At first glance, "Dodge City Sunset" by Barb Schwarz Karst looks like classic abstract expressionism. The four small canvases are bracketed together and dominated by swaths of reds, oranges and yellows. The right side is interrupted by a single vertical streak of dark blue. The left side loses the color to uniform lines of metallic gray. It's just a gorgeous jumble of brush strokes until all four canvases are considered as a whole and the piece reveals itself as something more familiar.
Upon closer inspection, it's an old Dodge truck. Clear as day. The dark blue streak separates the side panel from the curve of the hood. The metallic lines are the grill. The yellows and oranges must be rust set against the old rig's once fire engine-red exterior. It's obvious now: a cropped, close-up view of a truck, as seen through the eyes of an artist.
But no. Not so fast. Schwarz Karst, the artist, sees something completely different. As she stands in front of the piece, just one from the latest installment of her long-running Montana Rust Belt: Abandoned Industries series, she explains how she no longer sees a truck. It's a person.
"All of these paintings have human aspects," she says. "I think of this one as a profile or a mug shotalmost like a 'Wanted' poster."
She points to the eye, which otherwise looks like a turn signal. The grill is like teeth, "or the snarl," as she puts it. An open cavity across the paneling is the jaw line. For her, this heap of junk is more than a bunch of rusted-out partsit's a living part of history.
"When I look at industrial equipment or industrial paintings, they always show them as very grayed-out or cold and steely," says Schwarz Karst. "I really feel, to me, it should be a tribute to the people that worked these machines. It's like when someone passes away, you remember them with fondness and not the dank, horrible memory of the death itself."
Looking through Schwarz Karst's series is like a game of hide-and-seek. Of the 11 new Rust Belt pieces she's unveiling at Whitefish's Jest Gallery on June 7, most are based on classic rigs she photographed in an Arlee junkyard or old boxcars from the tracks in Missoula. Figuring out which is whichand what partis only half the challenge. Spend enough time and you'll notice other subtle motifs inside each painting, like Montana vistas, water and, yes, people.
"These dying industries were once the backbone of where we live," she says. "I think they lend themselves to more of a story."
Schwarz Karst started her Rust Belt series after becoming enamored of her nephew's photograph of an old Allis-Chalmers bean-picker. The first paintings were first shown in 2008 and, to meet demand, subsequent exhibits went up in both Missoula and Whitefish. While her work has been on display in New York City and internationally, nothing compares to the reaction she receives for the Rust Belt relics.
"During that first opening I had people coming in, telling me stories about their parents or their grandparents who used to work the mines in Butte or died of black lung," she says. "It seemed to hit a real sensitive nerve with a lot of people."
Before turning her attention to painting full-time, Schwarz Karst focused on art education. She taught for 25 years in Havre and at Sentinel, Big Sky and Hellgate high schools, and she still talks proudly of her former studentsone is art director at the Independent, another happened to win one of her paintings at a recent charity event. Six years ago, though, she decided to leave the classroom.
"I think the only reason I retired is because I just wanted to paint so damn bad," she says.
Schwarz Karst now spends her time working in a studio inside her garage or, if weather permits, in her driveway. In that garage, behind her easel, art supplies and a wall full of finished Rust Belt paintings, it's hard not to notice a parked 1963 Chevy Nova, brown with brown-patterned seats, in good condition.
"I knew you'd notice that," says Schwarz Karst. "It's my husband's. He's very proud of it. But it's not part of what I'm doing."
Of course it's not. The Nova, in such decent shape, still looks like just a car.
The Jest Gallery in Whitefish presents Barb Schwarz Karst's Montana Rust Belt: Abandoned Industries with an opening reception Friday, June 7, at 6 p.m. The show remains on display throughout the month. You can also see Karst's work at MAM's Triennial exhibit, which runs through August.