Artist Laurie Stevens leads workshop in Big Sky

By Sarah Gianelli EBS Contributor

Chaos is the word that comes to painter Laurie Stevens’ mind when asked about a typical day on her 2,000-acre ranch outside of Cascade, Montana. Especially in the summer months when, as a “bovine babysitter,” she takes in 100 pair of cattle in addition to her horses and dogs.

PHOTO COURTESY OF WESTERN MASTERS ART SHOW

PHOTO COURTESY OF WESTERN MASTERS ART SHOW

But this doesn’t mean she isn’t painting—or thinking about painting—constantly. While she manages the pastures, Stevens is always taking pictures, jotting notes, sketching and simply observing, all of which inspire and inform the paintings to come.

“Life anywhere is just kind of wondrous,” Stevens said. “And it’s exciting if you can turn that feeling into something that compels and inspires you. Like when you’ve been through a long winter and then there’s this incredible sort of thing just popping out of the ground and … it’s pink! Or when there’s ice on the pond and the temperature is right at freezing and you get those snow crystals. As an artist, you’re just trying to notice those things—it’s what keeps us going.”

As fall comes on and the cows go home, life begins to shrink down on itself and painting becomes all-consuming for Stevens. September through May is her “marathon time,” when she will complete the majority of the 30 to 40 oil paintings she creates each year.

Stevens has had to put forth a concerted effort to maintain an artistic identity independent from that of her husband R. Tom Gilleon, a heavy hitting painter and digital artist in the world of Western art. But she shouldn’t have to.

Her oil paintings are captivating. Whether Stevens has painted a sweeping landscape in a muted, glowing palette that teases the edge of the surreal; or figurative works of powerfully sentient people and animals, a wistful appreciation of her subject and their inner aliveness is as palpable as the paint itself.

“Jingle Bob,” a piece from her cowboy series—they squint, smoke and play guitar, and have a James Dean feel about them—sold in 2014 from Big Sky’s Creighton Block Gallery, where she also sold a landscape called “Storm Coming In” last April.

“Little Bird,” a stirring piece depicting a young Native girl with a violet parasol riding sidesaddle, was commissioned by the C.M. Russell Museum in Great Falls and is now part of their permanent collection.

Born in Billings, Stevens returned to Montana to get back to nature and painting after an exciting art career in Los Angeles as a Hollywood and Disney set designer. One project of many from that period that stands out was working on the 1981 film “The Incredible Shrinking Woman,” for which special effects entailed painting 30-foot tall backdrops of common household goods.

Stevens still battles the highly controlled, realistic way of painting instilled during her career, always pushing toward a more impressionistic style, but it seems the artist thrives on challenge, painterly and otherwise.

“This is not an easy life by any means—it’s not for sissies,” she said of life on the ranch. “But if life wasn’t challenging, that would be pretty boring. One thing about being an artist, I can’t imagine ever being bored unless someone took away my paint.”

Stevens said it would be pretty difficult to run out of inspiration surrounded by high prairie and rolling hills that abut the Little Belt Mountains. From her doorstep she can witness the stories that unfold on the land—within a day, within a year.

Despite an occasional sense of isolation, Stevens said, “It’s pretty nice to not have any neighbors other than four-legged ones, and for everywhere you turn to see nature. Even if it means that sometimes I have to learn how to speak English again—like when I come to Big Sky for a painting workshop.”

Stevens is leading a workshop in Big Sky Oct. 28-30 from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. at Creighton Block Tower Gallery in Big Sky Town Center. Offered by the Arts Council of Big Sky, “Back to Basics: Considerations for Every Painter” will focus on the fundamentals of painting as valuable tools to help any artist solve painterly problems.

For more information about Stevens’ workshop or to register, visit bigskyarts.org or call (406) 995-2742.