For artist Kat Houseman, painting Montana’s wildlife is about much more than just capturing their beauty. It’s about creating art that will spark curiosity and lead to conversations about the conservation of animals.
“I’ve always been an animal enthusiast,” said the Great Falls native and Bellingham, Washington-based painter.
Her new exhibition, “Birds, Bears and Bees,” is on display at 4 Ravens Gallery and features a variety of oil on canvas springtime wildlife portraits she painted while quarantined due to COVID-19.
“Knowing that it was going to be shown in June, I was considering the fact that it’s springtime and what makes me think of springtime in Montana and it’s the return of all the birds, the bears coming out of hibernation, and bees,” Houseman said.
Art enthusiasts familiar with her work may notice a new species in her Rolodex, as the show features a few bee paintings.
“I hadn’t done insects before,” she said. “Bees have been more of a topic of conversation recently. They’re so important to our world and haven’t really been a subject matter of mine, so it was fun to play with that and kind of incorporate them.”
Houseman spent much of her childhood outdoors, taking advantage of Glacier and Yellowstone national parks, and attending Western Art Week every year in her hometown, so her path to wildlife painting isn’t surprising.
Her uncle, Kenneth “Chip” Houseman, was a well-known wildlife cinematographer and avid conservationist who lived in Missoula for some time and went on to win a British Academy Television Craft Award for wildlife photography.
“My uncle would come back from these crazy adventures and show us endless amounts of slides that he had taken of the wildlife and films that he had created, so that certainly was an influence,” she said.
At Western Art Week, she found herself drawn to the wildlife painters.
“It’s all about cowboys and whatnot and I was always drawn to the horses and the cows over the actual human figures in the works.”
She paints strictly in the Alla Prima style, with visible brush strokes and layers of paint that create a unique texture.
“I enjoy the idea, the thought that you can easily tell it’s a painting, you can easily see the brush work,” she said. “I like being able to actually see the paint and how it was applied.”
She said little pre-planning goes into her work and usually she just sits down and starts painting.
"I'm kind of impatient when it comes to creating. I am always amazed by people that can do hyper-realism … where each individual hair exists on the canvas," she said. "I'm more of an impulsive person when it comes to painting."
The exhibition features small and large works, making it accessible to a broad range of art collectors. She even created a series of miniature paintings that are 4 by 4 inches and cost $60 apiece.
“I very much am a fan of creating minis so that everyone can collect it,” she said.
Judith Colvin, one of seven partner-owners of 4 Ravens, said they reached out to Houseman to do the first new show since the shutdown because her work has always been well-received at their shop.
“The focus of our gallery is really contemporary fine craft,” Colvin said. “Of course wildlife fits in perfectly with Montana and her work is contemporary.”
Houseman grew up surrounded by the classic American Western art she saw at the C.M. Russell Museum in Great Falls and she hopes her contemporary wildlife pieces can be seen as part of the Western art world.
“I’d love for it to kind of cross both fences, be contemporary but also fit into what we view as art in the western half of the United States,” she said.
Colvin said that since reopening, May was incredibly slow in terms of business, but she’s seen an uptick in traffic in the past couple weeks.
“It’s still slow, but (there are) a lot of tourists already and they are shopping.”
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