Painting off the land 

Covering turf at the Dana Gallery

The list of artists currently on display at the Dana Gallery reads like a who’s who of Montana’s most accomplished, transcending boundaries of medium or style. The 66 pieces by more than 50 artists are all under one roof to benefit The Nature Conservancy, but the unparalleled public showing, titled Montana Masterpieces, is also pretty valuable to local art lovers.

Where else could one find work by all these artists at the same time?

“I honestly can’t think of any place,” says gallery owner Dudley Dana, who assisted in coordinating the event. “The list of who’s included really does go on and on. It’s a special thing.”

From a dreamy lithograph landscape by Livingston’s Russell Chatham to the monotone precision in the drawing of Missoula’s John Well-Off Man; the thick oil brush strokes of former University of Montana professor Theodore Waddell to the vibrant hues of Kalispell’s Marshall Noice; and the elegant sculptural arcs of Billings’ Bill Drum to the raw intimacy of the photography from Livingston’s Charles Lindsay, the display is a kaleidoscope of perspectives on landscape and contemporary Western art. The one constant theme is an appreciation of natural resources and a nod to its inspirational qualities.

“We live here, and most of us live here because of the land and because of the tradition. These painters are here for those reasons,” says Dana, whose work is also included in the exhibit. “It reflects their soul, and that’s what artists do—they paint their soul. The landscape is the soul of Montana.”

Julie Chapman, an artist based just west of Missoula, in Huson, and winner of the national Art for the Parks grand prize in 2002, has been a member of The Nature Conservancy since the early 1990s. She’s always been interested in combining her painting with the efforts of the Conservancy and, true to her word, has donated a percentage of her art sales to the organization each of the last six years. But Chapman believed there was still more potential in marrying her two passions, and she is credited with making the initial suggestion to create Montana Masterpieces.

“Ideas are a dime a dozen,” says Chapman, deflecting credit for an event that has been in the works since last November. “For me the mission has always been to give back. We went out of our way to try and put together a unique [show] on a grand scale. I want people to have a really proud and full reaction to this.”

Montana Masterpieces is designed to raise awareness of The Nature Conservancy’s programs throughout the region and to celebrate the Blackfoot Community Project, an ambitious private conservation effort undertaken by the Montana chapter. Since 1979, the Conservancy has worked with landowners to protect more than 500,000 acres of land in the state. Aside from a traveling exhibition with nationally known artists that toured several years ago to the Yellowstone Art Museum, Montana Masterpieces is the first event of its kind for the nonprofit organization.

All of the art is up for auction, with most of the proceeds going to the Conservancy. In exchange for their participation, the artists will receive a modest percentage of sales—an arrangement that Dana says contributed to the quality of the work donated, as well as the level of participation. The Conservancy had a goal of collecting 60 pieces, which was easily exceeded, and Dana says over 95 percent of the artists approached agreed to participate.

“A lot of times a show such as this with so many styles can really be a mess when you hang it all up side-by-side,” he says. “What really stands out to me is the overall quality. This looks good—it looks great in here.”

As Dana speaks he stands next to Choteau artist Joe Halko’s bronze sculpture of a grizzly bear, which sits below a blazing abstract neon canvas by Walter Piehl. Just to the side is the large three-part painting of a cascading Montana skyline by Missoula’s Kathy Bonnema Leslie; farther down hangs Great Falls’ W. Steven Seltzer’s nostalgic landscape with three distant riders on the horizon.

Ask Dana if any of the works stand out to him, and after ticking off a dozen pieces in the immediate vicinity, he stops. “I’m afraid I’m going to leave someone out,” he says. “There’s too much here to narrow it down to any single one.”

Montana Masterpieces is currently on display at the Dana Gallery at 246 N. Higgins Ave., open Monday through Friday from 10 AM to 6 PM and Saturday from 10 AM to 5 PM. An artist’s reception will be held Thursday, June 16, and the auction will conclude Friday, June 17.

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