After Karen McAlister Shimoda moved from Missoula to Portland, Oregon, in 2014, she became infatuated with the lush urban canopy, calling it the "dream environment" she had growing up in Southern California.

She went on long walks and hikes, including visits to the 5,000-acre Forest Park, located right within the city.

"I feel so alive walking through the forests. That's when I feel most alive, other than making art," she said.

She signed up for classes on identifying different types of conifer trees, and on her outings took notes and shot photographs with her cellphone as references for her ink drawings, created with the tiny-tipped Micron pens.

After awhile, she began to take fewer pictures and instead concentrate on the memory of the place rather than specific details.

"I was taking photos right and left, and I thought, 'I'm not paying attention to the feeling of being here. I'm pulling my iPhone out of pocket every five seconds. I really tried to steer away from that, to the point now where I don't take it out at all," she said.

"Whatever my memory wanted to hold on to would come out in my work," she said.

Three different bodies of work have emerged from those ventures: detailed black-and-white pen drawings of different tree bark (those were more reference-heavy), cubes with 6-inch abstract-expressionist paintings on each side, and accordion-fold books of drawings.

Shimoda included one more piece in "Field Notes," her solo exhibition opening on Friday at the Missoula Art Museum. It's her original field notes themselves, gathered into a book of drawings and hand-written notes, displayed in what she described as an altar-like fashion.

"I pulled them out of the journal and coated all of them with white acrylic to erase the facts and the actualities so that you just rely on emotional memory," she said.

"Even drawings I really liked, I covered them up. All the facts that I learned are gone," she said – blurred beneath the thin coats of paint.


The pen drawings most closely resemble Shimoda's previous work, which included abstracted maps. For instance, her rendering of the bark of a ponderosa pine, the state tree of Montana, could be a drawing of a river delta.

"Each scale is really worlds within itself," she said.

While that drawing was done in a pointillist fashion that she's most familiar with, she also began to explore new kinds of mark-making. The Western red cedar is rendered with flowing vertical lines, and the Western hemlock with small clusters of horizontal rectangles stacked one atop the other. She likes the way it resembles slate or some ancient decaying structure.

MAM curator Brandon Reintjes described the tightly interlocking linework as a "whole symphony of marks."

The cubes are a newer body of work for her, and a less familiar medium: black-and-white acrylic doled out with a palette knife.

Unlike the drawings, they don't have specific references to nature, only her way of "expressing the emotional recollections of what I saw on my walks and hikes." Each is named after a specific area, such as the Bitterroot Branch or the Blue Mountain trails.

Some are ghostly black forms on all-white, that recall the abstract expressionist work she loved when she was younger. Others, such as the Blue Mountain or Wildwood pieces, have marbled but kinetic finishes. Each piece, which will hang on the wall, comprises five individual paintings.

The books, meanwhile, began as long horizontal drawings that she felt would work better as an accordion fold. She has another career as an editor, and loves using books and journals in her art: deconstructing them and repurposing them.

Shimoda, who also loves expressionist landscape and portraiture, hopes people who feel abstract paintings like hers will communicate with viewers, even if they don't feel that they understand them entirely.

She's a fan of modernist poetry, and says she often isn't able to unlock its meanings. Instead, she finds phrases or rhythms that she enjoys.

"I start to pull out things that appeal to me," she said.

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