About 25 years ago, Stephanie Frostad began what she calls an "experiment."
She'd just finished her Master of Fine Arts at the University of Montana, where her work was strong enough that a painting was purchased by UM.
Instead of pursuing her original goal of teaching, she'd see if she could pay her bills by painting.
It worked for one year, so she tried another year. And another.
"That's the experiment that's continued to the present day, really," Frostad said.
Frostad's paintings are representative and naturalistic — she sees work as a kind of reverence for her human subjects and the environment.
"Being faithful, like visually faithful or naturalistically faithful, is a way of being reverent to the characters I paint, including the animals and plants, that are sometimes central in the work," she said.
There are stories implied in her work, and she sees narratives as a central human need, regardless of age. Her work can be read by children, a quality that she likes, and for adults there are other depths to explore.
Working from the figure and learning precise drafting skills were part of the required training back at the Maryland Institute College of Art, where she graduated with her bachelor's degree in 1990, yet conceptual art and abstract expressionism were the styles to pursue.
"It was absolutely uncool to be working as a pictorial artist," she said, and her peers gave her "all kinds of grief." Even the recurring claim that "painting is dead" started before her time and has persisted ever since.
That painting from 1994, called "Bright and Early," is the oldest piece in a new show, "The Evocative Moment," at the Montana Museum of Art & Culture, which purchased it for its Permanent Collection back then. The rest of the show, which surveys her career through the present, has been borrowed from private collectors around Missoula, which makes her proud and grateful. It's proof that the instinct about narratives she had back when she was 20 was correct.
So what is happening in those paintings? It might not be clear immediately. Take "Young Atalanta," a graphite and oil on panel from 2015. A girl runs down a country road, away from the viewer, and seemingly aiming to outpace a brewing storm rendered in deep blue and gray.
Frostad took the title and theme from the Greek myth about a girl, a fast runner, whose father had planned to give her away as a bride to whomever won a foot race. She outran them all.
Applying myths and fables to a Western landscape and unidentifiable time period, rendered in a naturalistic fashion, is a signature of Frostad's. Add a dose of ambiguity and a story caught midstream, and her work becomes more complex than it might seem at first glance.
She's working as a Western painter, a narrative painter and a symbolist painter all at once, said museum curator Jeremy Canwell.
"Her work makes us question what we think of as realism, because unlike most narrative painting, her work seems to resist us," he said. As an example, he pointed to the famed artists of the Western tradition, such as Russell and Remington, who were painting an idealized past that was gone or never existed and seems to deliver a simple message. Frostad pushes her realism beyond historical imagery into myths and fable in an enigmatic way, he said.
Frostad said her love of mythology came from her formal art training and has continued to this day.
"That's one of the joys of my life, I'm just a student all the time. I get to go read about these things that intrigue me, I get to explore them visually," she said.
Looking over the paintings in the exhibition, she pointed out a few horses in fields that refer to the horsemen of the apocalypse. A black horse looming over three women tending to their harvest is the black horse of famine. A white horse in another painting is the white horse of pestilence or illness.
Frostad's paintings take place in an unidentifiable time period that indicates the past without being too specific of just when. And many, many of the protagonists of these stories are women, dressed in aprons or dresses made for work.
She said that "in the narrative tradition, most girls and women appear objectified." She wants to show them engaged, and the clothing she selects is intentional. If you look closely.
"Part of the reason I do use the dress, the apron, these more conventional elements, is because I want to say we're still … in the trappings of gender division," she said.
Because the paintings are technically accomplished, and the current ones have smooth, gleaming surfaces of oil paint and graphite on panel, and have natural settings, people often think she's looking back to an idealized past.
"I'm not nostalgic," she said. "I do not want to live in any previous times. As a woman, as an artist, for countless reasons I don't want to do that. I feel we are just on a daily basis impacted by the conventions of our heritage, so I feel like without being historical in any explicit way, I am through this anachronism in my work exploring our heritage — my own heritage, and that of Euro-American, more specifically Northwestern heritage," she said.
If you look closely, she said, the paintings have narrative tension and criticism.
One painting from 2012 might be the best example. In a diptych, or two-panel painting, we see in the foreground a rabbit in a field, sniffing at a basket of violets that's been dropped and spilled. In the far right corner, two figures are busy at work, and unbeknownst to them, in the far left, a man is abducting a woman.
Frostad painted it in the midst of the sexual assault crisis at UM. It's called "The Abduction of Penelope," and refers to yet another Greek myth, in which Hades seizes the daughter of the goddess Demeter to bring her back to the underworld. It was exhibited on campus, and Frostad said she received more compliments on the beauty of the picture than the content.
In general, she thinks our culture is "forgetful of its history." Narratives, she thinks, are a source of integrity.
Not to give the impression that optimism isn't part of the appeal. It's there in "Young Atalanta," in which the girl outruns the storm. It's there, too, in "Search," in which a woman with a determined look on her face marches toward the viewer. She's looking for her draft horse, which Frostad said is her own "personal totem."
"I'm industrious," she said, and "I like to work."