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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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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