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In relating stories about her family, Shelby Hanson hopes to unravel ideas about the perfect nuclear family.

"Matrix of Community," her thesis exhibition for her Master of Fine Arts degree at the University of Montana, transforms documents like letters, mammograms, pictures and postcards into a full-room installation. 

"Even though people may not necessarily care about my family, I think what I'm talking about may be illuminating to other people because they may feel isolated: 'Maybe I'm the only dysfunctional family out there,' " she said. She'd like to "reduce the commonality of isolation, create an empathetic occurrence so we can all kind of connect and know that we're not all going to be the same."

She began using handwritten documents from family members back as an undergrad. In her first year of graduate school at UM, her use of found materials had a pressing turn: mammograms. Her mother was diagnosed with breast cancer.

For "Matrix of Community," she explores these ideas through her original medium, printmaking, and a new one, sculpture. She titled the show, "Matrix of Community," drawing on the Latin roots ("womb") and some of its definitions, all of which she printed on the wall of the gallery: "a rectangular array of quantities or expressions in rows and columns that is treated as a single entity and manipulated according to particular rules," "a mold in which something is cast or shaped," and "an environment or material in which something develops, a surrounding medium or structure."

Critiquing the surface perfection of suburban life is an ongoing theme for American artists, whether in film ("American Beauty") or countless grunge and pop-punk albums from the late 1990s forward. Don't be confused by that similarity, though. Hanson's installation is entirely free of angst. Instead, it feels more like a family album, dissected into fragments and presented for consideration in discrete works that together tell a story.

The main elements filling the Gallery of Visual Arts are houses, simplified into an icon-like form. She deliberately chose shapes, which she describes as "cookie-cutter house silhouettes" in her artist statement, that also relays the careful thought she put into the division of exteriors and interiors throughout the show.

Short wall text tells a story relating to the one of the houses. Some of the stories are quite difficult, but she relates them plainly for others to examine as they will — there are no sordid confessional details or accusations. Instead, she'd like viewers to consider their own families.

While the exteriors of the houses are mostly uniform, she lined the interiors with found materials: letters, postcards, symbolic fabrics, etc.

One house has mammograms from her mother, who was diagnosed with breast cancer during her first year as a graduate student.

Other stories reach back farther in time. Her father was adopted, which he knew growing up. Eventually he reconnected with his biological mother and discovered that his mother was a teenager when she became pregnant and her father put the baby up for adoption. Another house is dedicated to his mother, with whom Hanson connected.

Another has letters from her cousin, who has gone in and out of prison and is estranged from most of their family. He was adopted by her uncle's partner, who had been together since before gay marriage was legal.

Another is dedicated to an uncle who died before she was born. He was gay and the family rarely spoke of him.

The houses are held aloft at crooked angles by bent copper pipes. She initially tried wood, but the metal substitute could add another layer of meaning. "It's such a valuable material but it's also susceptible to galvanization and corrosion and based on conditions over time, similar to familial relationships," she said.

Her father is an air-traffic controller and runs a roofing company. Through that business, she learned a fact that she turned into a subtle design element. Higher-pitched roofs are more expensive, so she used them as a symbol of socioeconomic status.

Hanson studied printmaking for her BFA degree, which she earned at James Madison University in Virginia. There are more elements of her preferred medium on the gallery walls. In one corner are a series of monotypes that are based on sewing patterns, which she said she chose for their resemblance to blueprints and allusions to domesticity, daily life and the anonymous handiwork of women.

"I cut them up and stitched them back together to create fragmentation and disruption, dysfunction. I see these as interiors — that you're looking into the house — and the floral borders are this nice exterior where you think everything's perfect," she said.

On another wall, she created a grid of small house exteriors, again with pitched roofs. Some have small window silhouettes that reveal excerpts of family documents. On others, she printed, in light fuzzy acetone transfers, statistics culled from sociologist Brian Powell's study, "Changing Counts, Counting Change: Toward a More Inclusive Definition of Family."

The Indiana University Bloomington professor "discusses results of a U.S.-based study in which more than 2,000 adults were interviewed about their stances regarding same-sex couples, cohabiting couples, same-sex marriage, and, most importantly, what counts as family," according to his paper's abstract.

Hanson said the study categorized people's beliefs about what counts as family in three categories: inclusionist, exclusionist and moderates. Hanson's grid has rows of houses corresponding to each, with slightly more inclusionists to reflect that it's a growing category, she said.

Now that she's completed the thesis exhibition, she'd like to refocus on printmaking again. The UM program's interdisciplinary approach was one of the reasons she came here, though.

"This was a great thing for me to do because it incorporates everything I've ever learned, with digital with technology, printmaking, sewing. I feel like I hit everything I've ever learned," she said.

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Arts & Entertainment Reporter

Entertainment editor for the Missoulian.