WEST GLACIER - The sheer scale of Glacier National Park's mountain scenery, the transcendent geology - uplifted and uplifting - has served as muse for centuries of artists.
Long before the park was a park, Native American and then European artists tapped this inspirational wellspring, connecting to the landscape with creations of their own.
Later, in the early years of the park's protected history, the Great Northern Railway invited well-known artists to live and work among the peaks. John Fery worked here, and Kathryn Leighton and Winold Reiss, too. Charles M. Russell spent most of 20 summers on the shores of Lake McDonald - painting, of course, but also sculpting with mosses, bark and stone.
Some sketched and some painted. Some wrote poetry. Some sculpted, or carved, or composed.
"I used my special crayons," said Julia Wynne, the park's latest in a long line of accomplished artists. "I thought that would be neat, because they make the pictures kind of bumpy."
Julia is just 8 years old, the winner of a recent postcards-from-the-park contest, tops in the first- and second-grade category. Her brother, Jackson, brought home second place in the category for third-, fourth- and fifth-graders.
Julia's picture is classic Glacier Park - an eagle soaring over a wildflower-fringed lake, mountain peaks scaling blue sky above. It's a scene she's watched play out many times during her short life.
"I like to see all the flowers," Julia said. "I like the pretty white ones, but I don't remember what they're called."
Usually, Julia works in colored marker, and tends toward fairies and horses. Jackson likes pencil, and draws dragons and castles. But for this contest - the third of its kind - the park put boundaries on their artistic license.
The work had to be a specific size, and had to portray the park, with an emphasis on long-term preservation and Glacier's upcoming centennial birthday. And it had to contain some text, explaining all of that.
"I think Glacier National Park is the most beautiful place!" Julia wrote. "Gorgeous flowers are spread all over the trail. Flowing rivers fill your ears with joy. The amazing snow-capped mountains make me happy when I look at them. I like to imagine bears searching for berries. Mountain goats are white as snow as they walk around the trails. I never want Glacier National Park to change."
Her words, inked in a tidy if crowded hand beneath the wildflowers, will be captured as a postcard, shared far and wide by the summer season's tourists. The competition is sponsored by the Glacier Natural History Association, with help from the park's education and outreach staff.
"It's been a great project," said Wendy Hill, executive director of GNHA. "The kids are just so talented."
The idea, Hill said, grew from a book proposal by local author Alan Leftridge. He was writing "Going to Glacier," a slim volume aimed at kids and full of park facts.
But which facts?
"We thought, wouldn't it be great if we could find out what the kids want to learn about," Hill said. And so they headed out on a research trip, to a local fourth-grade classroom.
Turns out, the kids wanted to know about the park's animals, and about how a glacier gets made.
From that field trip grew another idea - an art contest that asked kids to portray "what Glacier means to me."
Kids like the park, and kids like to draw. It was a natural.
The first-place submissions are made into postcards, which are given away free at GNHA outlets, picked up and mailed out by hundreds of tourists.
"I'm always so amazed by how emotional the artwork is," said Laura Law, education specialist for Glacier. "These kids totally understand what this place is all about. They get it, and they're able to express that in art."
It is, she said, just another way of knowing a place, an alternative to the usual science field trips. The words - often in poem form - are just one more layer of knowing and expressing.
"Kids are unabashed about sharing their emotions on the page," Law said. "The poems in particular are just so powerful, so clear and raw."
"Emerald grass leans from side to side,
Violet and buttercup flowers smile toward us.
The bright sun casts our shadows.
With each gentle step,
We walk together, forever more."
That from Karmyn Carlson, a senior at Columbia Falls High School who took first place in her age group. The poem suggests what Carlson has captured in gentle watercolors - a pair of young mountain sheep, a timeless portrait of Glacier's high meadows.
"We actually used the contest as a class project," said Carlson's art teacher, Kate Daniels. Two more of Daniels' students - Demari Dereu and Parker Johnson - placed second and third in the competition.
"All three definitely have a lot of talent," Daniels said. "Hopefully, they'll keep pursuing their art."
Undoubtedly, they'll keep pursuing their time in the park.
"We've always spent time in Glacier," Dereu said, where she hikes, sketches and camps. She's been captured by the endurance of place, she said, by the timelessness of a 100-year-old park that is so very much older than that - in her poem, she calls it the "back before."
For the younger kids, the park is static - always was, always will be. For the older artists, though, it's a place caught on the cusp of change - "the glaciers are melting," Johnson said. "I wish they could be there in another 100 years."
But Kailyn Jordt, whose rainbow over Indian paintbrush earned her a second-place finish among 8-year-olds, figures the park "will still be kind of the same" in 100 years. There will still be bears, she predicted, and there will still be goats, and her favorite wildflowers, too.
And probably there will be artists, as well, young and old, in crayon and watercolor, weaving together moss and stone and blue sky waters, just as there have been for so many centuries.
"The park is a powerful inspiration," Law said. "It's a great source of creativity, and the kids, especially, can really make that bridge."
Reporter Michael Jamison can be reached at 1-800-366-7186 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.