02 Jun Artist of the West: Finding the Magic
When artist Meagan Blessing was 9 years old, she filled an expedition-style backpack and walked out the front door of her family’s home in Seattle, Washington. It was summertime, school was out for the year, and she was ready for a great adventure. Her plan: run away to Montana and get a job working with horses on a dude ranch. “I actually did make it several miles down the road,” she laughs, adding that it wasn’t long before her parents caught up to her, and she got into “huge trouble.”
From an early age, Blessing has “always had an inexplicable draw to this area,” the artist explains from her home in Bozeman, Montana. “It’s always felt like a land of possibility. There are beautiful mountains here, yet it’s not so rugged and remote that you can’t get around. Montana is such a diverse state with so much to offer, places like the Yaak and Hi-line and Lolo Valley.”
Throughout her life, Blessing has sought out these types of mountain settings. Her favorite childhood memories include hiking, backpacking, and camping with her family. Her mother especially loves Yellowstone National Park, and while Blessing was growing up, they visited during the summer nearly every year. She’s packed horses for overnight trips in Alaska’s backcountry for weeks at a time, and slept under the stars in the Cascade and Sawtooth mountains.
Today, Blessing’s appreciation for the great outdoors translates into contemporary portraits of North American wildlife. Her Expressionist works, painted in oil with brushes and pallette knives, depict each animal’s temperament and personality. The backgrounds are almost ethereal, she explains, adding that the patterning and abstraction create a sense of mystery that reflects her untamed subjects.
“I try to stay somewhat true to the way the animal is as far as technically, but I try not to obsess over the skeletal structure,” Blessing says. “I want my art to tell a story, which is not new, everyone wants to tell a story, but what I’m talking about is evoking a visceral reaction, an emotional response that’s an invitation into something more for the viewer.”
In her recent series titled Modern Wild, wolves, bison, bears, antelope, moose, and owls are rendered as single subjects against abstract backgrounds. Some include patterns reminiscent of old wallpaper, others are painted with rich impasto colors. She’s also been experimenting with dripping and blooming patterns.
“I look around and see reality; I’m wanting something different. I want to look around and find the magical,” Blessing says. “Now I want there to be a sense of wonder in my paintings.”
Her creative process begins with a photo reference. The artist looks for compositions that spark emotions that she’s interested in exploring. “I look at what strikes me. It’s almost always the pose of the animal, whether they are looking directly at you, or if there’s something in the way they are standing, or in their positioning,” Blessing says. “It’s the beginning of the story.”
She then determines the size she wants to work in, sketches the animal, and figures out a background color harmony that complements the narrative. From there, she plans the technical components of the composition.
Once these initial steps are complete, Blessing allows plenty of room for exploration and experimentation. “Each piece becomes a journey for me,” she says. “I usually start with the eyes and the dark points to get a foundation in there, to find the structure. I tried to do a lot of alla prima-type painting — one stroke and leave it — but that is just not the way I work. Now I work in layers. I will add layers and layers and layers of thin paint. I don’t like thick painting until the very end; until I decide where I want to put it.”
The eyes of her wildlife subjects are always rendered in a hyper-realistic manner. “I want this to reflect that you are seen; that I see you, and you matter. What you bring matters,” she says. As she moves from that hyper-realistic gaze, aspects of the painting become looser and more suggested.
“I don’t want there to be discord in what people see, but I also don’t want to spell out every detail. I don’t want to get everything perfect, because that takes away the privilege of discovery,” Blessing explains. “To me, they are inviting. They feel like mist. You know when you are hiking in the mountains, and you wake up, and the clouds have lowered, and you can only see a little bit? I like the idea of discovery.”
As a self-taught artist, Blessing was challenged in 2002 by a friend to recreate a still life painting that she’d admired, and within two years, she was accepting commissions. She made the leap to a full-time fine artist in 2012, and for a while, she primarily focused on painting horses. She understood their anatomy from years of experience as an equestrian and was able to convey their familiar personalities, but eventually, she wanted to expand her focus.
“I’ve developed an openness to experimentation and possibility, and before I did, I was more concerned with being very precise, with not making mistakes,” Blessing says. “I’m learning now that sometimes mistakes are brilliant, the best possible thing that can happen with your painting. … That’s what is so beautiful about art; everyone sees the world differently and approaches it differently. We all have different personalities.”
Blessing finds fulfillment in mentoring and supporting other artists. As an active member of the regional arts community, she taught in the Montana Artrepreneurship Program — a professional development program overseen by the Montana Arts Council — for five years and keeps in touch with many former students. “As I mature, I’m finding that I really live to ignite discovery and purpose in other people. We all live creative lives, it just looks different. I just want to actively seek to nurture that in others.”
Blessing is represented by Gallery Wild in Jackson Hole, Wyoming; Montana Trails Gallery in Bozeman; Frame of Reference Fine Art in Whitefish, Montana; and Rimrock Gallery in Prineville, Oregon, which will host a show of her work in June 2020. She and her husband, Michael Blessing, will also be the artists-in-residence at Montana’s Triple Creek Ranch this summer.