Larger than life 

Hadley Ferguson has made a name for herself painting murals throughout Missoula, but none measure up to her next project and the challenge she faces while completing it

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After she graduated from UM, she and her future husband, John, moved to Portland, Ore. An advertisement caught John's eye: McMenamins, the chain company that restores historic buildings into funky bars, breweries, music venues, hotels and theaters, was hiring artists to paint murals. Ferguson decided to face her fear and apply.

Myrna Yoder, an artist with McMenamins, recalls meeting Ferguson when she showed up at the Blue Moon Tavern. "She was persistent, but not in an annoying way," Yoder says. "Even though painting wasn't her first thing she studied for art—and decorative painting is something you have to learn as you go—she wasn't afraid to learn. It matters if you keep your word and show up, and she did."

Owner Mike McMenamin hired Ferguson to paint 150 pipes around the building. It was a small job, but it was a start. Ferguson says it was like how you begin dishwashing at a restaurant and work your way up. She learned the tools of the trade and the business of murals. She didn't stay at McMenamins long—she and John decided to move back to Missoula the next year—but she made an impression.

"She was young compared to the rest of us, but I think she has an old soul," Yoder says. "She is a very focused and intense kind of person and if she decides she's going to do something, she does it—in a good way, with a good energy and a good heart. She has an ability to draw you in and keep you."

Back in Missoula, Ferguson printed business cards and hit the streets, picking up small jobs here and there, paying the bills by working at a furniture restoration shop. In 2005, after several restaurant and office commissions, she received an offer to paint seven murals on the prominent corner of Broadway and Higgins. "The Heart of Missoula" project required her to research images depicting the development of Missoula's railroad, the establishment of the university and the beginning of cornerstone industries in the early 1900s.

"It was so fulfilling getting an opportunity to paint something of such importance for the city I grew up in and loved," she says. "After that project, my commissions increased and I was building a consistent amount of work and income."

click to enlarge Ferguson studied sculpture and music at the University of Montana, and says she was initially reluctant to paint. Later, she developed a distinct palette that is now well-recognized among fans of her work. - PHOTO BY CATHRINE L. WALTERS
  • photo by Cathrine L. Walters
  • Ferguson studied sculpture and music at the University of Montana, and says she was initially reluctant to paint. Later, she developed a distinct palette that is now well-recognized among fans of her work.

Dudley Dana, owner of the Dana Gallery, admired Ferguson's work. After "The Heart of Missoula" mural went up, he invited her to be a part of his annual Paint Out, a plein air-style event where artists from all over the country come to paint scenes on the streets of Missoula and in the countryside. Over the next few years, Ferguson created pieces for the gallery and Dana watched her technique continue to evolve. One of the turning points, he says, was when she started understanding how light played on water. "Water is extremely hard to do, and that really allowed her skills to come through and to give her paintings more contrast," Dana says. "What has happened over time is her work got a little more depth to it and became even more alive."

In 2010, when she was diagnosed with Parkinson's, Ferguson, who is right-handed, made a painting with her left hand as an experiment. The small tremors she'd been experiencing had gotten her thinking about adaptation. If her body didn't allow her to do art the way she'd always done it, she'd find another way. In the piece, she and her husband and daughter are walking into a grove of trees that are bursting with radiant fall colors.

"It was absolutely incredible," Dana says. "It was just sheer emotion."




Even as a small child growing up in Missoula, Ferguson dealt with health issues. She had a heart murmur that required open-heart surgery when she was 4 years old. It was 1980, Mount St. Helens had just blown up and she wore a mask en route to a medical facility in Salt Lake City. She remembers having a dream at the hospital about doctors pulling her organs out one at a time, telling her, "This is your heart. This is your liver."

"I know I remember this dream," she says. "But I don't get how I would have known to dream about seeing my organs at the age of 4. That has never made sense to me."

At 5 she began having fainting spells that have continued for the rest of her life. "I got used to the feeling and actually have had some interesting experiences with it," she says. "Sometimes I have quick dreams, or I have music run through my mind. A few times I had dreams where my life would pass almost like a quick moving slideshow."

As a young woman in her early 20s, she suffered abdominal pain that turned out to be cysts. Each new health issue made her self-conscious, worried that she looked like a hypochondriac. Ferguson says her general practitioner had always seemed dismissive but one time, when the doctor found Ferguson had a collapsed lung, she told her, "Oh, I guess you really do have something going on."

"At that moment, I realized that my instincts had always been right," Ferguson says. "I really had felt her put off energy that indicated I was wasting her time. This is probably the foundation that caused me to mistrust myself with whether or not things I thought were health issues were really anything at all."

click to enlarge PHOTO BY CATHRINE L. WALTERS
  • photo by Cathrine L. Walters

Just before she gave birth to her daughter, Sarah, in 2007, Ferguson dealt with a kidney stone and then mild congestive heart failure. The exhaustion she felt after the birth never went away and, in 2009, when she started noticing the numbness in her hands and her fainting spells became more severe, she tried to take it in stride.

"I think my skill of adjusting to stressful situations and appearing on the outside that I am doing great is the skill that derailed me from being taken seriously by the medical field at times," she says. "I am very good at putting up with things and creating a façade that everything is fine."

Ferguson exhibits a soothsayer quality in the way she talks about her health and life, as if she can see the future. But it may simply be that she enjoys a certain knack for self-fulfilling prophecies. She met her husband, John, after seeing him from afar at the Missoula Farmers Market where he sold baked goods, and she decided he was the one.

"I do think she sets things in motion with her thoughts and actions that then do end up with her realizing them," John says.

click to enlarge Ferguson spends her mornings at the gymnasium at Loyola Sacred Heart working on four murals about the history of Catholic schools in Montana. It’s one of three major projects she’s looking to complete this year. - PHOTO BY CATHRINE L. WALTERS
  • photo by Cathrine L. Walters
  • Ferguson spends her mornings at the gymnasium at Loyola Sacred Heart working on four murals about the history of Catholic schools in Montana. It’s one of three major projects she’s looking to complete this year.

After she asked John out for coffee, the two of them spent a mere 10 days together before Ferguson left for Japan to do her independent study in sculpture. "One evening we were together and I did something that made him laugh," she says. "When I heard his laugh I thought to myself, 'What a wonderful laugh. I get to hear that laugh the rest of my life.' I was shocked at my own thoughts and realized someplace deep within me I knew we were going to be together for life."

Olivia White, a longtime friend, says Ferguson gets what she wants because she's oblivious to obstacles. "She has this innocence about what she does, especially when she first started painting murals," White says. "She didn't know that she wasn't supposed to do certain things. She didn't see any barriers. She just went and did it and she's always had that—not arrogant, not aggressive in a mean way, but a strong personality."

White frequently keeps Ferguson company during her long hours of painting. "The Heart of Missoula" project required a large work space because the panels were so big. Ferguson worked on part of it at Western Truck Rebuild and the other at Rick's Auto Body.

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