Drive eastbound from Van Buren Street to Interstate 90 and prepare for double vision: The Hellgate Canyon as it is and as it might have been.
Artist Lillian Nelson has finished about half of the 113-foot-wide mural she’s designed for the new retaining wall alongside Missoula’s double roundabout intersection. Its background envisions the gap between Mount Sentinel and Mount Jumbo as Salish and Kootenai hunting parties knew it when they still hunted buffalo on the prairies beyond.
“There are a lot of metaphors for creation in here,” Nelson said of the bear and cubs, deer and fawn, rising sun and eventually the mother and child that will form the centerpiece. She’s also woven in subtle patterns and color combinations that reflect indigenous art styles, although she’s quick to mention that as a non-Native person, she’s working on inspiration rather than copy.
The Missoula Public Art Committee commissioned Nelson for the project after neighbors in the Rattlesnake neighborhood just north of the intersection provided money to beautify the expanse of concrete. In an unexpected challenge, they picked a wall covered in shotcrete — a type of sprayed concrete surface pitted with dimples as deep as olives. Nelson first had to apply buckets of spackle to give herself a semblance of a smooth field to paint on. Even then, she found the expanse also soaked up gallons of primer before she could start the actual artwork.
Nelson’s previous largest mural was 52 feet. She’s done other big projects in restaurants, churches and private homes, but her work can most often be seen at the Radius Gallery in downtown Missoula.
“I love live-painting,” Nelson said of the outdoor studio she’s built for herself next to the roundabout. “You get a real feel for human nature out here. There’s one old couple that walk by every day and take pictures. You hear people cursing at each other when they drive in the wrong lane.”
She started prepping the surface on June 1, and began the color work last Tuesday. Weather permitting, the mural should be done around the end of the week.
“I think people will see it in segments as they go by,” Nelson said. “They’ll notice the mother and child, and then start to notice other parts, They’ll be driving down the freeway and suddenly realize: 'What’d I just see?'”