HELENA – History was unveiled Wednesday afternoon on the third floor of the grand staircase in the state Capitol.
In front of a cheering crowd of more than 250, which filled the hallways and spilled down the steps, Missoula artist Hadley Ferguson pulled down the curtain on a set of two murals titled "Women Build Montana."
The first new paintings in the Capitol since 1928 depict the myriad roles women played building communities in the Treasure State.
"These murals are about the generations of women who have been living in Montana, the women who moved to make a life in Montana, and the women who were born in Montana," Ferguson said. "These women worked hard to create the communities, homes, schools, policies, rights and opportunities that we live and continue to carry on to new generations today. Hopefully, any woman can look at these images and see themselves in them."
The two 5-by-10-foot acrylic paintings depict women in two different time periods and center on two different themes, culture and community.
The first, set in 1898, focuses on the role of agriculture and tradition for Native American women and settlers in a central scene and a series of four vignettes.
The central scene shows a Euro-American settler and Native woman exchanging goods at a western Montana homestead, what Ferguson described as the "coming together of the cultures."
At the corners are vignettes about the state's early agriculture and traditions: farmers harvesting sugar beets, Native women demonstrating crafts, Euro-American women sewing the state flag and Native women digging bitterroots.
The second, set in 1924, illustrates the role Caucasian, Native, African-American and Asian women played in communities in business, politics and other public arenas.
The panel is dominated by a street scene in a nonspecificed eastern Montana community, a decade after women's suffrage in the state and the year that Native women were given the right to cast a ballot.
Women hang "get out the vote" and League of Women Voters posters on a wall. Behind them is a block lined with businesses in which women played key roles, such as a bank, bakery, daily post, millinery, photography studio and more.
At the corners are four scenes of private and public life: professionals in an office at a telephone switch; Native women demonstrating medicinal plants; African-American women from the Montana Federation of Negro Women's Clubs distributing college scholarships; and a woman at home canning fruit, a reference to homemaking and home extension agents.
The two murals were the brainchild of former state Rep. Lynda Moss, D-Billings.
"My vision for this project was that we would create some murals in our state Capitol that would honor women as community builders. Most of the representation in our public art was men. Which certainly was important during that particular period in our history. But there are stories missing," she said.
Moss said it has been a "remarkable journey."
The idea originated 10 years ago but was passed by the 2011 Legislature with the help of co-sponsor and state Sen. Diane Sands, D-Missoula.
State law doesn't allow appropriations for improvements in the Capitol, Sands said, so funds were raised independently.
Donors included the Montana Women's Foundation, the AAUW's Missoula and statewide groups, numerous other organizations and many individuals.
Ferguson, a Montana native, was selected over two out-of-state finalists and began work in December 2013, logging 60-hour weeks to complete the project.
Also in attendance Wednesday were the two historians who worked to ensure the murals were historically accurate: Mary Murphy, a Montana State University history professor, and Julie Cajune, a Salish educator, actress and writer.
In her remarks, Cajune said the state should be proud that its Capitol is recognizing that "women have been the sinew to keep the body and soul, community and spirit together."
Introducing the speakers was Montana first lady Lisa Bullock. She said Ferguson's "commitment and perseverance to create this work is honored and admired by all Montanans ... and it will be for generations to come."
In addition to Lisa Bullock, the attendees included statewide officials such as Gov. Steve Bullock, Lt. Gov. Angela McLean, Superintendent of Public Instruction Denise Juneau, Attorney General Tim Fox, Commissioner of Securities and Insurance Monica Lindeen, and Secretary of State Linda McCulloch. State Sen. Debbie Barrett, the first female Senate president in state history, and House Speaker Austin Knudson also made remarks.
Sands, who helped shepherd the project to fruition, said the experience was as moving as any she's been involved with.
"As a historian of women for the last five decades, you wonder who will ever know what we've collected of all this history. But to see the lives of women on the walls of this public building for future generations beyond my lifetime is really the culmination of generations of work of those of us who work to preserve record women's history. And we hope that my great-niece and other children of the future will come here and they'll know something of their history and that they can do anything," Sands said.
As outlined in the bill, the murals don't include any identifiable historical figures. The purpose was to honor the role all women played in building the state.
After the ceremony, friends and family took pictures in front of the murals, which use a palette heavy on sepia, green and blue, which Ferguson carefully selected to match the existing color scheme in the Capitol.
One of her hopes, she's said, was that "viewers can seem themselves in them."