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Megan Moore painting detail

"Persephone and Zeus," (detail), oil on birch panel, by Megan Moore.

A Missoula painter known for quiet, intense portraits of strangers draws on Greek myths in a new series of paintings.

Megan Moore used the stories of Persephone in the underworld as her jumping-off point in the works, which are now on display at the Radius Gallery.

Moore doesn't think of these as academic depictions of myths - she was interested in inhabiting their stories of universal human experiences such as loss and the longing for youth.

"The myth is our human story. It's not a rarefied story that happens to exalted beings. They're so important because it's our human experience," she said.

"Hekate Joins the Search for Persephone" depicts a prone figure in a patterned white-and-blue robe. Above her is a contrasting field of green that masks the trunks of gold-leaf trees, where the childless goddess traveled to help seek the daughter of Zeus and Demeter.

Moore also gleaned inspiration from psychologist Carl Jung's theories about myths and shadow selves, and the Underworld of Hades as a symbol of the unconscious.

Moore "imagined that the way she helps with the search is by looking inward and closing her eyes and being without sight," she said.

"This is a person who actively searching, yet she is in a prone position being still with her eyes closed," Moore said.

Another in the series, "Persephone and Zeus," depicts the god's daughter as a baby girl wrapped in a long, flowing white-and-blue striped cloth. The background is dominated by gold leaf over a deep blue background, a treatment of Zeus as a kind of "magma from which she emerges," Moore said, everywhere but nowhere.

***

Moore started painting at age 37. She took a course at the University of Montana with Marilyn Bruya and studied in private sessions with renowned artist James Todd, then the head of the fine art program.

He saw a talent for painting and gave her critiques during long talks.

She said she was honored that he encouraged and mentored her as a nontraditional student starting her work relatively late in life. And she hopes that other people will be encouraged to start painting later in life by her self-taught example.

The Artist's Magazine saw that talent as well - one of her paintings placed second in the portrait category in the Best of 2006 issue.

She worked in private commissions for years - including a piece for the Los Angeles Lakers, "The Gateless Gate," an oil on birch panel that measures 84 inches wide and 33 inches tall. At center of the row of the championship team is Shaquille O'Neal, to his right is Kobe Bryant.

In 2010, she was one of three artists included in a "Variations in Portraiture" show at the Missoula Art Museum.

After a series of bad experiences with private commissions, she decided the lengthy process wasn't worth the stress or even the money, which she desperately needed.

She said private commissions are a "set-up for failure" for her.

For instance, if a someone commissions a portrait of their loved one, "they have an investment in the person looking like they see the person." The flattery required and requests for adjustments became a "transgression of her integrity" that she couldn't take anymore.

If she turns in an accurately rendered portrait, the client will be upset that it clashes with their personal vision. Or they may be upset that it's not a smiling portrait, where Moore prefers a "relaxed countenance."

She said retiring from private commissions was a stressful, life-changing choice.

"I had pretty much decided I wasn't going to paint anymore," she said.

She focused on her work as a massage therapist and decided not to pursue painting professionally for several years.

After several years, she began a painting for herself for the first time in years, versus a commission. The owners of the Radius Gallery, Lisa Simon and Jason Neal, reached out to see if she wanted local representation.

***

From the beginning, Moore never had the impulse to paint anything but people.

She appreciates landscape, whether on canvas or as part of life in a mountain town, but doesn't feel the "strong pull" she does to paint the figure. Animals, too, are a big part of her life, and she said she could imagine painting them in the future.

Accurately rendering the human face has been her focus, and she can rattle off the myriad details that must be correct for a portrait to succeed: the subtle curves in the iris, the shape of the nostril, the opening of the mouth, the muscles in the upper lip and the brow - "it's endless," she says.

"You can't imagine how sensitive the human eye is to something that's not right when it's been rendered by the human hand," she said.

She also has a list of quotes that point out what happens when little details aren't nailed:

A friend once told her that "most portraits look like the person's sibling."

Or the famed portrait painter John Singer Sargent, who said, "a portrait is a painting with something wrong with the mouth."

***

Her focus on the figure extends to her backgrounds, which include intricate patterns, scumbled fields of color or solid washes in lieu of backdrops or furniture-filled settings.

She says the "story is in the figure" for her and finds that this style can support the people in her paintings and not detract from them. Other painters have their own way, she says, but her backgrounds are what suit her.

Composition is also something she focuses on deeply, such as her painting "Sisyphus," also on display at the Radius Gallery.

The figure is situated at the bottom of the 2-foot tall, 1-foot wide birch panel.

A scumbled background of green fills much of the center of the panel, and at the top is a quote, "One must imagine Sisyphus happy."

It's from the French existentialist Albert Camus and his essay on the king, who was punished by the gods to continually roll a rock up a hill, only to see it roll back down. The full quote reads, "The struggle is enough to fill a man's heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy."

Simon, who's taught English at the college level - including this essay - said Camus argues that moment when the rock is rolling down is when Sisyphus is free.

"It's the little bit of existential control that we have in a world of suffering," she said.

The figure, with a mane of gray hair and a hunched back, implies his repeated labor and its burdens without explicitly showing the rock or the hill, which was important to Moore.

"The challenge is to find a true way to present that without it being a trite old image," she said.

***

The other two paintings in the Persephone series also depict solitary figures.

In "A Murmur from Hades," Moore imagines Persephone as a little girl. She stands in a field during the edge of winter, giving a troubled glance to her right.

It's "her first intimation of the unknown world," Moore said, "a murmur of what's to come."

Simon pointed to the girl's expression as an example of the way Moore captures "the moment our expressions signify outside action."

The final work is a portrait of Demeter after the devastating loss of her daughter. According to the myth, she descends to the earth and everything in path - animals, fields, all life - dies.

In this imagining, Demeter's face occupies the center of a horizontal birch panel. Her eyes look ravaged and angry, surrounded by dark circles. Her lips are partially pursed, with a slight curl on her right.

Like all of Moore's portraits, it was based on a photograph she took. Her Sisyphus was a retired University of Montana philosophy professor. Hecate was her mother, the young Persephone her niece.

Demeter was a housekeeper at a Hampton Inn in New York City that she saw some years ago.

"I was just so taken by her face ... that I asked her if I could take her picture," she said.

Simon said Moore's paintings have always been filled with stories about the people she paints.

In her previous portraits, though, the specific back stories weren't shared. By using myths, she's moved in the realm of shared stories, Simon said.

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