IF YOU ASK MICHAEL BLESSING AND MEAGAN ABRA BLESSING, art is not a 9-to-5 job: It’s a waking hours job. These artists are usually up with the rising sun, beginning to paint most days as early as 4:30 a.m.
Their home studio is tucked into a hillside along a road that parallels the Bridger Mountains in Bozeman, Montana. Self-taught oil painters, the Blessings draw inspiration from their surroundings, choosing subjects that resonate with their experiences of rural Montana and the West.
Michael’s work references classic Americana. Using bold colors and sharp lines, his subjects often appear against rhythmic, abstract backgrounds. Compelled by shape, color and strong composition, he paints mostly figurative work and images of Western nostalgia. Meagan, meanwhile, is drawn to high contrast and movement. Her bright, expressionistic works often depict classic Western imagery, such as landscapes and horses, in a contemporary manner. With a vivid palette, she works to capture the individual personalities of her subjects.
The creative duo each started painting in 2002, before they had even met. Meagan was challenged by a friend to recreate a still life she’d admired, and within two years she was accepting commissions. Michael, involved in a successful music career, set aside two months to produce an album with singer-songwriter Jenn Adams. When a last-minute cancellation left free time, he felt compelled to sit down and draw.
It wasn’t until 2012, however, that they both decided to pursue art full time. This was also the year they enrolled in the Montana Artrepreneurship Program (MAP), which they credit for their accelerated success in the art community.
Overseen by the Montana Arts Council, MAP helps artists develop sustainable visual art businesses through professional development workshops, mentorships, internships and studio-based work. Working in small groups led by instructors across the state, artists meet monthly over the course of seven to 10 months. The goal is to develop a market-ready portfolio by completing a checklist of 35 items in the “Artrepreneur’s Toolbox,” resulting in an e-portfolio, business plan, press kits, résumé and additional professional materials. The monthly meetings also provide an opportunity to share samples of artwork, discuss problems and share successes.
“Owning a small business can be terrifying, it’s not for the faint of heart, that’s for sure,” says Sheri Jarvis, who oversees MAP for the state-funded arts council. “Not to mention for these small businesses, your product is something that comes from your soul — that takes an extra level of courage.”
At the end of each session, a jury reviews the artists’ portfolios to determine whether they qualify for market-ready certification. Certified artists are then promoted and invited to participate in ongoing programming, such as Art Across Montana, a summertime juried museum show that features MAP artists. In addition, MAP artists will also exhibit work at Celebrate Montana Arts, Nov. 13 to 15, at the Colonial Inn in Helena.
“We’ve seen so many success stories, I mean we’ve had our own success stories just applying MAP to our business, but then we’ve also witnessed the success of many other artists,” Meagan says, explaining that they both underwent training as instructors and now oversee MAP groups. Michael leads the group in Miles City, while Meagan heads the Bridger group. Their next session begings January 2016.
The Blessings have seen their art careers blossom, and give credit largely to MAP. They both have significant gallery representation, and Michael distributes through Greenwich Workshop, a leading fine arts publisher. They’ve done well at the First Strike Auction in Great Falls (part of the annual fundraising effort for the C.M. Russell Museum), and were invited to show works at the prestigious Western Masters Show during Art Week in Great Falls.
“I really firmly believe that we never would have gone to the Western Masters Show in [2013 and 2014], or had the opportunity to be invited into the First Strike Auction without the MAP course. And then this year being invited to Art in Action at the Russell, that was an incredible blessing. My word,” Michael says. “I firmly believe we would not have made those strides as quickly as we did. We eventually would have, but it would’ve been years.”
When it comes to giving back to MAP, the Blessings lead by precedence.
“Part of the course is to complete a mentorship,” Meagan says. “And the teachers help facilitate that. For example, there was a jewelry artist who needed to learn how to enamel on steel or copper. Through MAP, we found an artist who lived in Montana and took a course on that type of metalwork in England and were able to connect the two.”
In addition, the program requires a 10-hour internship in any area of business, from bookkeeping to social media. Last year, for example, one artist interned at a veterinary clinic to learn about billing, Meagan says.
"Neon Gunslingers" | Michael Blessing | Oil Triptych | 48” x 72”
The program was originally developed as part of a doctoral thesis in adult education, and was implemented at Montana State University in Great Falls as a 30-credit college course about 10 years ago. Now, it’s overseen by the Montana Arts Council, which finds value in promoting rural artists who create functional art — such as saddles or fly rods, weaving textiles or welding architectural details — to supplement their income.
“[The] motivation for writing the program was to give an opportunity to those artists who are supporting their family ranch; they don’t want to leave, they are tied to the land, they are tied to their place and yet they need to make a living, and so it’s beneficial to the state and to everyone if they can do what they do and market it right from where they are,” Meagan explains. “The idea is that micro business feeds macro business.”
These regional networks also diminish the isolation that many rural artists find to be an obstacle to their creative work and market success. MAP is available to all Montana artists for about $300 to $400, depending on their location, and artists undergo a vetting process before enrollment.
“There are two things to really understand to do well at business. One: it’s about relationships with people. It’s not just about your art or galleries or shows or museums, it’s about relationships with people in all of those arenas,” Michael says. “And the second is to be ready. You never know when a microphone is being put in your face and you have to talk intelligently to the media about your work.”
In her Gallatin Valley studio, Meagan Abra Blessing dabs paint from her pallette to the vibrant canvas in progress.
Being ready, with the help from MAP, certainly paid off for Michael when his oil painting, Waterin’ Hole, provoked a bidding war during the First Strike Auction, realizing $16,000, above its estimate of $2,200 to $3,200, garnering the highest bid that evening. This year, Raising the Bar sold for $17,500, the highest bid during the Russell’s Art In Action quick-finish event, and Postcard from Miles City received the fourth-highest bid selling for $8,000 during First Strike, an experience that Michael gratefully describes as shocking, exhilarating and as if lightning had struck twice.
Meagan also participated in the 2014 and 2015 First Strike auctions and in the 2015 Art In Action, selling each of the three works she exhibited at the Russell for their estimated value, between $2,500 and $5,000.
These successes wouldn’t have happened if the Blessings waited to be discovered, they say. It took proactive hard work and a calculated business approach, which is what MAP provides.
“[The Blessings] came to the program with fierce talents in their media, which many artists do, but I think the program helps all artists focus their efforts and really strategize and figure out how to monetize their passion. They are a fine example of how the program can define and affirm the title of ‘artist’ as a creditable profession,” says the art council’s Sheri Jarvis. “I can’t wait to see what comes off their easels next.”
Jarvis isn’t the only one waiting to see upcoming work. The artists will be showing their paintings in prestigious exhibits beyond Montana’s borders in the coming months. Look for works at Heart of the West Art auction in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, Aug. 20 through 22; Ride On In: Cowboys Come to the St. George Art Museum in Utah, through the end of August; Rust and Dust at the Clymer Museum of Art in Ellensburg, Washington, through Sept. 4; Traveling the West Art Show and Sale in Dallas, Texas, Oct. 22 through 24; and then back home for the Rebels and Renegades Show, Nov. 5 through Feb. 26, at Zoot Enterprises in Bozeman, Montana.
Editor’s Note: For more information about Montana Artrepreneurship Program (MAP), visit art.mt.gov/folklife/folklife_business.asp.