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The details matter to Hadley Ferguson.

The Missoula muralist's upstairs home studio has Ziploc bags of 1920s fabric samples and old Sears catalogs.

Her laptop is neatly filled with folders and folders of files she found from sources such as the Harvard University photo collections.

After all, her latest public art project, "Women Build Montana," unveiled last week, represents the first new artwork to go up in the state Capitol in Helena since 1928.

She has to know whether the color palette will display well in the light of the third floor's grand stairway, and whether a Native woman would braid her hair a certain way in the late 1800s.

But what weighed heavier on her mind during the years-long process was the mural's subject: the women of Montana.

"I have a daughter. I'm a woman who was born and raised in Montana. Sharing that and having that in the Capitol is pretty special," she said.

The murals are the product of the Women's History Project, a bill that was passed in 2011 in honor of the 100th anniversary of women's suffrage.

Their purpose is to honor the role that all women of all ethnic groups played in building Montana's communities – from the era of maintaining a homestead in a harsh environment to the shaping of political and public life.

Her completed works are two 5-by-10-foot sepia-toned murals on powder-coated aluminum. ("It's going to be able to last a long time," she said.)

Each is dominated by a focal scene enclosed in a vintage-style oval and with four auxiliary scenes in the corners, all clustered with minute details, from the shading on a peach slice to the lettering on a craft book.

They depict women in professions: working telephone switches and running businesses, or creating and passing on culture, canning food and sewing the state flag.

They picture Native women demonstrating medicinal goods and digging bitterroots; African-American women distributing scholarships; Native women and Caucasian women exchanging goods.

There are myriad details, so many that she's worn out 38 of her smallest brushes in the process.


The murals originated with former state Sen. Lynda Moss of Billings, who noticed that the artwork in the Capitol was heavy on males, but didn't pay tribute to everyone who shapes Montana life.

She partnered with fellow legislator Diane Sands of Missoula, and the two got the bill passed in the 2011 Legislature.

The entire project was funded with private donations, because state appropriations cannot be used for such improvements in the Capitol, according to Sands.

She said the AAUW of Missoula gave the first donation of $5,000, another $10,000 came from the state group and there were many individual donations.

Ferguson was one of three finalists, beating out commissioned artists from New York and Maine.

"I was just really thrilled Hadley's doing it," said Sands, a historian. She said Ferguson, whose murals are displayed around the Missoula area, was the "exact right person." She said Ferguson captured her subjects' humanity while dodging stereotypes.

Ferguson was officially selected to produce the murals in December 2013 and set to work executing her proposal.

She focused on the research and design until April. The drawing was completed in June, and then she began the most time-consuming portion: painting.

Ferguson started with a sepia tone reminiscent of a vintage photograph, a technique she used on her "Heart of Missoula" murals.

"It's all one color, but I keep layering on top to get from the lights to the darks. It's probably about 10 different shades from light to dark," she said.

Once that phase was completed, from the tiny bricks on the Main Street shops to the crags in the distant mountains, she added darker colors for the shadows and layers of lighter tints – lots of green and blue. She avoided tones that were too dark, because they would disappear in the low light of the Capitol.


Helping Ferguson ensure the murals' historical accuracy was Mary Murphy, one of the project's two historians. The Ph.D. professor from Montana State University has taught Western women's history for 20-some years.

Murphy, in fact, wrote the preamble for the bill, which was adapted for the paintings' oval borders:

The first reads:

"Women in communities across Montana pioneered the social institutions we consider a part of community life."

"Montana women have eloquently represented views across the entire spectrum of American politics."

The second says:

"This ground we call Montana bears the marks of generations of women's labor of tipi rings and homestead gardens."

"We know our culture through stories, spoken by mothers to children on reservations and in immigrant communities."

The first mural, dedicated to the theme of "Culture," is dominated by a scene from the late 1890s in western Montana. With rolling mountains in the distance, a Native woman and a settler meet and exchange goods at a homestead in the valley. Ferguson chose it as a way to show "the coming together of cultures."

Murphy said such a scene would have been quite common – the two groups would frequently trade food, medicine and information. There are even examples of Native women acting as midwives.

"Stories of confrontation are the dramatic ones that get remembered in history. The stories of cooperation and ... commingling are the ones that get buried," Murphy said.

It would also be a somewhat important occasion, she noted, so both women wear nice clothes as children, too, are running around and playing.

The corner panels reference the state's agricultural history – farmers harvest sugar beets and Natives dig bitterroots, an important resource and also the state flower.

Ferguson said Murphy was a valuable resource. For example, the historian noted that if the two figures were exchanging chokecherries, it must be spring and the other goods should match. She also helped Ferguson find primary sources to make sure elements were correct.

Murphy tracked down period-specific fabric samples from an antique store in Bozeman and vintage Sears catalogs to use as a reference for clothing, such as the simple patterned purple dress the settler wears.

Ferguson even borrowed items from the Antique Mall on Railroad Street for a scene in an office.

Her laptop has folders filled with images – she estimates that for each figure in the painting, at least 20 photo references were used, collage-style, to design and draw a final scene.

Those could come from Harvard University's online photo collection or the University of Montana's Schreiber Gym, where Ferguson staged some of the scenes with people dressed in period clothing.

When it came to execution, many historical photos weren't much help to a realist who uses such a tiny brush.

"With some of these, I actually took pictures of real people because a lot of the old photos are great but they're fuzzy enough that you can't get some of the real specific details," she said.

They, too, helped her capture the look of a vintage dress billowing in the wind.

In the upper left corner of the mural is a scene of Native women digging bitterroots. Ferguson worked with Julie Cajune, a Salish educator, actor and writer, who took her on a dig along with their daughters. It was a "special day," Ferguson said.

Cajune also helped Ferguson find the right details for Native crafts, medicinal plants, clothing and hairstyles.


Whether you realize it or not, you've likely seen Ferguson's murals around the city.

Her "Heart of Missoula" panels, illustrating the city's history, cover the brick wall of the building at the southwest corner of Broadway and Higgins Avenue in downtown.

Restaurant-goers will recognize her work from the walls of Liquid Planet and the Hob Nob.

She's finishing a series of murals for Missoula Catholic Schools, which will hang in the gym of Loyola Sacred Heart High School, and another is set for the University of Montana School of Forestry.

These historical murals, though, will be the last large public commission Ferguson accepts.

She was diagnosed in 2010 with Parkinson's disease, and in 2013 with multiple system atrophy, a neurological disorder with similar symptoms.

The pace of her work has slowed because of a lower energy level and stiffness, although she logged 60 hours per week on the murals.

She completed the downtown Missoula panels, for instance, in only three months, while the process took nearly seven this time.

"It's definitely a change," she said. "I just have to be patient."

"I have to be OK with it, which is sometimes hard. I have to be OK with it if all I've done is a little 10-by-10-inch square and not get upset with myself if I haven't done more," she said.

Her husband, John, said it was a community effort to help her keep her energy up.

Their 8-year-old daughter Sarah would come upstairs to do her homework while Ferguson painted, and friends would stop by and visit.

Her friends and daughter, in fact, helped her apply the 18 layers of paint to the border, which alone consumed some 245 hours.

Ferguson said John and Sarah and her mom have "been super-supportive through this and they've all been a part of this – helping me get through it," she said.

And they're what she wants to focus on now.

"I'm not taking anything on and I won't be because it's now time to quote-unquote retire from commissions and focus on family. I'll do my own painting, but I just won't do commissions," she said.

She plans on painting smaller works for herself. Well, "smaller" meaning not 10 feet across.

"It's wide open," she said, adding that she's looking forward to a new direction and what comes of the next years.


Across the grand stairway in the Capitol is Ferguson's second mural, dedicated to the theme of "Community." It's set in a non-specified eastern Montana community in 1924, 10 years after suffrage for women in the state.

"To include all women who could vote, we put it into 1924 when the Citizenship Act was passed," Ferguson said, referencing the legislation that gave Native women the right to vote.

On a quiet Main Street, women hang posters with tiny, meticulous lettering – for the League of Women Voters and the 10th anniversary of women's suffrage.

The businesses lining the block subtly reference fields and industries in which women played key roles – a bookstore, millinery, bank, bakery, library and photography studio, a nod to the work women like Evelyn Cameron did in the medium.

"We tried to get a lot of different things in: education, occupations, professional jobs, living on the land, politics, leadership. There's a whole lot to get in there," Ferguson said.

A Pekin Noodle Parlor nods to the state's Asian population. In the upper left corner of the panel are members of the Montana Federation of Negro Women's Clubs.

"We had several chapters in towns around Montana. One really important aspect to their group was education, so they're handing a scholarship to a girl who's going to be able to go to college," she said.

In fact, there was so much to include that Ferguson doubled the original call for art.

The bill specified using the east or the west wall, but Ferguson couldn't imagine trying to fit so much information in a single panel. Her winning proposal was for two at the same cost.

One thing you won't find are any recognizable historical figures, which was a requirement written into the bill.

"Basically, anyone could look at these and see themselves in them somehow. And you don't have to be a famous figure to be part of this," Ferguson said.


Once the paintings were completed, they were delivered to Rick's Auto Body where they were powder-coated. The material will protect the painting from wear without having to use a reflective Plexiglas display case once they were mounted to the wall in Helena for Wednesday's dedication.

The many people who made the community-minded murals possible, Moss and Sands, Murphy and Cajune, members of the committee who worked on it, and Ferguson's family and friends from as far away as Oregon and Texas, helped pack the hallway near the murals and spill down the stairway.

Montana first lady Lisa Bullock called it a "monumental moment" and thanked the artist for her perseverance.

After the ceremony, Ferguson took pictures with loved ones and friends in front of the murals.

She said she spent all that time working on it hoping the colors would fit well – whether the greens and blues and sepias would match the stained glass and railings of the historic building.

To see them finally in place, she said, "feels wonderful."

"They look how I wanted them to look," she said. "It feels right."

She said finishing a project and moving on are part of the process.

"You leave it here, and it's always here," she said.

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Arts & Entertainment Reporter

Entertainment editor for the Missoulian.