The business of art, the solitude of making

By Sarah Gianelli EBS Senior Editor

BIG SKY – Most people likely know Julie Gustafson as the face of Big Sky’s Gallatin River Gallery, but might be unaware the devoted gallerist is also an artist herself.

Gustafson earned a degree in geology from the University of Colorado Boulder, and although she would only spend a week working in the field, her attraction to the fundamentals of the natural world can still be seen in the artwork she chooses to represent, as well as the forms that show up in her own work.

In 1979, laid up after breaking her collarbone in a bike accident, Gustafson started drawing and creating watercolors with her rapidograph—a technical pen used to draw topographical maps—and soon thereafter decided to attend the California College of Arts in Oakland.

“When I got to art school the language made so much sense to me; I was in heaven,” Gustafson said.

It was a class in gallery design and management that led to the accumulation of 30-plus years in the industry. Directly out of school, during the art-thriving 80s, Gustafson got a job at San Francisco’s Fuller Goldeen Gallery, recognized as the most prominent U.S. gallery outside of New York City at the time.

Gustafson eventually moved on to the Susan Cummins Gallery in Mill Valley, California, where she spent 14 years gaining invaluable experience in the commercial art world.

In 1999, Gustafson took the plunge and opened a business in Big Sky rather impulsively after visiting a friend in the area. Gallatin River Gallery’s original location was in the canyon next to “J.D.’s fly shop,” Wild Trout Outfitters, among an odd jumble of businesses that Gustafson recalls feeling a bit like “Northern Exposure,” the ‘90s television comedy about small-town Alaska.

Now in its fourth location, in Big Sky Town Center, the gallery is going 18 years strong.

When Gustafson was pressed to find a connection between the business of selling art and the process of making it, she said that they are entirely separate aspects of her life.

“I live and breathe my business to keep it alive,” Gustafson said. “When I’m making my own art, I really do leave the gallery behind and get totally into what’s in front of me in a way that feels really pure.”

Gustafson replenishes her reserves of creativity by taking art workshops in stunning natural settings like the Esalen Institute in Big Sur, California, or a farmhouse on Wisconsin’s Lake Pepin.

Although she experiments in many different mediums, her focus is creating deeply personal 2- and 3-D collages that combine vintage paper, objects, text, paint and oftentimes abstracted landscape monoprints she made years ago in art school.

“I like putting together diverse elements that then come together to create a whole new piece,” she said.

Gustafson’s “Kiss Me” is a heavily layered piece consisting of monoprint fragments collaged on to vintage text and musical references, and was inspired by the joyful song and dance she experienced at Esalen. The piece was juried into the Arts Council of Big Sky’s Auction for the Arts silent auction which takes place on March 22 at Moonlight Basin Lodge.

Another collage utilized art school-era watercolors on rice paper, textile patterns and pages from an 1800’s arithmetic textbook with her great grandmother’s doodles in the margins.

“[It’s a process of] resurrecting, recycling remembering, honoring … a kind of a metaphor for the richness of experience of your own life,” she said. “It’s fun to revisit all those fragments and put them back together in a way that’s current.”

Gustafson’s collage “Kiss Me” will be up for bidding in the Arts Council’s Auction for the Arts’ silent auction on March 22.

Gustafson says she would like to start creating more 3-D pieces in the vein of “Lost and Found,” a piece built on an old checkerboard she found on a beach in Northern California. She collaged a found or given object on each square: sea glass, a miniature Buddha, a flattened dime, a Swedish painted horse, and a glass sea anemone.

“You know, weird stuff that I connect with and know the source of,” she explained.

A sense of personal connection also guides Gustafson’s selection of the artists she chooses to represent.

“I choose my artists on a really gut level,” said Gustafson, who represents approximately 50 artists, half of whom are from Montana. She won’t show anything she wouldn’t want hanging in her own home, and has to feel a natural rapport with the artist. And all of the work—abstract, representational, even jewelry—has to include some reference to the natural world that resonates with Gustafson and her vision for the gallery.

“Each one of my artists has a really personal journey they’re committed to,” Gustafson said. “And are really pursuing their own observations of living and being in nature.”

Gallatin River Gallery is located at 114 Ousel Falls Road in Big Sky Town Center. Visit gallatinrivergallery.com or call (406) 995-2099 for more information.