Anyone who spends time in Montana, whether they be a native or a transplant or a tourist, experiences moments of awe inspired by the state’s marvelous and immense landscape. That’s why many of us are here in Montana - to look and see and appreciate the beauty around us. But some people take it a step further, admiring the scenic grandeur but then looking closer, deeper; by layering paint on canvas, they attempt to recapture the mood or feeling of being outdoors or even the exact moment. Those people are landscape artists.
Nan Parsons, 61, is a Montana native and Basin artist who sees landscape painting as the perfect outdoor adventure.
“It’s important to impress upon people that the outdoors isn’t all about hunting or throwing a fishing line or riding an ATV,” Parsons says. “There are quiet and creative things you can do in the woods like writing a poem or painting.”
Even though Parsons prefers more reflective outdoor activities, she is an experienced outdoorswoman. She built her own cabin and art studio and lives without many modern conveniences like electricity or running water. Her life is devoted to her artwork and, in a sense, the way she lives her life is also a work of art. She is a mentor, friend, and roll model to many artists who come from all over the world to work at the Montana Artist Refuge, an artist residency program, located in Basin.
“It’s pretty neat to know that I have the ability to draw anything I want to. I mean having the tools - all of the cells in my body just doing it automatically without having to think about what I’m doing. I can just let my imagination go. I’m almost at that point with painting. That’s one of the things I like about getting older - I’m smarter, at least as far as paint goes.”
Parsons says she was born and raised in Helena, Montana and she’s been an artist all of her life.
“When I was a kid I wondered, ‘Do we all really see the same thing, the same colors, in the same way?’ and I still think about this when I paint,” she says.
When Parsons first began landscape painting, she was overwhelmed by the “totally awesome” Montana landscape. “It was daunting but just like anything else you can take a little piece of it and make it more intimate - like that light on that boulder over there. That makes painting for me.”
Parsons uses a limited paint palette - only red, blue, and yellow oil paints - and mixes the rest of her colors by hand. “Nowadays there are 3000 different varieties of everything including (ready-mixed) paints in every color imaginable,” she says. “When I go out into the landscape, I see some sagebrush and, of course, I see all of the variations of green. But there is a hint of lavender in there too and I look at that color and I ask myself, ‘Can you make that color?’ That’s when I really begin to see color and understand it, when I make it myself.”
Several years ago, Parsons and a summer resident of the Montana Artist Refuge turned defining and creating color into a personal challenge.
“We would drive all over and just look at the landscape and the colors,” Parsons says. “And then we’d describe the colors in words to each other. We named the colors, talked about them, and then tried to mix them and make them. That was a big turning point for my paintings.”
Whenever Parsons goes out into the field, she carries a rickety, paint-splattered box that holds her supplies and converts into an easel.
“It’s a pain every time I take it (the paint box) to the airport. They always want to open it up and go through it.”
But that doesn’t stop Parsons from taking her paint box and easel with her. She has painted landscapes all over the United States and in Ireland and South Africa.
Parsons’ current focus is on the water paintings that will hang in her upcoming, one-woman show, “Reflection,” in the Bair Gallery at the Holter Museum of Art in Helena. “Reflection” will be on view from August 10 to October 22, 2006.
Over the last five years, water has been Parsons’ obsession and the main subject matter for her work. The paintings are all water; up close details of moving water with no edges or banks or objects. She focuses on the light and motion and layers that combine to make the surfaces of water. Like looking at a clear, rippling stream or a glassy lake or a river during white water season, the beauty of Parsons’ paintings draw the viewer closer. Like real water, the paintings are mesmerizing.
She doesn’t paint from photographs; she paints in the field or from memory.
“Motion is very important when you’re painting water. If you take a photo of it, the shutter snaps and everything comes to a halt.” She points to a painting in her studio. “That painting I did from memory; I remember standing in Basin Creek and feeling the water lap up around my knees and over them and I painted that.”
There’s a lot happening in water, she says. “Reflection, motion, light, shadow. Water can be beefy, muscular, powerful. You can stand and watch the waves come into shore one way, like little ripples, and then a breeze comes and pushes them along and the entire picture changes. I like that.”
The public is invited to an art opening for Nan Parsons’ show, “Reflection,” at the Holter Museum of Art on Friday, August 11 from 6 to 8 pm.
* Go to the "Nan Parsons Artwork" page to see some of her work *
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