Painting outdoors has something in common with fly-fishing to Kristi Hager.
There’s a “single point of concentration, and the rest of the world goes away.”
The Missoula artist’s new series, “Love Letters of Missoula,” on view at the Radius Gallery, depicts scenes around the city where she's lived since 1997, most often painted on site, and sometimes completed in the studio. She started it during the pandemic, when working outdoors was natural, and she zeroed in on places that are important to her.
Her ambition was to make the paintings “local” in a good way, and she thought of the writer Henry Miller’s book, “How to Paint is to Love Again.” Working on scenes around the city, such as Rattlesnake Creek, the PEAS Farm, or a beach on the Clark Fork River, she said you become more attached through all the concentration you give them.
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“You spend all that time with it, in a way that is very focused," she said. "And so you deepen your connection to that thing. You begin to see a particular place in a more powerful way.”
Hager is a member of the Pattee Canyon Ladies’ Salon, a group of artists who met regularly for decades for life-drawing sessions. Their art and history will be the subject of an exhibition at the Montana Museum of Art & Culture, “Focus on the Figure: The Pattee Canyon Ladies Salon, 1989-2022,” that will be on view Oct. 14-Jan. 9. The show also pays tribute to their founding member, Nancy Erickson, who died in early 2022.
Hager’s last solo exhibition was at the Missoula Art Museum in 2020-21. (It also traveled the state). For “Equal: A Work in Progress,” she created large-scale black and white portraits on fabric of women in a photorealist style. She said the work was a celebration of the Equal Rights Amendment and the 100th anniversary of women’s suffrage, a way of saying “we’re still out there.” It was an important project for her, and after completing the project, and then getting through some serious health issues, she needed to do something more straight-forward.
“I just said, I want to paint things I love, and I didn’t even think about it as this show so much," she recalled. "I just want to celebrate the things I love right here, where I live, and what gives me not only pleasure but just improves my whole quality of life.”
Early on, Hager told herself that they aren’t avant-garde paintings, but naturalistic ones and she aimed for the unsentimental.
She wasn’t trying to think of iconic things, but places that she enjoys: hanging out on Rattlesnake Creek, the beaches and trails on the Clark Fork River, watching the surfers on Brennan’s Wave. (They’re seen in one painting, in all the variations: getting ready to drop in, riding atop the whitewater, and battling through it.)
A first stop was Splash Montana, where she swims nearly every day during the summer. In one piece, swimmers take a lap, composed in a strong horizontal view of the pool. In another, pennants blow in the wind of an empty pool, its bottom lined with lane markers, and a lifeguard walks along the edge. (It’s the last day the pool's open, typically a sad one for her.)
During a walk on the Clark Fork during September, “every possible kind of flotation device was coming down the river. It was a hot, hot early September day, and I just got taken in by that. The colors, what people wear when they’re recreating on the water.”
She’s painted a series of empty canoes, in which the color of light on the water was the focus. Now, she decided to take the step and work with the floaters — one painting boasts two women on paddleboards, deep in conversation as indicated by their casual gestures (which also signal that it’s a very lazy river).
Hager works in varied mediums. She did a series of paintings of the figure in camouflage; she’s a professional photographer who’s documented historic buildings and structures that have been archived in the Library of Congress. There were also the regular life-drawing sessions, which went on hold during the pandemic.
Plein air, though, is a different endeavor.
“The wind is blowing, the sun is moving, everything is alive,” she said. “Alive” as in “changing.” The scene offers about an hour, maybe an hour and a half, before the light and clouds have shifted significantly.
“It’s much more immediate, what I call simultaneous translation of what I’m seeing onto this two-dimensional panel," she said. "It’s energizing. There’s a different level of concentration. In the studio, you have all the time in the world. Infinite time to deal with whatever’s bothering you or you can’t figure out. When you’re out there, you just gotta keep the brush moving, so it allows you to get out of your head."
She said she’s noticed that in Impressionist paintings, it’s often a sunny day — the kind of day when you’re out painting. At an artist residency in Vermont during November, she saw painters going out to paint plein air, like “guerilla painting,” and she thought there’s “something fabulous about being out there when it’s not nice.”
So she rendered views of Mount Jumbo and Hellgate Canyon during late fall’s grayer skies — the face of Jumbo is washed in snow, or the top of Sentinel is dotted to match the inversion.
On the opposite end of the spectrum is a view of the Orange Street Food Farm at sunset. She walked out one evening and “the sky was on fire in every direction,” she said. It was after a rainfall, and the parked cars and puddles were lit up and reflective.
She thought, “this is so over the top, and it’s the Food Farm. I’m gonna do it.”
Another, of Rattlesnake Creek and the colored rocks seen through the translucent water, was painted in the studio. The modeling of light was challenging. “Like, OK, how complicated can I make this?” she said.
The list of locations as a whole, she noticed, all take place on public open space.
“It is what makes for me, this place so livable, and this open space and the recreational opportunities … they don’t happen by accident,” she said.