Expressing the timeless through the contemporary

By Sarah Gianelli EBS Associate Editor

Billings artist Carol Spielman can trace her connection to horses back to a very specific time in her childhood growing up on Washington’s Orcas Island. Although she didn’t realize how unique her upbringing was until much later, it left its mark in the vibrant, abstracted equines the painter is best known for.

Most of the families on the island had horses, and at age l1 and 12 they were Spielman’s mode of transport and riding them was what she and her friends did for fun. Spielman recounts a poignant memory of how they would take the horses to the island’s one sandy beach and ride them bareback far out in the water until their hooves lost contact with the earth and they began to swim.

“We’d literally stand on their backs and dive off of them, swimming around them and with them, then climb back on them all slippery and do it again,” Spielman said. “It’s a really unique feeling being in the water with them … you can feel every muscle—it’s almost like you become one with them.”

It would be many years and a career with Nordstrom’s later before Spielman took up the paintbrush and that memory emerged onto the canvas in the form of spindly-legged horses, angular faces, bold outlines and even bolder color schemes.

“I try to get it down to the essence of the horse,” Spielman said. “There isn’t a lot of detail—sometimes they only have three legs, but the eye automatically fills in the fourth or, if you look close an eye is actually just a blob of paint. I’m more interested in creating a feeling, rather than an exact replica of a horse.”

Spielman compares her work to something akin to a pictograph—primal, minimalistic—intended to trigger a feeling or memory in the viewer.

Distorted and exaggerated as they are, they exude grace and admirers of her work respond in a very personal manner, often finding resonance in a subtle gesture or tilt of the head and relating it specifically to a horse they had known.

“The texture is what forms the horse and the color kind of makes it alive,” said Spielman, who cites Matisse, Van Gogh and the modern artists of the 1950s as influential in her style and signature bold backgrounds.

Spielman’s process is highly interactive and improvisational. Painting on flat ground, she mixes her colors directly on the canvas, building texture and layers out of paint and water that she repeatedly washes and scrapes to build and reveal more depth.

“I really let the paint direct me,” Spielman said. “I react to what’s going on as the paints mix and drip, as it’s happening. It’s loose and spontaneous … The process is really alive and each time it’s different.”

Spielman is an anomaly in the art world in that she has garnered success and acclaim without striving to do so.

It wasn’t until her children were close to college age that Spielman earned a Bachelor of Fine Arts from Montana State University Billings in 2005. And she never thought she would be an artist—she just wanted her degree.

But while framing some of the work in her student portfolio at Toucan (a Billings gallery, custom frame shop and boutique) the owner asked if they could sell one of her pieces.

Today, Spielman is still represented by Toucan, as well as by galleries in Red Lodge, Missoula; Jackson, Wyoming; Park City, Utah; Scottsdale and Tuscon, Arizona; and in Big Sky at Creighton Block Gallery. She credits word of mouth with her success.

“It just kind of happened,” Spielman said. “It was my passion, but I was doing it more for myself and it just kind of evolved. I’m glad it happened that way; it took the pressure off.”

In 2012, she was the fourth artist-in-residence—and first painter-in-residence—at the Yellowstone Art Museum in Billings. A year later, she was named YAM’s artist of the year. Recently, a multi-panel piece entitled “Welcoming Committee” returned from an extended stay in Beijing, China where it hung in the formal dining room of American ambassador and Montana’s former U.S. Sen. Max Baucus’ residence as part of the global Art in Embassies program.

For Spielman, the philanthropic aspect of art-making is very important. A Big Sky homeowner with deep ties to the area, Spielman is participating in the Arts Council of Big Sky Art Auction at Moonlight Lodge on March 23, as she has every year since the auction’s inception in 2013. Along with nearly 40 artists, she is donating a portion of the proceeds from two Big Sky-inspired works to benefit the Arts Council in its biggest fundraising event of the year.

Images of the paintings she contributed to the auction—of a moose before Lone Peak and a herd of bighorn sheep along the Gallatin River—will also be emblazoned on the art auction tote bags.

“It’s special to be able to give artwork for a cause close to my heart,” Spielman said. “It makes it personal. The community supports me by buying my work and I want to support the community in return. We’ve benefited from everything the arts council has done there—they really enrich the whole Big Sky experience. I love what they do and want to help them and support them any way I can.”

This is the first part of a three-part series spotlighting artists participating in the Arts Council of Big Sky’s fifth annual art auction. To see more of Spielman’s work, visit carolspielman.com or Creighton Block Gallery in Big Sky. For a full catalog of artists featured in the auction on March 23 visit bigskyarts.org.