RONAN — Soft, coppery evening light casts slanting shadows across Ronan’s main street, a sleepy town of about 1,800 on the Flathead Indian Reservation. Signs for “2nd CHAИCE Saloon” and “Ronan Cafe & Bakery” hang above the sidewalk. A stray cat wanders, its exaggerated evening shadow following obediently as it seeks some affection from bar goers.
Laura Blaker stands in the middle of Main Street and holds up her phone to snap a picture. She’s looking for the places where color, shadow and history meet. In the background, a nearly full moon rises above the Mission Mountains.
“This is like going back in time,” Blaker says.
Blaker, a Missoula-based painter, teacher and single mom, is traveling to every town in the state for a project called “Main Street Montana.” After she snaps a photo on her phone, Blaker returns to her apartment in Missoula to paint, using the photos as a guide. On a trip to Virginia City in January, Blaker felt an urge to paint the town’s rustic main street, and thought: “Why stop there? Why don’t I paint all of them?”
“I think it’s that they haven’t changed in 100 years,” Blaker said. “It’s so interesting to me. And even if they have, they’re so quirky and funky.”
Blaker’s paintings are bold and dramatic, bordering on abstract. Using a palette knife dipped in acrylic paint, she creates vivid, textured pieces that capture a town’s details while blending the colors of buildings and trees.
Of about 300 towns in Montana — some of which comprise little more than a church, school and cafe — Blaker has finished painting eight. She expects the entire project to take her three years. Friends have already contacted her about painting towns where their grandparents grew up — places Blaker has never even heard of, despite living in Missoula for 30 years.
“I’m just excited to go there,” Blaker said while driving to Ronan, “because I’m a traveler at heart.”
Blaker’s mom loved art history, and she often dragged her daughter to museums and galleries. Blaker liked the galleries but the big museums bored her. She never planned to be a painter, and instead studied graphic design in college, before computers were mainstream. Blaker stumbled into painting in Montana, she says, because it’s what she was always supposed to do.
As her career unfolded, that certainty would only grow stronger, as outside forces worked to support her when she wasn’t sure how to take the next step on her own.
When Blaker moved to Missoula at 28 and began volunteering backstage for the Missoula Community Theatre, she got a glimpse of her innate artistic talent. It started with painting sets for the theater, which gave her a chance to be creative. Her work stood out, and she eventually was hired to paint all the sets.
From there, Blaker was asked to paint a mural at HuHot Mongolian Grill in Missoula. When the restaurant became a national franchise, Blaker painted murals in their restaurants across the country.
Blaker didn’t have any formal painting education when she began the murals, so she learned as much as she could from books and videos. For her first mural, and for every painting she does today, she began by painting the entire wall black. Using chalk fastened to the end of a hollow stick, Blaker drew the foundational lines of her mural, designing it as she went.
When HuHot expanded, Blaker was hired to paint 41 murals. Each was unique, but they all featured a dragon. The last mural she painted for HuHot, an 1,800-square-foot creation, took her a week to finish.
After working for HuHot, Blaker spent a month creating a mural for Missoula’s Wilma Theatre. The mural has since been painted over, but Blaker said she isn’t upset by that. Instead, she changed her business model. As demand for her work increased, a friend gave Blaker some advice: “Murals are worth nothing if you can’t take them with you,” her friend said. So, she began painting on canvas.
Blaker felt limited by her lack of art education, and she learned from her ex-husband, an actor, that there is a method to every art. It helps to learn the method first, before finding a unique style.
“Even Picasso studied realism first,” she said.
This lesson helps Blaker when she teaches classes at Painting With a Twist, where her students learn to paint, made uninhibited by wine.
To learn the foundations of painting, Blaker felt compelled to study in the birthplace of the Renaissance: Florence, Italy. She had visited Italy before, with a friend after college, but didn’t ever expect to return. Now with an 8-year-old, divorced and with a looming unpaid loan on her house, Blaker didn’t know how she could afford to travel to Italy to study at the Florence Academy of Art.
She knew only that she needed to go. In a symbolic way, she dared the universe to help her. Blaker printed out two pictures of $100,000 bills, and taped them to her computer. She looked at them every day.
It worked. After days spent looking at the printed bills, Blaker’s ex-husband came to her with news.
“I think,” he told her, still stunned. “I think I’ve won the lottery.”
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With a portion of the $200,000 her ex-husband won, Blaker had enough money to pay off her loan and fly to Florence with her daughter. There, she learned the basics of painting — its different styles, techniques and rich history.
Now, Blaker’s style is defined by its bright colors and acrylic impasto technique. Her strokes with the palette knife are visible and textured. Blaker’s last project focused on Missoula neighborhoods. She’d bike around town, taking photos with her phone to create small snapshots of Missoula.
Her new project takes that approach deeper into Montana’s history and character. It captures the spirit of disregarded rural towns, often perceived as places you drive through on the way to somewhere else.
Blaker began her “Main Street Montana” series close to home, with a painting of Missoula. The painting looks down Higgins from a unique angle behind a row of trees on the sidewalk. Blaker was deliberate about what she chose to include.
In her painting, the now-demolished Missoula Mercantile, a downtown icon for more than 140 years, reflects a row of trees in its windows. The Florence Hotel, also an historic landmark, is featured across the street. A faint peace sign adorns the mountainside in the background. The C.P. Higgins Bank building, with its gray dome pointing skyward, peeks through the trees. Blaker once lived in an apartment in that building. The town’s history connects with her own.
“I’ve got the pieces of Missoula that I love,” Blaker said.
When Blaker finishes a painting, a print shop in Denver creates high-quality prints of the original, which sell for $110. The originals cost $500. For some towns, the originals have sold before Blaker has even begun painting. To date, Blaker has finished painting Missoula, Hamilton, Victor, Corvallis, Whitefish, Stevensville, Darby and Lolo.
The paintings of Missoula’s bigger cities, Blaker knows, will sell more prints. But this project is meant to be more than a visual series. Accompanying every painting, she wants to tell a story about the place and its people. Some of those stories come from old friends eager to share their family histories.
Last winter, when Blaker confided in a group of close friends about her new idea, Melanie Charlson immediately asked to introduce Blaker to her hometown, Bonner. Charlson and Blaker have been friends for 30 years, since they met at MCT, where Blaker painted sets and Charlson acted.
Since then, Charlson, who now works as president of the Missoula Education Association, has closely followed and supported Blaker’s painting career. In fall 2013, Charlson attended Blaker’s first art show, which featured paintings of Missoula neighborhoods. Charlson had just returned from cancer treatment in Seattle, which drastically weakened her immune system.
The art show was Charlson’s first public outing since undergoing treatment. Being around other people was a risk to her health, so she only went for a half hour. Charlson was blown away by one of Blaker’s bigger pieces at the show — a painting of Rattlesnake Creek, rich with purples, golds and greens. Charlson taught for 14 years in that area, and the image struck a chord.
After the show, Charlson’s friends bought it for her, and installed it at her house as a surprise. When she saw it hanging in her home, she broke down in gratitude.
“I was in a puddle of tears,” she said.
For Charlson, Blaker's new series reaches deeper into her personal history, stretching back generations.
Three weeks ago, Charlson and Blaker visited Bonner to take the photo that would inform Blaker’s painting. Charlson knew exactly what she wanted: a view facing the Blackfoot River, with the house she lived in until she was 7 on the left, and her grandparents' house on the right.
“I wanted the shot of Bonner to be more nostalgic and reflect more of my family’s history back there,” Charlson said.
Beginning in the 1950s, Charlson’s grandparents owned a cafe in what is now the Bonner Post Office. Her father worked at the lumber mill for more than 40 years, and her mother worked as an administrative assistant for the same company. Bonner used to be the hub of the lumber industry, Charlson said, and she remembers growing up with logs piled across from her house and the smell of sawdust clinging to her father’s clothes.
Blaker’s paintings capture that history in ways a photograph cannot, Charlson said.
“I'm grateful she’s preserving that. For me, the history is that it’s my grandparents' place. My dad went to Bonner School, I went to Bonner School. I’m just grateful that I can have it preserved in such a beautiful artistic manner.”
Blaker’s first “Main Street Montana” showing will be held on First Friday, July 7, at A&E Architects from 5 to 8 p.m. She hopes to have 15 paintings finished for the show, and will hold another in a few months when the next batch is completed.