades of grass, leaves in the trees in a distance, or peeling paint off old barns. And there is something about wheat fields. We farmed in North Dakota, and that is what I know. Everything I do comes from where I grew up.

Download the article, originally published in Magic City Magazine.