At 320 Ranch, July 30 and Aug. 6

By Emily Stifler, Explorebigsky.com Managing Editor

GALLATIN CANYON – On Monday evening, July 16, 320 Ranch played host to some of the region’s great artistic talent. The fourth annual Big Sky Art Rendezvous, organized by Bozeman sculptor Ott Jones, drew a stream of visitors to 320’s conference center from the ranch’s weekly Monday night pig roasts.

They hobnobbed with the artists, asking questions, gazing at oils, and touching Penny Hall’s hand-sculpted, leather blessing bowls.

“These were a therapy project for me between eye surgeries,” Penny says. She started making them when doctors diagnosed her as legally blind. “I needed to prove to myself that I wasn’t blind.”

When she donated her first one to a fundraiser and it went for $450, she realized it could help pay for medical expenses. But as Penny was prepping for the Ennis Art show, her retina detached. While recovering from that surgery, she knew she had to do something new.

“I call them my blessing bowls because I was looking for the worst in life, instead of the good. Now I use them as a container to hold all my blessings, all the good in life.”

At the next table over, Penny’s husband Ken W. Hall has his luminescent landscape photography on exhibit. Because he prints on archival canvas, it almost looks as though you can walk right into the photographs.

“I’m trying to get them in major cancer hospitals, because I’ve seen physical changes when people look at them,” he says. “It triggers things—spiritual healing. It allows people to go places where they’re consciously uncomfortable.”

The photos are breathtaking landscapes that have been compared to Ansel Adams and Elliot Porter’s work.

Ken recalls an encounter with a woman at the Ennis Farmers Market. “She looked at this one,” he says, pointing to a black and white called “Guardian of the Beartrap” taken just below Ennis Lake. Sunlight shines off the water and fog rises past Ramshead Rock.

“She started shaking,” Ken says. “‘I can feel that painting coming through my body,’ she said. I said, ‘Honey, it’s not a painting.’ She said, ‘I don’t know what it is, but I can feel it coming through my body.’”

The Halls came to Ennis together from Taos, N.M. 12 years ago to visit for two days, and they never left.

“I came over the rise at Norris Hill, and said ‘I don’t know what’s here, but this is where I’m gonna work,’” Ken said.

On the opposite side of Penny’s table, in the center of the room, is work from the Bozeman-based sculptor Ott Jones, who organizes the Rendezvous. Some of his bronzes, like the life-sized fly fisherman at the Bozeman airport and the sculpture of Jim Bridger at the Bozeman Chamber of Commerce, have become Bozeman landmarks.

Jones points at his some of his newest works, sculptures made from barbed wire. “Instead of dealing with mass [like with the bronzes], I’m dealing with space,” he says.

“There’s a gaggle of artists here,” Ken Hall says, looking around. Indeed—at one end of the room are the husband and wife team of Karen Kreek, whose rustic custom furniture are found in the Pendleton Home Catalogue, and Bill Sweney, who describes his contemporary, abstract paintings as an expression of the “spiritualism of the West.”

“I want to find out: How do you paint the wind?” Sweney says.

At the other end of the room, classic Western painters Jim Dick and Todd Connor talk quietly.

Dick, a native of northeastern Montana and now a Bozeman resident, participated in the Rendezvous last year. “I always have good shows here,” he said.

A painter of iconic scenes, he’s done thousands of plein air field studies, often horse packing into the mountains to paint on location. Oils of Lone Mountain in winter and summer are lined up alongside Upper Yellowstone Falls, the Gallatin River, Soldier Chapel and teepes from the Fort Peck Indian Reservation where he grew up.

Get him talking, and he’ll tell you that he got a business degree from a school in California, worked two years in business, and never went back.

When he returned to Montana, Dick took a janitorial job at night and painted during the day. Then, he and his wife built a cabin at 7,000 feet in the Tobacco Root Mountains where they raised their two daughters.

“There was no power, we’d just sit around the lantern in the evenings, and my wife would read books like Little House on the Prarie [aloud].”

While his work was represented in major national galleries in the past, Dick has cut back. “I like to keep it hometown, local,” he says.

Next door, the quiet, McAllister-based painter Todd Connor is humbly presiding over some his masterful historic Western oils.

Connor, who is represented by Creighton Block Gallery in Big Sky, participates in the Charlie Russell Museum Auction, but rarely shows his work at booth shows like this.

“I’d rather just paint and give my work to galleries,” Connor said. “But Ott called and asked me, and I thought, ‘why not try it?’ Shows like this can pay off. You can make connections even if you don’t sell anything. People can’t find you if you’re not out there.”