Subscribe for 33¢ / day

In 1815, Mount Tambora on the Indonesian island of Sumbawa created the largest recorded volcanic eruption in 10,000 years.

The massive amounts of gases and ash it released into the atmosphere lowered the temperature around the world by several degrees with effects lasting through the next year, known as "the year without a summer," the inspiration for Missoula artist Courtney Blazon's new drawings.

It resulted in crop losses, food shortages and cholera pandemics. The panic about human vulnerability to the climate triggered changes in art and science.

Spending that unseasonable summer in Switzerland, Mary Shelley wrote the story that would become "Frankenstein." Lord Byron wrote "Darkness," an apocalyptic poem. Their doctor, John Polidori, wrote a piece that would become the first published vampire tale. In England, J.M.W. Turner painted brilliant red sunsets that scientists have since linked to the amount of aerosols in the atmosphere.

Those were rich sources of inspiration for Blazon, a fan of nonfiction and research in her art.


The drawings were inspired by a book, "The Year Without Summer: 1816 and the Volcano That Darkened the World and Changed History," written by William K. Klingaman and Nicholas P. Klingaman.

Blazon, who studied at Parsons School of Design, is a compulsively prolific artist. If you haven't seen her work at the Radius Gallery in downtown Missoula, you've likely seen it elsewhere: on a bookmark at Shakespeare and Co., where she also painted a mural for its expanded space, or on a poster design for a local event, or in a benefit art show.

Last summer, she went on vacation and brought a stack of nonfiction: historical subjects and literary figures are frequent sources for her work. "I have a hard time relaxing," she said.

So time spent off was spent highlighting passages from the Klingamans' book, and the subject offered endless fascinating parallels to the present. Some people responded to the crises with religious revivals. Worries about the climate triggered new scientific discoveries.

"We're in that same crisis with a different set of circumstances," she said.

"There's so much disaster everywhere, it's hard to digest. Somehow, talking about it in the past makes it easier for me to confront," she said.

Blazon developed a proposal for the MAM exhibition, which is her most ambitious storytelling in large-scale drawings and her first museum exhibition overall.

The scale of the proposal triggered, as Blazon calls it, her own year without a summer. While balancing other projects and commissions, she didn't have an opportunity to work on it full-time until June.

The exhibition comprises four large-scale drawings that outline the events, plus smaller interstitial pictures and an entire wall of portraits of figures in the time period.

The first large drawing, "Zaman Hujan Au (Year of Ash Rain,)" illustrates the eruption of Tambora, which wiped out the people of Sumbawa. She consulted with an anthropologist who specializes in Indonesia at the University of Texas to determine what they might look like.

"He was able to give me some ideas for their facial structure, which would be different from modern Sumbawans," she said.

"La Fin du Monde," one of the two 8-foot-long drawings, traces May of 1816 through September across the world.

On the left hand side is Indonesia, India and China, then into Switzerland, Sweden and Germany. At the center is the Swiss villa where Byron, Shelley and company stayed. Byron sits at a table writing "Darkness," seated next to a skeleton. The Queen of Sweden distributes bread to her starving subjects. In an upper-right corner, Turner paints the menacing sky.

The other large-scale drawing is titled, "The Poetry of the Seven Sorrows," which she named after a form of Chinese verse that was revived during the period.

The centerpiece of that drawing is based on a purported incident during the 1832 cholera outbreak, depicting a group of harlequins who began falling ill at a ball. Skeletons dance around them. 

Like the rest of the pieces, Blazon drew them with thin-tipped Micron pens and Copic markers, plus some pastels. Those are small implements for large white space: Blazon's art is dense with information, so much so that she and the museum produced informational keys that can guide visitors through the imagery.

An apocalyptic drawing closes out the cycle of large pictures with allusions to the present. A plane seeds clouds while ice caps melt, and humans entertain themselves and augment their bodies with machinery like contemporary versions of Shelley's nightmare creation. While "Frankenstein" was subtitled "A Modern Prometheus," Blazon's title is more blase about the source of humanity's current troubles: "Welcome to the Pleasure Dome."

You must be logged in to react.
Click any reaction to login.

Arts & Entertainment Reporter

Entertainment editor for the Missoulian.