It's Tuesday morning just after 9 a.m., and Joey Deruy is careening around a small, barren studio on Missoula's west side. With a small paintbrush, he dabs blue paint from a plastic tub onto a cluster of L.P. records hung in a cloudlike form on the wall, adding wisps of color here and there, changing hues often, adding and subtracting intuitively, talking all the while.
"This record thing is called 'Big Sky Country,' and I'm trying to make it look sort of like clouds, but it's really my response to the disappearance of Ron's Roost," says Deruy, referring to the longtime Missoula used record and book store that was located at the corner of Higgins Avenue and South 4th Street. "I was really pissed that Ron's Roost isn't there anymore, so I found these records and they totally remind me of that part of Missoula from my past."
Clad in too-short jeans that barely cover his blue underwear and bedecked in a gaudy gold-trimmed baseball cap set jauntily askew on his head, Deruy looks like he might have just stepped out of a provocative hipster clothing ad from the pages of Rolling Stone. He carefully wipes each errant drop of paint from his hands before it dries, and keeps his tubes and cans of paint meticulously organized.
Yet his canvases explode with colorful cacophony, all static and buzz and carefree whimsy. Jittery faces peer and disappear through a haze of wispy lines and odd geometric forms.
If it all seems a bit too picture-perfect, there's a reason: Deruy really was a fashion model, once upon a time. For a couple of years in the late 1990s, he was the face of Versace - one of the most prestigious modeling jobs in modern fashion. Blessed with piercing eyes under a chiseled brow, he still looks the part, even here in his more natural environs: Painting fanciful forms on canvas and clouds onto L.P.s, talking about the history of this place that he once loved and is now rediscovering.
"Missoula is such a vortex, it just sucks you in and keeps you wanting to come back," he says. "Each generation thinks that it is the only generation that understands it, but that's great because it means it's always changing and always new and interesting. It's a lot different now from when I was living here, but I can still walk down the street and recognize people - even if I didn't ever know them personally, it's like this place just attracts a certain type of people and I know them even if I don't know them."
He talks like that, when he's completing sentences at all. When he's not, Deruy can be comically impossible to follow.
He speaks like he paints: dabbing bits of color in apparent cacophony until suddenly a form emerges.
"I can paint it for you," he offers at one point, "but I don't know how to word it."
Deruy's past is as scattered and diverse as the art he produces. Born to philanthropists in Africa, Deruy spent his early childhood immersed in Kenyan culture, where he first learned his make-do-with-what-you-have approach to art. His family moved to the United States when Joey was 12, first landing in Maine, then Helena. A free-spirited, artistically inclined teenager, Deruy gravitated toward Missoula, where he spent many weekends and eventually moved full-time.
After the actress Andie MacDowell purchased one of his paintings, Deruy met her, and she encouraged him to become a model. In 1999, he left Missoula for Dallas, one of the national hubs of the modeling industry; from there, his work took him around the world, to Paris and Hong Kong, Sweden and Mexico.
Along the way, he continued to paint, and eventually began to earn accolades and showings that were equally impressive to his modeling resume. The Dallas Chamber of Commerce commissioned a cityscape painting that it then turned into the signature merchandising image of the city, featured on posters and cards and shirts; more than 300,000 copies of the image have been sold to date. Deruy's art has been included in exhibitions and galleries in San Francisco, Hong Kong, Chicago, and Paris; and his work has been featured in the Texas Monthly, Dallas Morning News, New Art International, and Juxtapoz Magazine.
Last month, he finally returned to Missoula, with an ambitious goal in mind: Paint an entire show and hang it in just two weeks, inspired by local people and places and memories. Hence the early-morning scramble this week, in preparation for the opening this Friday at the offices of NewWest.net.
"Usually I spend a month per painting, so this is a big change to me, and a big challenge," he says. "I'm trying stuff I've never tried before."
Indeed, the range of idioms is as wide as the subject matter in the various artworks that have come together for the show. There's a cityscape of Missoula, painted on a traditional stretched canvas; an odd figure painted onto a rumpled strip of landscaping fabric; a deer, dressed in yellow rubber boots and a yellow plaid shirt and holding a rifle, painted onto a sheet of corrugated pinboard; those cloud-like L.P.s, and a cubist portrait of a woman in a field of abstract sunflowers.
"I feel like Missoula is such a free place, where I can explore new things and not be self-conscious," says Deruy. "I don't like being safe or staying in one place. Connecting to new things is how you grow.
"And yet," he adds, "I feel like I've found my voice on this trip to Missoula, really. It's like coming home."