Patricia Thornton's monsters have a disarming quality even with all their sharp teeth. The local artist's mixed media pieces emit a childlike quality—something akin to shadow puppets with eyes made of dots and stars, and bodies colored with candy-like pastels among outlines of chalky whites and blacks. But her work proves to be deceivingly layered, both in concept and style. In her upcoming exhibit, Misfits, Monsters and Pretty Things, Part V: The Rocky Mountains, Thornton includes a piece inspired by the recent oil spill, for instance, and another that deals with the concept of fractured selves: the worker versus the artist. And though the ideas she portrays appear to be represented by simply rendered shapes, the composition made by the combinations of the shapes and the combination of artistic mediums—printmaking, graphite, colored pencil, acrylic, oil pastel and sewing—are more complex.
"I'm around little kids all the time," Thornton says. "And I do like to draw at their level. But what I do isn't easy. People think, you know, 'Oh, it looks like my second grader's work.' I have heard that. But I work with second graders and they don't do this kind of thing."
Thornton grew up in an artistic family in a nomadic lifestyle that carried her from the East Coast to California, living in towns for no longer than a few years at a time, if that.
"We sometimes stayed in apartments, but we lived out of vans and tents, too," Thornton says. "When I tell people that they say, 'Oh, hippies!' But my parents were very conservative—my mom did portraits of Oliver North. They just thought that was a great way to live."
Growing up in the 1960s, Thornton was mesmerized by the monsters she saw on television and the big screen. Whenever she had a chance, she says, she'd watch the vampire soap opera "Dark Shadows," and monster comedies like "The Munsters" and the "Addams Family." She loved silver screen monsters from sharks and dinosaurs to legends like Godzilla and King Kong.
"I liked the monsters that were scary but where something had happened to them to make them go mad," she says. "I could identify with that. Like Them!, where there was some kind of nuclear disaster and the ants all grew huge."
Thornton moved to Missoula after working for years in California, New York and Las Vegas, piecing together various jobs—including teaching art—to make a living. (She earned her B.A. in art at Sonoma University in California.) Five years ago, she moved to Missoula with her artist husband Tim to see if the lower cost of living would give them more studio time, and so Thornton could pursue her graduate studies.
"I had been through Missoula a few times and I decided to apply for grad school here," she says. "I wasn't accepted, and it was a bummer. But I decided I was just going to do a self-imposed grad school for myself, rent a studio, get an apartment and live off pennies for a few years—which is what we're doing."
Thornton got a studio at the Ceretana on Railroad Street and within a year became the manager and curator of the space. In January of this year, she moved to the second floor of the Brunswick. During that time, her work has changed quite a bit. When she first arrived she did oil painting parodies of pop culture icons like Oprah and Dr. Phil. But after a while she started making colorful sketches of monsters that resembled the creatures of her childhood but represented aspects of her personality.
"It was fun to do things about other people but I always had this gnawing feeling about it," Thornton says. "How can I judge anybody else? And so I just try to keep it personal, to take apart myself more than other people."
At first, Thornton says, her personal monsters were darker and more vicious looking. In one early painting, for instance, a creature with a blood red body and bulging eyes bares its shark-like teeth.
"I was going through the feelings that come from not getting accepted into grad school, the whole 'Rawwwwrrr,' feeling," she says, giving a monster-like roar.
But after a while, Thornton's monsters started to become a little less harsh. They began to represent parts of her personality that fit more into a contented sense of how she sees herself. One character, "The Piggybacker," always carries a child (Thornton's also a nanny) or other people's things on its back representing her nurturing side. She has bowling pin-shaped creatures that sometimes look like neckties for other characters—to represent her working self. Other times she draws the neckties as autonomous entities of artistic liberation.
Another one of her most central monsters is the gender-ambiguous character Manny Rose. That character was born when someone asked Thornton to draw a picture of the monster from the mythical Black Lagoon. Instead of drawing something scary, she ended up with a goofy, dreamy-eyed monster whose rib cage is in the shape of a tree.
"I like to draw like a kid and it made me think of when I was kid my mom would always say I had this exhibitionist quality and that I would stand in the window naked," she laughs. "I don't remember any of that. But Manny reminds me of that optimistic, young, childlike innocence."
Thornton says that even though the monsters are personal, she hopes they speak to a universal truth. The creatures of Misfits, Monsters and Pretty Things may be cute and pink, but they also bare teeth.
"I like having that angst show up in there," she says. "You can live in this world that's pink and the flowers are pretty, but then you listen to the news—it can be devastating. I try to be open-minded. I draw the line at Hannity and Rush Limbaugh. I never thought it would get to where it is now with those people. Talk about monsters. Way scarier than anything I could create."
Misfits, Monsters and Pretty Things, Part V: The Rocky Mountains opens at The Brink Gallery Friday, June 4, with a reception from 5 to 8 PM. Free.