A vibrant take on Western themes

By Sarah Gianelli EBS Associate Editor

BIG SKY – Carol Hagan has enjoyed a creative trajectory most artists dream of. Although the Billings artist didn’t pick up a paintbrush until she was 25, and is entirely self-taught, 30 years later Hagan’s paintings are valued in the thousands of dollars.

She is also a member of the C.M. Russell Museum’s Skull Society of Artists, a select group of 22 widely recognized as the foremost Western artists living today.

Hagan attributes a portion of her success to having worked as an accountant before leaving the career path to raise her son. A rarity in artists, she had both the business know-how and the creative gifts.

Driven by a desire to be a stay-at-home mom and a lifelong passion for color, she turned to painting.

“Children have such a wide-eyed view of the world and it kind of awakened in me the sense that anything is possible,” Hagan said of becoming a mother. “[When you’re a child], there is no wrong way to do something, they just pick up a crayon and start drawing and what comes out, comes out. Being around a child reminded me of that.”

Over the next 10 years, Hagan developed and refined her distinct style while successfully marketing her work to galleries and exhibitions, and eventually was able to pursue fine art full time.

Hagan moved to Montana from Nebraska when she was 6 years old and has lived here ever since. She remembers the awe she felt for the region—the mountains, the wildlife, the open spaces that still inspire her work today.

She may portray subjects common to Western art—bears, horses, bison, coyotes, birds—but her contemporary palette, style and, lately, her use of glass “canvases” are anything but.

“I don’t think I could paint cityscapes or seascapes because that’s not where my heart is,” Hagan said. “We live in a beautiful spot here in the West and I feel fortunate to not only live among the subjects that I paint, but I get to make my living as an artist and paint them.”

Hagan also paints on glass which allows light to be an integral component in the work. PHOTO COURTESY OF CAROL HAGAN STUDIOS

Three years ago, Hagan started dreaming about light and became consumed with figuring out how to incorporate actual light into her pieces. This led to an ongoing exploration of painting with oils on glass. It’s been the most challenging undertaking for the artist, but captivating in the added dimensions it lends to her work.

She sticks with the same subject matter for her glass pieces, and says she paints what she does because that’s what she loves—not because it’s what art-buyers in the region want.

“If I’m not painting what I absolutely love and want to be painting, I’m doing the painting a disservice and I’m not following my heart.”

Hagan says she feels a connection with her subjects, which she often photographs herself. One session with a grizzly bear yielded 300 photographs, and 50 paintings.

She also feels a communion with horses, and a sense of calm when in their company.

“There’s a connection there spiritually, there’s a connection with the Earth … if you’re among a group of horses and they’re accepting of you, there’s a trust there.”

She added that horses have deepened her understanding of values like patience, acceptance, trust and community.

“I feel like my soul is kind of bared when I’m with them,” she said. “There’s nothing hidden, there’s a very connected feeling of trust and sincerity. I try to convey that in my paintings and do justice to what they’ve given me and what I’ve learned from them.”

Hagan’s primary means of conveyance is color, which she sees as a universal language of emotion and energy. For this artist, the powerful life force of her subjects comes out in contemporary, dynamic kaleidoscopes of color that at first might not seem congruous with her Earth-driven pieces.

But with a grizzly painting that took home the highest bid of $17,000 at last year’s Arts Council Auction for the Arts, there is clearly a demand for contemporary takes on traditional Western art.

“The term Western art has changed so much,” Hagan said. “The definition now is as broad as the Montana sky.”

That leaves plenty of room for Hagan, and the many emerging artists of the West, to find their place under it.

Hagan’s work can be seen locally at Creighton Block Gallery in Big Sky, at Old Main Gallery & Framing in Bozeman, and online at carolhaganstudios.com. Hagan will also be participating in the sixth annual Arts Council of Big Sky auction fundraiser on March 22 at Moonlight Basin.