Stephanie Frostad connects nature and politics at Radius Gallery 

Last summer, artist Stephanie Frostad became preoccupied with walls. Donald Trump had yet to be elected president, but his campaign was in full force and single-mindedly focused on building a wall between Mexico and the United States.

"I was thinking about what the appeal of a wall was," Frostad says. "Even metaphorically, how is that resonating with people? It felt so troubling to me."

Frostad's obsession with drawing walls became just as single-minded. Her walls were not the smooth, looming blockades of Trump's imagination, though. They were dry-stone structures like those she'd seen in pictures of Irish pastures, and, like so much of her work, they were anachronistic in content and steeped in quiet beauty. They were also dark. Frostad deploys people and wild animals to depict tension, and in one piece, Frostad drew a coyote loping by a stone wall, nose in the air. It's a riff on the human "coyotes" who help smuggle immigrants across the border, she says. But even her unpopulated images of walls contain their own eerie character. They feel on the verge, like a pastoral dream that might at any moment turn nightmare.

By winter, Frostad had reached her limit with walls. She never did answer her own question about the appeal of Trump's wall, but she did discover a love for the artisanal wall styles she depicted, with their gates and stiles and little archway paths for small animals. They were walls, yes, but walls that allowed for passage, and were built from earthen materials.

"I had almost a villainous sense of what a wall was when I started the inquiry," Frostad says. "But dry-stone walls are made of the place, and they can be returned to the place. You don't import millions of dollars of steel and wreck the environment in an effort to erect such a wall."

Frostad destroyed a lot of her wall paintings ("They just didn't go the way I wanted them to," she says), but a few remain, and some of those will be on display at the Radius Gallery for Sonnets, an exhibit she shares with ceramicist Julia Galloway. The show's title is based on D.G. Rosetti's 1880 poem, which begins, "A Sonnet is a moment's monument." Frostad and Galloway chose pieces that work as reflection and rumination, though the artists offer starkly different tones. Galloway's striking pottery is meant to be a celebration of simple pleasures and daily routines. Frostad's works depict the moment before something is about to happen, and in that sense they can be disconcerting.

Frostad is a prolific artist who studied at Baltimore's Maryland Institute College of Art and has been working in Missoula since she entered graduate school at the University of Montana in 1992. All the pieces Frostad chose for Sonnets feature accessible imagery. "Prodigal" has a boy basking on a hill above a freshly mowed hayfield. "Second Wind II" shows a windswept woman in a field holding the handle of a hoe as a flock of sparrows flies over her head. "Overseen" depicts an owl perched on a barn window, through which we can see a woman surveying the soil. As easy as they are on the eye, clues within provide tension. For instance, the owl looms over the woman, as if we are seeing the world from its point of view.

click to enlarge Stephanie Frostad’s diptych “Aftermath” is part of Sonnets, a new exhibit at Radius Gallery.
  • Stephanie Frostad’s diptych “Aftermath” is part of Sonnets, a new exhibit at Radius Gallery.

"The owl seems benevolent, but there's something also a little disconcerting about dwarfing the human subject," Frostad says. "It subordinates the human drama into something else. It suggests a different thing about our relationship to nature."

Frostad has been compared to regionalist artists like Grant Wood and Thomas Hart Benton, and there are similarities, but Frostad's intent is based in feminism and social justice work, though subtly rendered.

"There's a lot to admire in the regionalists' work," Frostad says, "especially in the context of other American art movements of that time. But I think they've really consistently had a vision of white male dominion in relationship to all people and earth itself. And while I don't consider myself a reactionary, I think my work takes a huge philosophical departure from them in that regard, whatever stylistic comparisons might be made."

Drawing is Frostad's first love, and you can see that in her work. Even the most paint-saturated piece of her work could be drained of color and still maintain its pictorial presence. Some of her pieces look more like drawings than paintings, such as the images of women holding tools, which show only their hands against the backdrop of dresses and earth. Unable to see their faces, we're left to guess their emotional state, but Frostad has captured determination in their grips.

"I felt like I was creating this team, an army of women prepared to go out and cultivate what we need to sustain us," she says.

The stories behind Frostad's pieces are expansive. "Second Wind I" and "Second Wind II" were inspired by the mythological furies, which Sophocles referred to as "daughters of earth and shadow." Those paintings are especially dark in tone, and they came to her, Frostad says, in connection with her own fury at national politics.

"Maybe the optimist and pessimist in me are in a continual dance or conflict," she says. "I don't want to put forward a negative vision, and I don't want to be euphemistic either. And since I already seek beauty in my work, sometimes that feels like enough."

Especially revealing are the animals she depicts. Frostad says she paints animals as a celebration of nature, but, at least in Sonnets, they also seem to represent insurgency. The sparrows flying overhead in "Second Wind II" appear to have a fierce purpose. For Frostad, these small birds are the perfect example of activism's role in fighting social injustice and the divisiveness of walls.

"We can mass like sparrows," she says. "We may be individually inconspicuous, but in our numbers we have a certain significance."

Sonnets opens with an exhibit preview at the Radius Gallery Thu., July 6, from 4 to 6 PM.

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