There's no doubt that R. David Wilson's painting is expressive. His new work, a collaboration with ceramicist Matt Simms, is more expressive politically.
"At the Bend" pairs landscapes that capture Central America's beauty with portraits of indigenous people. Hanging underneath those paintings at the Dana Gallery, are Simms' platters, whose surfaces bear outlines of river systems in that part of the world.
Wilson has traveled to rural agricultural villages in Honduras every fall since 2001 as a translator for Missoula Medical Aid, which provides health care.
"Even the Peace Corps left where we were in Honduras because it's so intense," he said. The paradise-like landscape contrasts with the "not-so-paradise" - extreme government control, repression and violence from gangs and paramilitary groups.
For "At the Bend," Wilson drew on the thousands of photographs he's shot on his Medical Aid trips, which frequently took him to the same villages year after year, most of which are populated by Lenca, a Highland Mayan people.
"After that long, you see families come all the way from having kids to those kids having kids," he said.
He's also been able to witness the political changes and unraveling social structures, such as the increase in emigration to Mexico, where the Lenca youths travel to seek better-paying work.
For several years, Wilson painted landscapes almost exclusively with a palette knife, creating highly textured areas of movement.
"People responded really well to it," he said. "They liked the visceral look."
Gallery owner Dudley Dana, who's represented Wilson for a decade or so and has traveled with him to South America on vacations, said, "David's painting to me it has a lot of heart," citing his use of texture and color.
"One of the things that's probably not as well known ... is what a good portrait artist he is," Dana said.
Creating the artwork for "At the Bend" on site wasn't an option. He stopped painting during his trips because his supplies were frequently confiscated by customs, both on the Honduras and U.S. ends.
"I've been asked a few times by the people seizing (them), 'If you were to give these to a kid how would they use them?' " he said.
"I think it means they took them home after work," he said with a laugh.
The portraits of Central American children were combined with other interests: graffiti, often from the California Street tagging wall; stenciled images of weaponry; and abstract, brightly colored brushwork.
"Girl with Helicopter Swarm," pairs a straightforward portrait of a young girl with a flock of helicopters in the background, rendered in flat planes of color in a reference to propaganda posters. While he set down his palette knife, it retains the highly contrasting colors familiar from his landscapes.
The collaboration grew out of a simple trade.
Wilson gave Simms a painting of a scene along the Clark Fork River Trail, where the painter likes to walk his dogs.
Simms, who teaches art at Loyola High School, in turn made Wilson a ceramic platter with an outline of the river as it travels from the University of Montana to the California Street Footbridge, the route Wilson walks his dog on.
They decided that instead of merely exchanging work, they should develop it into a project based on Wilson's Central American paintings.
Simms, a Southern California native who frequently traveled to Mexico, used Google Earth to find satellite images of river systems in the areas that roughly corresponded to the areas of the world Wilson's paintings depict.
He placed a transparency over the satellite image, drew the river's path and blew the image up on a projector, then traced it onto the wet clay and carved out the path.
Simms tailored his methods to match the tone of Wilson's paintings.
The platters were soda-fired and wood-fired, which he knew would "abuse" the clay. It deliberately created cracks and warps, which reflect the political situations that Wilson tackles.
He's continuing to pursue the platter concept, but is using rivers with more immediately personal meanings to him: the Clark Fork, Blackfoot, Smith, Bitterroot and South Fork of the Flathead. Simms said seeing the final work in the gallery was "better than my expectations, which were high."
Wilson said it was a "fun adventure" determining how their mediums would work together.
Creating portraits with stenciling and graffiti-informed backgrounds was a new style for him.
"That's something I really wanted to be part of this group of pieces," he said.
He's previously created a set of portraits of dogs from Honduras that had gold-leaf backgrounds, but "At the Bend" was his furthest venture yet into the form, one he'll continue to experiment with.
"This was kind of going over the edge," he said.