Mary Beth Percival's life was defined by her art. After her passing, it stands as a record of the phases of her life.
Her husband Monte Dolack, among the most well-known artists in Montana, has been slowly combing through her archives: a body of work that she stopped adding to only six months before she died after a years-long struggle with Alzheimer's disease.
He's found a picture of her, maybe 6 or 7 years old, in the Wise River area where her father was a Forest Service ranger. She's in the snow, drawing away.
He uncovered a sketch she drew of him when they first met in the mid-1970s, when she wandered into his studio in downtown Missoula.
Over the ensuing decades together, they traveled extensively to Hawaii, Europe, Japan and more. While many tourists snap photos and hurry on to the next destination, the two would set up for hours-long plein air sessions.
For 22 years, they two kept their well-known gallery on Front Street, where they sold their work and became familiar names to art lovers in Montana and farther afield.
In 2010, she "retired" from showing her new art publicly due to Alzheimer's. She continued painting, but her work slowly began to change. The landscape, her favorite subject, became more dream-like and surreal, Dolack said.
Work from all these phases of her career will be on display at the Frame of Mind shop in honor of Percival, who died in December 2016 at age 71. Amy Doty, the owner of the gallery, said they wanted to show the full range: from her meticulously drafted drawings, quick sketches from her trips, her landscapes and commercial posters, and the works from her later years.
"This is one of my favorite paintings of hers," Dolack said in the gallery earlier this week while admiring a picture from 2002. "She did a lot of flower paintings, but I think it's the best bitterroot painting," he said. For many years, they lived in the Lincoln Hills area of the Rattlesnake, with easy access to Mount Jumbo and Waterworks Hill.
"I've never seen a better one anywhere," he said. Those areas were dear to Percival: she was commissioned to create a poster in 1993, during the drive to purchase and preserve Mount Jumbo as public land.
The natural world was an important part of her life. She was born in Shelby and grew up in the Big Hole and Boulder valleys. While her father was a ranger, her mother was a schoolteacher. She went on to earn degrees in both and art and teaching from the University of Montana, but soon dedicated herself to art full-time.
The two met during the halcyon days of downtown Missoula. Dolack kept a studio above the Top Hat Lounge. One of the Perical's paintings in the retrospective hearkens back to that time: A portrait of Alexis Carmel Alexander, a flamboyantly dressed fixture in the Hat and Eddie's Club, now Charlie B's. Dolack painted her, too, for the first Aber Day Kegger poster in 1977.
Despite their Montana roots, the two more than once considered moving to the Bay Area or Seattle to advance their careers. The idea never took.
"We'd come back to Missoula, and we'd just like being closer to nature and we had a community here and felt like we were a part of something here," Dolack said. "It's nice to have that sense of, I don't know, belonging to a place."
They opened their own gallery on Front Street to showcase their own work. Dolack laughs a bit and says he's not sure what they were thinking. Even to this day, it's rare for a Montana artist to own their own gallery.
"Most artists work with a gallery and then they spend their time making art. Between the two of us, we had so many images," he said. They kept it open more than two decades, during which time it was a regular stop for thousands of people on First Fridays. They didn't close it until 2015, when they moved their collection to Doty's shop, where she sells prints of their full catalog and curates exhibitions of their work.
To compensate for staying in their home state, Dolack and Percival opted to travel frequently. The exhibition has on-the-spot watercolors from France and Hawaii.
He said their plein-air vacation expeditions were fun: scouting for the right spot, noting ones that they'd have to revisit later when the light was better.
"It was something that we could do together and share," he said. It's an usual way of sight-seeing, too, spending so much time in one place. He recalls one trip to Glacier National Park when they set up to do a water scene.
"We stopped at McDonald Creek, with the beautiful red rocks and turquoise water," he said. They arranged their easels and stayed for four full hours until the light shifted. Not many of the other tourists stayed for long, he said. They'd get out of the car, snap a picture and drive off again.
"It's like they took a picture so they could remember it later," he said. It's different when you sit quietly for hours at a stretch, studying the same scene and recording it in a picture, he said. It's there, ingrained in you afterward.
The two were at ease working together and offering each other advice.
"She was a really good influence on my art, because she was someone who could come in and look at something and go, 'What about this?' " he said. "I could do the same with hers."
Percival was always drawing, even sketching newscasters if the two happened to be watching television. She kept illustrated journals that are among the large archive of work that he's sifting through. He'd like to photograph them all in sequence to show the progression of her Alzheimer's.
He's making arrangements to donate her archives to the University of Montana, in the hopes that they can be studied in the future.
"I think there's probably an interesting link there, not only in the work she did over a period of time, but how it changed," he said. "I'm hoping in some way that can contribute to understanding of the disease and recognizing that it's occurring." Many artists suffered from similar diseases and continued to work. Scientists have studied the work of Willem de Kooning for early signs of cognitive decline: in the later period of his life when he had dementia, his frenetic abstract expressionist paintings began to simplify further and further into sparse lines and colors.
Dolack said he began to notice the change in Percival's work five to six years ago, perhaps longer. Other people have told him that in retrospect, they can see hints of it much earlier.
Some of the later pieces in the retrospective are much looser, such as the two "Forest Spirits" paintings. In the second of the two, a ghostly, transparent fawn grazes in a bed of red flowers, framed by a dream-like forest of exaggerated scarlet and vermilion. The vertical strips of color remind Dolack of the PET scans that show amyloid plaques building up in the brain of Alzheimer's patients.
He recalls one commissioned piece of a fishing camp that Percival was working on, in which she added a second horizon hovering above the first, another example of her work becoming more surreal with time.
After her Alzheimer's grew more intense, Dolack would set up a drawing table for her in his studio with a vase of flowers or still life. Later, he would do a foundation sketch to get her started.
Art was therapeutic for her, when she was cared for primarily by Dolack and their friend Mary Huddle, a nurse practitioner with an art background. She later enrolled in art therapy at Edgewood Memory Care facility.
She continued to work until about six months before she died. Dolack believes it will take months to sort through her work, and arrange it chronologically and photograph it all, documenting the change, a kind of perseverance at the end of a creative life.
"My plan is to go through everything and have a timeline, whatever that leads to, a further exhibition at some point that shows the progression," he said. "What it does reflect is that a creative person who loves to make art, they keep doing it even with a disease like that."