Prints and pints 

Big Sky Brewing Co. hosts Julie Hoffman

Kyle Buchanan isn’t really into art, unless the reference is to the art of fly fishing. The Bozeman engineering student just stopped in at Missoula’s Big Sky Brewing Company to grab a quick beer with a buddy on his way to a fishing trip. He didn’t expect to get sidetracked by the abstract monoprints displayed on some of the brewery walls.

“This is very cool,” Buchanan said after downing a few samples of Moose Drool. “I came in for the beer. The art is a bonus.”

Mixing local brews with local art is a new, experimental endeavor for Big Sky. It started in December when a regular asked if he could maybe help fill some empty wall space by hanging some of his photographs. The photo exhibit was well received and when Julie Hoffman approached Big Sky about displaying her monoprints, they offered her the entire month of March to showcase her work. The arrangement has worked out well for both parties.

“The reaction has been very positive,” says Hoffman, standing against the Big Sky Brewery bar. “I’m told people have been paying a lot of attention to the work. That’s good to hear. I wasn’t sure how it would be received here.”

Hoffman creates her “freeform monoprints” by spreading finger-paints (they have a consistency Hoffman prefers) on a flat surface, such as a glass plate, and then placing a sheet of paper over the top. By selecting different types of paper, varying the pressure of the paper on the paint and playing with color combinations, Hoffman can manipulate how the prints evolve once the paper is lifted. The result is a spectrum of prints ranging from thick, heavy shapes when the paint is freshly pressed to soft, flowing lines when there is barely enough paint to make an image. As the monoprint name implies, no two prints are the same.

“All of my work is experimental,” Hoffman says. “All of my art is evolving, including these prints.”

Hoffman has been in Missoula since 1982, and she began working on her monoprints in 1994. Many of the pieces on display at Big Sky took her years to complete. Hoffman repeats the process of laying paper against paint until there is no more paint to stick to the page. She is left with dozens of marked sheets, and only some of them come straight off the glass as finished products. The rest are stored away and returned to when Hoffman finds the right way to enhance, manipulate or otherwise finish the print.

For instance, “Autumn” was started in 1996. The small print is simply swirls of burnt sienna on plain manila paper. To Hoffman, the image reminded her of maple trees in the Midwest, but it didn’t seem finished and she kept it to the side with other works in progress. Two years later, she came across a picture of a winding road about the size of a postage stamp and placed it over the corner of one of the sienna swirls.

“For me, the print is what draws you in,” Hoffman says, “but when you get closer and get to the tiny little road, you need to follow it. It wasn’t until I found the clip that this print was right.”

In addition to collage, Hoffman utilizes a few other techniques to modify her prints, including adding ink or colored pencil. With pieces of a lighter tint, she usually adds watercolors to the background. “Rows,” one of the exhibit’s larger pieces, centers on stodgy streaks of Prussian blue paint intersected with thin lines of red and green and more blue. Hoffman then surrounded the original monoprint with whimsical brushes of rose watercolor; the background turns the print into what Hoffman sees as a full garden.

“Sometimes they feel finished,” she says, pointing to the largest print, “Dance Curves,” and a few others she left untouched. “Other times they don’t look right, like if the colors don’t blend well with the paper. It’s all personal. It’s my judgment. It’s about how the piece feels to me.”

While the idea of placing conceptual art in the midst of a working brewery may seem an odd juxtaposition, Hoffman was confident in the arrangement. The work is diverse enough to have wide appeal. As the artist says, “If you don’t like one, there’s probably going to be another that you will like.”

Chelsea Nevin was working the taps at Big Sky when Hoffman set up the exhibit. The bartender asked the artist a ton of questions about the work, knowing visitors would turn to her for explanations. To Nevin’s surprise, there have been fewer questions than compliments. The reactions have led Big Sky to arrange for another photo exhibit to hit the walls in April.

“A few people asked what it was,” Nevin says of Hoffman’s art. “Most just said they liked it. They get to drink beer and look at art. I guess if you think about it, it doesn’t surprise me. I mean, come on, everything goes well with beer.”

Julie Hoffman’s monoprints will hang at Big Sky Brewing Company through Thursday, March 31.

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