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It was a lucky day for Jennifer Sawyer when she crossed paths with the Black Cat Bakery two years ago.

For the artist and songwriter, it meant finding a job where creativity is an honored pursuit and one that supports her lifetime love of painting.

Little did she expect, though, that bakery owner Jack Wich would not only appreciate her art, but showcase it four times a year on the shop’s large-pane windows.

“It was Jack’s idea to do this,” Sawyer explained Tuesday while painting the final details on her holiday window art at the bakery on West Broadway. “He picks up on the skills and abilities of the people who work here and creates creative work for them to go along with our regular duties.”

As the seasons change, so do Sawyer’s window murals, which usually include landscapes of Missoula, and always include black cats engaged in humorously familiar activities, such as hang gliding and bicycling.

Each pane tells a different story.

In the lovely purple and silver Nativity scene that Sawyer was finishing Tuesday, the cats are the three wise men, and the manger scene includes caricatures of her pet chickens along with Russell, the miniature donkey Wich and his wife Christy rescued from the Niarada animal sanctuary.

The holiday art is both whimsical and reverent, and an especially fitting expression of the Christmas story, Sawyer said.

“This particular mural speaks about eternity through a savior, and with that comes the reality that things in life are transitory,” she said.

Such work is not so different from the elaborate sand mandalas created by Tibetan Buddhists, which are made with painstaking precision only to be wiped away upon completion to symbolize the transitory nature of material life.

Most painters, Sawyer said, make peace with the fact that their concepts are fluid, and the reality of the work often can be something entirely different than the inspirational idea.

“I’ve done other murals that have been scraped and painted over,” Sawyer said. “You become used to things changing.”

It takes about 14 hours for Sawyer to complete her window art.

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Always, as her art mentors at the University of Montana taught her, she has other projects going at the same time in her after-work life.

“My teachers always taught us to have another piece going at the same time so you can come back to your work with fresh eyes if you’ve been stuck or things aren’t working out like you thought,” Sawyer explained. “As an artist, you have to flex because we are always making mistakes – and things change.”

When working with a large public canvas, such as bakery windows, patience is key.

Getting the proportions and scale of the work is uniquely tricky, and so too is finding the right color palette to catch the eye and inspire people to linger.

“At first when I do the landscapes, it feels like a task and when I get down to the details, that’s when there is joy to share,” Sawyer said. “And this particular season there is a lot of joy to share.”

“I love the joy and the great mystery of a child being given to us for salvation,” she said. “It’s an important story for a dark time of year. There’s a lot of suffering in the world and we need hope.”

For certain, joy can be found in Sawyer’s work painted across the windows of the Black Cat Bakery.

“Her work is so amazing,” said Christy Wich. “It’s just amazing when you have these people you hire because you like how they present themselves, you think they would be good working with your customers, and then you find out all these hidden talents.

“Letting them use those talents adds to the whole business, and that creative energy spreads to all parts of the business.”

Like the shop’s internationally famous Christmas stollen, Sawyer’s current window art is only around for a few short weeks.

“I love seeing what she comes up with each time she does a new mural,” Christy said. “And I like knowing that it keeps changing.

“It truly is art, even if it’s not around all that long.”

Reporter Betsy Cohen can be reached at 523-5253 or at bcohen@missoulian.com.

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