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

Hadley Ferguson is everywhere. She's on the center beam that runs through Sean Kelly's pub. She's above the cozy nook in Liquid Planet where baristas grind espresso, along the wall of Paul's Pancake Parlor and next to the bar at the Rhino. She's in the wine section at Worden's Market and at the edge of the Clark Fork in Caras Park. Most notably, she's overlooking the intersection of Broadway and Higgins, Missoula's busiest downtown streets. You can even find her on the outskirts of town, in a warehouse on Expressway and at historic Fort Missoula. The mural artist has created large-scale paintings on walls inside and outside, across the city. She's depicted images of Celtic folklore, local bar life and Grizzly football, and, in more recent years, Ferguson has painted historical scenes of Missoula in what has become her distinctive style of rich colors flooded in warm light.

Starting last year, Ferguson began to tackle even larger projects. Each morning she scales a stepladder in the gymnasium at Loyola Sacred Heart and works on four 12-by-8 murals illustrating the history of Catholic schools in Montana, a project commissioned by the Loyola Sacred Heart Foundation. In the afternoons, she focuses her paintbrush on a mural for the University of Montana's College of Forestry and Conservation of people managing the land. She also has to find time in the day for her most high-profile project to date: creating two large murals that will become permanent art pieces at the Capitol building in Helena. In a political space where images of men have long dominated, the murals will finally offer a homage to the contributions from everyday women—like Fergus—onto the state.

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In the open upstairs studio of her downtown home, part of the forestry mural hangs on one wall while designs for the Capitol spread across a table in the center of the room. Sun beams through the windows and the smell of brewing coffee drifts up from the downstairs kitchen. Ferguson, barefoot, willowy with long auburn hair, possesses an ageless quality as she sketches. She's 37, but she doesn't look much different from her years at Hellgate High School when she first started painting. It's a disarming quality but one that, especially in the early years of her career, forced her to work hard to get would-be clients to take her seriously.

It takes a careful set of eyes to notice other details about Ferguson: The way her slender toes curl slightly upward. The way she climbs the stairs just a little bit stiffly. How her bright smile accompanies a slight tenseness in her jaw. Those are the visible effects of multiple system atrophy, a degenerative condition that damages the nervous system. It's an atypical form of Parkinson's with similar symptoms—rigid muscles, tremors, impaired balance—but it's more aggressive and it affects more of the body. Ferguson first noticed neurological problems in 2009, but she only recently received the MSA diagnosis. The condition has made it harder to take on large-scale murals, and so the Capitol piece will be Ferguson's last big work. She's been researching the project for several months now, sifting through old photographs, documents and history books to discover the stories of women of all backgrounds who lived on this soil.

"What struck me the most in my research was how diverse the Montana landscape was and how amazing it must have been to make a life here," Ferguson says. "It was not the easiest of conditions for women. I think it must have taken so much determination. This piece I'm working on is a broad look at how women of all cultures in Montana influenced family, economy and politics—how they built community together."

The Capitol commission would be a dream legacy project for anyone, but it's particularly apt for Ferguson, a willful artist who has built her career on art projects that require collaboration and that speak to community, even while she faces unimaginable challenges.

Anyone who knows Ferguson's palette of moss greens, rust oranges and brick reds can pick her work out of a lineup. But there was a time when the artist shied away from working with bright colors, when she found painting intimidating. As a young girl and into her college years, she felt content to merely admire artists from afar.

Ferguson grew up in Missoula, but her parents often took her on extended trips to far away places. Before kindergarten, the family moved to Bratislava for a year-long adventure (Ferguson's mother, Jana, is a Czech native), and during her stay in the now-Slovakian capital, Ferguson recalls admiring the tones of a print of "The Mona Lisa" on her bedroom wall. As a preteen, she spent a year in New York City and two years in Japan. (Later, in college, she and her father, Fred, traveled through Russia together.) In between the trips abroad, Ferguson lived in Missoula, but it was always those international adventures that piqued her interested in art. In New York especially, when she was just 9, her mother often took her to museums.

  • photo by Cathrine L. Walters

"I would sit and stare at paintings and study how the brush strokes were assembled and how color was used to create the beautiful illusions in front of me," she says. "I remember focusing in on small details like buttons on a shirt or a fold in a cloth. I remember a man interrupting my thoughts once while staring at a painting and saying, 'I can tell you are going to be an artist someday. You are very young to spend so much time looking at one painting.'"

Despite her desire to make paintings like the ones she saw at the big city museums, technique eluded her. During her college years at the University of Montana she studied sculpture and music. She didn't want to paint. "I did everything to avoid painting because I was really afraid of color," she says. "I understood the value of black and white but I didn't know how to transfer that through color. I didn't know what would make the highlights. It was a whole complex level that I didn't understand."

Even working in sculpture, Ferguson sometimes felt out of step with the artist world. While at UM, she did a study-abroad program in Japan where she learned to make sculptures of people—full figures and busts of family and friends—from clay and cast epoxy-plastic. When she returned to Missoula, she recalls someone asking her what the sculptures meant. "I said that wasn't the point. I didn't go to Japan to say anything, I went there to learn how to sculpt," she says.

In response to the pressure she felt to create "important" art, she made a self-portrait series showing images of a persona model she hired to represent herself—in classic art poses, like Auguste Rodin's "The Thinker." Photographs of edgier imagery like graffiti and cars with broken windows were transposed onto the skin.

click to enlarge Hadley Ferguson’s “The Heart of Missoula” overlooks the intersection of Higgins and Broadway in downtown Missoula. The mural, completed in 2005, depicts some of the area’s cornerstone industries, and helped launch Ferguson’s artistic career.
  • Hadley Ferguson’s “The Heart of Missoula” overlooks the intersection of Higgins and Broadway in downtown Missoula. The mural, completed in 2005, depicts some of the area’s cornerstone industries, and helped launch Ferguson’s artistic career.

"I was saying, 'This is how I feel like I have to be—dark and gritty. Don't make me be that way.' I just wanted to learn technique so that when I do have the ideas I can express myself well," she says. The piece, "Self-Portrait," won a merit award through a juried exhibition at UM.

Though Ferguson continued to avoid painting, she experimented with color in a few installations that ended up being both strong in technique and profound. For The Children's Peace Crane Project, her senior thesis, Ferguson hung 50,000 folded paper cranes in an array of shades (made by children in Montana, Japan and Europe) on hundreds of strands like a fragile curtain around the room. Inside that curtain, she set up six storyboxes filled with objects—a pair of tiny moccasins, military tags from young soldiers, a box of bone and ash—perched on pedestals, each one accompanied by handwritten quotes and poems by children who had experienced war and violent conflict.

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."

  • 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.

Often, she and White arrived at the site at 9 or 10 at night and worked until 3 or 4 in the morning. They snacked on a bucket of candy and pop and took Cosmo magazine quizzes to stay awake. During the day, the trucking owner allowed Ferguson to use a forklift to reach top sections of the canvas. White says the staff was drawn to the artist—and she to them—just like with her clients.

"Anyone she works with, she always wins them over," White says. "They become her friend. They feel comfortable with her and because of that she's been given all sorts of great opportunities."

Back when Ferguson first noticed her health issues, she continued working. Even after doctors diagnosed her with Parkinson's, she could take her medication and get back to painting. She cofounded a nonprofit called Summit for Parkinson's to help connect patients to resources, and she traveled to Portland often to work with other organizations to raise awareness through art shows.

In 2012, she saw the artist's call for the Capitol's "Women of Montana" mural project, but she put her ambitions for it on hold when her Parkinson's medication stopped working. She flew across the country to different doctors—in California, Oregon and the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota—but received no answers. Some doctors told her it was in her head. Others kept searching. Not knowing what she had—or even if she had something—gnawed at Ferguson. She stopped making art.

"She put all of that energy that she would have put toward her work toward her diagnosis," White says. "It speaks to her character that she was still able to get through that time. But also, because of who she is and how she makes friends, she has this core group of people who wouldn't let her believe that she was crazy.

"She's always known what she wanted and she always gets it," White adds. "And that's good because she deserves it. So, she has a very specific idea of how her life is supposed to be, and I think this is the first real curve she's ever been thrown."

The MSA diagnosis came last summer, from a specialty doctor in Texas. It's a condition that mostly affects men over 60, one reason that Ferguson had a hard time getting a diagnosis. The Mayo Clinic says people typically live six to 10 years after MSA symptoms first appear, although some have lived longer than 15. Ferguson's doctors acknowledge that she doesn't fit the typical profile of someone dealing with MSA.

click to enlarge After doctors diagnosed Ferguson with a neurological condition that affected the muscle control in her dominant hand, she painted this scene of her family with her off-hand as an experiment.
  • After doctors diagnosed Ferguson with a neurological condition that affected the muscle control in her dominant hand, she painted this scene of her family with her off-hand as an experiment.

No one knows what causes Parkinson's or MSA, despite decades of studies. A combination of environmental and genetic factors—and individual reactions to those factors—make it difficult to trace. Some studies point to prolonged exposure to plastic resin—the kind that Ferguson used in her early works.

"In Japan, I did cast all those sculptures in plastic resin and never wore a mask," she says. "I was in this room with all these fumes for an entire year. And then when I was in Portland for a period of time I was really interested in clear resin molds and that stuff is really toxic. I thought that could be a possibility. You're young and you think, 'I don't want to wear a mask, it's too much bother.' But I don't go there. You can't get upset about things like that that you really don't know."

Inside her house, Ferguson is everywhere. A painting of a lighthouse under pink-tinged clouds hangs above the fireplace. One time, she tried to sell it and her daughter got upset. Ferguson returned it to the mantle and keeps it there so Sarah can hang it in her own house one day. In the backyard bar and practice space (John plays guitar and Ferguson plays drums), John keeps several of her paintings of Prague street scenes on the walls. Another favorite of his is a rare self-portrait"She doesn't like it," he says, laughing—that reminds him of when they first met.

Many of Ferguson's pieces were created specifically for the people who own them. She made a painting of a fictitious "Ferguson's Pub" for John's parents and she's done dozens of family portraits—scenes of children and parents and grandparents in candid action playing in fields or sitting on a dock by the lake. For her mother, Jana, she painted a young girl, an imagined older version of Sarah walking through farmland.

Other pieces she's done illustrate landscapes and buildings that are so familiar to people, so quintessential to the experience of living in Missoula and in the surrounding valleys, that they feel personal. Missoula residents Mike and Rayna Schaus own nine of Ferguson's pieces, which they've hung in their home in a space they've dubbed "The Hadley Wall." Those paintings include images of a calm lake near Ovando, a hidden trail at the back of Mount Sentinel and a hillside in Arlee just after a rainstorm.

"We found her work to be magnetic, the pieces are so iconic in their own way," Mike says.

Mike's favorite might be one of downtown Missoula in the golden gloam of a summer evening. "It's from probably down across the river looking back towards where the bridge comes across," he says. "You can see the Wilma right there with Caras Park behind it. She really captures those views we all know. That's one of her strengths."

click to enlarge After she completes two murals for the Capitol building in Helena, Ferguson plans to focus on smaller projects and spend more time with her daughter, Sarah. - PHOTO BY CATHRINE L. WALTERS
  • photo by Cathrine L. Walters
  • After she completes two murals for the Capitol building in Helena, Ferguson plans to focus on smaller projects and spend more time with her daughter, Sarah.

In the upstairs of Ferguson's house, stacks of books and papers line the walls, most of it research for the two Capitol murals. Everything about that project is under wraps until its big reveal in the fall. As with all her murals, she works with various people to get just the right tone and imagery. She has to walk the line between delivering what the client wants and realizing the image she envisions. But she's not against compromise.

"I like the challenge," she says. "I may not know anything about the subject I'm painting, so I have to learn about it and get to know it and feel connected to it. Often people give me a list of things they need in the mural, but it's when they start telling stories that what they want really comes out. I listen and I find the core of what it is. And then I'll show the drawing to them and a lot of times it's not what they expected—but it's exactly what they wanted."

Lynda Moss, a former majority whip in the Montana Senate, chairs the committee that oversees the Capitol mural project, working with Ferguson as well as historian Mary Murphy. Moss says that mural projects in the building happen rarely. This is a lifetime opportunity that requires historical accuracy, precise technique, a good visual story and collaboration—a culmination of what Ferguson has learned over the years. The process parallels the stories told through the murals.

"In some ways this project speaks to the way women have worked together collaboratively," Moss says. "It's about being willing to listen and invite information and use a lot of different perspectives to make sure there's a final image that really is respectful to the communities and the everyday people that make up not only Montana but this country."

click to enlarge Ferguson’s work appears in some of Missoula’s most familiar places, including Worden’s Market, above.
  • Ferguson’s work appears in some of Missoula’s most familiar places, including Worden’s Market, above.

After she finishes the Capitol commission, Ferguson plans to work on smaller projects, like an upcoming one with the Hellgate Rollergirls calendar. As much as she loves working with others, she's excited to paint things for herself now, to experiment with color and design in new ways—something she's never had much time for—and to spend more hours with her family.

It's been 15 years since she walked into the Blue Moon Tavern and set the wheels in motion to become one of the most recognized and ubiquitous artists in Missoula, with a legacy that extends to Oregon watering holes and, soon, to the People's House in the state capital. And this new direction—it isn't an end to her artistic life, it's the next chapter of a story she's penned from the beginning.

"It's actually really liberating," she says. "This can be whatever I want it to be."

With her health, she has bad days and good days, but mostly she doesn't let it consume her. She's young and her path has never followed the odds.

"I think I'll do better than average," she says. "I've been atypical all my life, so I might as well continue with that."

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