It’s been a long time since Bye Bitney stood in the Hockaday Museum of Art in Kalispell to talk about his work. But after a 24-year absence from showing locally, the quiet, unassuming and celebrated Flathead Valley artist is again displaying his oil paintings as part of the museum’s current exhibit, Paint Outside the Lines: Montana Impressionists.
When Bitney is first asked about one of the four new paintings he’s created for the show, his hands are deep in his pockets and his posture reserved—until, that is, he starts rolling, explaining how he approaches each brushstroke. Then he begins moving his hands over the work like he’s still working on it, shadowing the lines as if he’s holding a brush.
“At first glance you might not understand what’s going on,” Bitney says of “Nola,” a portrait of New Orleans chefs working in a busy kitchen. The Impressionist style of the painting makes it seem almost like a short video clip, capturing a series of moments instead of just one. “What I wanted to work with was random pattern and movement,” Bitney says.
By “random pattern,” a seemingly contradictory term, Bitney is referring to the lack of an obvious lighting pattern in “Nola.” It’s an example, he says, of something he often does—choose subjects for what they allow him to do as a painter, rather than for any intrinsic interest in the subject itself. That approach frequently finds Bitney more engrossed in individual brushstrokes than in the integrity of the object he’s painting. For example, he points to a particular stroke in “Nola” that starts on the shoulder of one chef and flares off into the background, blending into the face of another.
“That’s just a really pretty stroke,” he says, noting how the abstract style helps convey movement within the painting.
Born in Kalispell, Bitney taught himself how to paint by looking through art books and practicing; he never received a formal arts education.
“I just emulated the artists I admired,” he says. “If you do that, eventually you find your own style and voice.”
The books that received most of Bitney’s attention were those featuring Russian Impressionist Nicoli Fechin and American Impressionist John Singer Sargent.
“Their styles are different,” Bitney says, “but what I really admire about both of them is their draftsmanship and the surface quality of their paint.”
After developing his own style through years of practice and study, Bitney’s work broke out of the Flathead in the 1980s, when his aunt and uncle took a couple of his paintings with them on a vacation to Arizona. While in Scottsdale, a suburb of Phoenix known for its thriving gallery scene, they were rejected from the first gallery they approached, and then referred across the street to another. There they met Jim Clark, owner of the Long Gallery, who saw promise in Bitney’s paintings and, in 1989, agreed to start showing the work. Clark then helped Bitney get his paintings represented by the Coda Gallery in Palm Springs, Calif., later the same year. Bitney has used those two galleries as the primary outlets for his paintings for the majority of his career, and has also exhibited periodically across the country, including shows at the Coda Gallery in New York City, The Greenhouse Gallery of Fine Art in San Antonio, Texas, the Settlers West Gallery in Tucson, Ariz., and Caesars Tahoe in Lake Tahoe, Nev.
Bitney’s last Flathead exhibition was in 1982, at the Hockaday. He says it was luck that he was asked to be part of the latest exhibit just before he’d planned to take a break from producing for galleries.
Linda Engh-Grady, the Hockaday director and curator who approached Bitney about being included in the current exhibit, is excited about the chance for the museum to show his work again. Work like Bitney’s often doesn’t show in the area, she says, even if the artist resides here; residents have conservative taste when it comes to art, and often prefer more realistic work.
“Local artists find a bigger audience outside Montana,” she says, adding that the advantage of a museum is that she can display the best of local talent without having to worry about sales.
When Engh-Grady discusses Bitney’s paintings, she makes comparisons to Fechin and Sargent, and specifically notes the quality of Bitney’s draftsmanship. Without that strong foundation in drawing, she says another of Bitney’s new works, “Dulcenea,” a muddied portrait of young woman, wouldn’t have its strikingly contrasted eyes.
Barbara Hills-Stanley, director of the Coda Gallery in Palm Springs, echoes Engh-Grady’s respect for Bitney’s work, although she has a hard time putting her finger on just what exactly makes it so memorable.
“You can always tell [Bitney’s] work,” she says. “It’s his style—it’s always recognizable no matter what the subject.”
Or, in this case, no matter how long it’s been since it’s been seen in his hometown.
Paint Outside the Lines: Montana Impressionists, including the work of Bye Bitney, is on display at the Hockaday Museum in Kalispell Tuesday through Sunday, 10 AM to 5 PM, until Friday, March 17. $5/$1 children, members free.