Two years ago, Steve LaRance had a moment of clarity while standing in his leathers at the Anaconda racetrack. Over the last 20 years he'd spent most of his free time drag racing, attending national all-Harley events in Montana, Washington and Oregon, and often winning money. His day job as a graphic designer in Missoula had given him a thick resume with top-shelf gigs including work for industrialist Dennis Washington for whom he'd designed aircraft paint jobs and managed brand images. But something was missing.
"All my effort had gone into studying how to make something go faster, to design it that way and buy the parts," he says. "And the last time anyone had introduced me they'd said, 'Here's Steve. He's a drag racer.'" He pauses and shakes his head. "That's not me. Anybody can be a drag racer. I'm an artist."
Twenty years earlier, LaRance had been a respected artist around Montana, painting nostalgic scenes of cowboy hats, classic car dashboards, rodeos and bacon and coffee breakfasts. In 1990 he'd had a two-man show with renowned Taos artist Ace Powell at the Hockaday Museum of Art in Kalispell, and, later that year, a group show at the Yellowstone Art Gallery called Post-Westerns. In 1991, he won a contest to represent Montana for Absolut Vodka's Absolut Statehood campaign, for which he was flown out to New York City. His design for Citron Vodka—a lemon stuck on a cowboy spur—showed up in Sports Illustrated, and Absolut's distributor printed limited editions of some of LaRance's other work, which was meant to help push his art career into bigger realms.
Instead, LaRance says his artwork went by the wayside as he plunged into graphic work and motors—until that day at the racetrack, decades later, when he decided it was time to do his art again.
"You don't realize how fast time passes," LaRance says. "It sneaks up on you. I thought, 'Man, if you're going to do this, you better fully explore this thing.' I realized that the most valid part of my existence is doing this."
LaRance grew up with a love for motors. On his family ranch in Choteau he learned to ride horses in a place where sometimes the loudest sound was wind whistling through the rustling sagebrush.
"My dad was a wrangler and we had a horse and he rodeo-ed," says LaRance. "I rode horses but I wanted something where you put down the kickstand and turned the key off. I got into motors and it probably broke his heart."
These days, LaRance drives around Montana taking pictures and then painting places where his love of old motors combines with the cowboy lifestyle. In the past couple of years, he's created over a dozen paintings inspired directly from those places. Many of his paintings echo some of his early quiet still lifes but they're a little wilder now, with large, sky-filled landscapes dotted with old and new curiosities. It's not the "buckskin-and-blackpower" school of Western art, as LaRance calls it, but a more modern landscape with a romantic and nostalgic twist: Concoco gas signs and neon bar lights stand side-by-side with grass prairies and clear blue skies. He paints cowgirls at service stations and roadside oddities like the giant Clearwater Junction cow at Stoney's Quick Stop. And in almost every piece there's a truck or classic car in the foreground.
"Growing up where I did, your car was your home away from home," says LaRance. "The car image is something I gravitated towards in this work because it's so prevalent and necessary to us in Montana. You drive into the mountains, you get out and right in front of you is the damn car in the landscape.
"But I like the older cars," he adds. "They have more character. I can't distinguish one car from another these days. They all look like suppositories."
Coming back into the art world after so many years isn't an easy matter, says LaRance. He often questions if his work is relevant to a younger crowd, if the gas pump, on its way to being phased out with newer, better technology, can still ring a bell with viewers in the future. But he does know that picking up art again is the right move for him now.
"There's an edge of looking at contemporary culture and what people find gripping that I need to begin to address and not fall off into schmaltzy," he says. "It's easy to be schmaltzy, but you're just producing more and more stupidass greeting cards, and I'm looking for something that's more aggressive in its discovery. For me, the chips will fall and every once in a while something cool will come out of it."
Steve LaRance's exhibit Contemporary Western opens with a reception and artist talk at the Dana Gallery Thursday, Oct. 21 at 5 PM. Free.