Renée Brown has been a rockhound all her life.
She was the kid rifling through the drawers of polished quartz at museums.
She was the 28-year-old who quit her job before giving up ceramics classes.
After she'd done that, and found herself in Tuscany furthering her learning about ceramics, she'd pick up stones on the way back home after a day's studies.
It wasn't until years later that she began inventing, in clay, her own crystals, which take forms like lichen and rutiles and extrapolate them out into her own expressions – totally imaginary, but organic in feel.
"I want it to feel like it grew over time," she said earlier this week while installing her exhibition, "Profusion," at the Missoula Art Museum, her first solo show there.
The pieces at the MAM have her first use of several new materials: wood and glass.
The wood is fractured and jagged, made to resemble rutile, which grows long strands, called elongated and striated crystals, that look like petrified hairs.
The "lichenite," meanwhile is rooted in pyrite suns, small crystals that resemble sun dollars.
She commissioned blown glass from Ona Magaro of Livingston – small bulbous pieces that resemble something an undersea plant would sprout.
Brown strives to create pieces, like the minerals she's inspired by, that look as though they grew into being over a long period of time. For her, this means composing by feel.
She makes the crystals individually, carving them from clay, firing and then decorating.
She then begins assembling the sculptures, bit by bit.
"It's very – not to get all Buddhist on you – but it's very much like a meditation of taking one step and making sure it feels right, and taking another step and making sure it feels right," she said.
"This whole thing starts with taking two pieces and putting them together, and then attaching them, and then going to the next one," she said. "So I don't lay it out first, I just do it, wait for it to feel right, place it, epoxy it, wait for it to feel right, place it, epoxy it.
"So it's almost like a walking meditation in art," she said.
MAM curator Steve Glueckert said Brown's work – and her new exhibition have evolved away from functional ceramics while still remaining rooted in its history.
"It doesn't have anything to do with vessels, but it certainly has a lot to do with the origins of ceramics," he said.
Brown has sometimes found herself using a ceramic glaze that contains the very mineral she was inspired by, such as copper.
Glueckert said some of the sculptures reminded him of snorkeling in the Great Barrier Reef, the sort of personal association Brown enjoys hearing.
"That's what I love about it, is people bring their own narratives," Brown said.
She makes the pieces for her own particular reasons, but people make their own connections, whether it's coral or a stalagmite.
"It might not be what I intended, but it's one of the most fulfilling moments for me – to watch people attach their narratives. As soon as they do that, I know that I've got 'em," she said.
Brown grew up in Conyers, Georgia, a small town about 24 miles outside Atlanta.
She was a rockhound as a kid, and her parents took her to Yosemite and Petrified Forest national parks, and large museums in Washington, D.C.
Brown studied interior design in college and worked her way up to a senior designer post at an Atlanta firm. She was 28 and on the partner track when she was told she'd need to quit her ceramics classes at night and put in more overtime if she wanted to further her career.
"So rather than resigning the clay classes, I resigned my job and kind of surprised everyone," she said.
She enrolled in an MFA program at the University of North Texas. After finishing her degree, she headed to the Archie Bray Foundation in Helena for a residency, which resulted in two more residencies: the Red Lodge Clay Center and the Clay Studio in Missoula. After finishing up there, she stayed in Missoula and now works out of a studio in the Brunswick Building.
It wasn't until her final show at the end of her time at the Clay Studio that she began experimenting with rock- and mineral-inspired forms.
"I started making these rocks and compositions of these rocks for my exit show, and everyone was very surprised because it wasn't functional ware, which is what I'd been doing up to that point," she said.
She developed it further for a 2012 solo exhibition at the Brink Gallery in downtown Missoula, called "Amplify."
The concept was still evolving at that point, but she pushed it enough to gain attention outside of Montana.
In 2014, she was selected as one of six "emerging artists" by the National Council on Education for the Ceramic Arts.
"I was elated that they would recognize the work and not have a prejudice against the timeline it took to get there," she said. "It had been kicking around in my head for years before I actually made the work."
As part of the award, she gave a presentation on her art at the council's annual conference in front of thousands of her peers. Her work has since been shown in venues around the country, although the MAM exhibition may be its most immersive presentation yet.
The gallery on the top floor has been coated in deep red, from the walls to the floors to the pedestals, with each sculpture spotlit from the ceiling. Matching drapes block out the light from the other galleries.
Brown got the idea for showcasing her art this way after a trip to the Houston Museum of Natural Science's extensive mineral collection, which is displayed in darkened rooms with each specimen individually illuminated by fiber-optic lights.
"I felt alone in the most wonderful way, because there was no light on me, but these things I was looking at were lit up like Christmas, and sparkly and beautiful and amazing," she said.
After the MAM approached her about an exhibition, she pitched the idea and got the OK.
As they were installing the show earlier this week, Glueckert said he sees it as more of an installation than a standard display of individual objects.
Like the Houston museum, Brown's work will be accompanied by low-volume big-band music from the 1930s and '40s, which she said will give the room a nostalgic, haunting-but-not-melancholic feel.
The title of the exhibition has literal and conceptual angles for her. It hints at the profusion of objects – more individual pieces of clay than she could guess.
It also references her mentors and people she looks up to: "what it takes to be an artist and go out on a limb in a big way." The imagination, optimism, work ethic and tenacity it takes, she said.
The largest piece in the show – and Brown's largest sculptural piece to date - will occupy by the west wall of the gallery.
"Azure Lichenite, Botyoidal Amber, Opal Microline, Krokyte, Spritite after Vanadinite" comprises 29 individual sculptures and countless smaller pieces that will be hung to look like a large, unbroken form.
She's approached it in the same intuitive fashion as her smaller works, although she admits that it felt somewhat vulnerable as it came together in the weeks before the opening.
"For me, that's kind of how I endeavor to live is not knowing how it's all going to turn out, doing my best every moment, thinking it's going to turn out great, right? It's going to be great. So I'm going to show up, for every part of what makes it great," she said.