At home creatively in both the Bitterroot Valley, where she grew up, and in the Tetons, where she has spent many years as an architect, Hanson believes that the best way for her to experience a place is by creating art. In addition to her work as an artist and architect, Hanson is a member of the Bitterroot Land Trust’s board of directors and has dedicated herself to protecting open spaces and agricultural heritage. Photo by Isaac Miller

Renderings: Polymath

A true artist will never be or do just one thing. In the spirit of Bernini, Michaelangelo, and Frank Gehry, Meghan Hanson possesses the irresistible urge to create. It’s how she gets to know a place and how she shares what she loves. It’s how she expresses beauty and how she has fun. When Hanson reflects on a line in Mary Oliver’s beloved poem, “The Summer Day,” the pieces fall together: “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” An architect, painter, illustrator, traveler, adventurer, and Montanan, Hanson’s life as an artist is a compelling study in passion and pursuit, knowing what she wants and diving straight in.

Highway 33 | WATERCOLOR | 9 X 15 INCHES | Traditional farm structures, like these metal grain silos, often show up in Hanson’s artwork and architectural designs as a tribute to the deep-rooted agrarian culture across the West.

Before she could do all these things, though, Hanson was just a kid growing up in Montana’s Bitterroot Valley, hiking and camping with her parents and two sisters. She attended the local high school, but decided after her sophomore year that she “wanted something more.” Long before the pandemic, or even the internet, Hanson broke the mold, taking her required classes by mail so she could graduate a year early. “I knew I wanted to be an artist,” she says.

Hanson’s studio occupies the loft of her Passive House U.S.-certified home and is where Hanson works on architectural drawings, watercolors, and reclaimed wood murals. Photo by Isaac Miller

Hanson spent two years studying art at the University of Montana in Missoula but found it wasn’t the right fit. When her dad introduced her to an architect, and she saw how he spent his days, Hanson promptly transferred to Montana State University in Bozeman, where she discovered that “architecture is an art form that we experience in 3D.” She went on to earn her undergraduate and master’s degrees. Straight out of graduate school, she was offered two jobs: one in Iceland and another with Carney Architects (now CLB) in Jackson, Wyoming. She was wild about the thrill of Iceland, but, for Hanson, the Tetons were calling.

Lemhi Range | RECLAIMED WOOD | 16 X 36 INCHES | Hanson uses reclaimed and patinaed wood in her murals and draws inspiration from both the natural world and the man-made one. “Often, it is the built forms that help us see and focus on the wild world around us,” she says. “A road or a fence or a person can create scale in an otherwise vast landscape.

Hanson worked for Carney Architects for six years, exploring her interest in green building and honing her skills on a number of projects, including a straw-bale house she and her partner built for themselves on the west side of the Tetons. And while she was designing custom homes, Hanson was always making art — from knitted sweaters and hand-woven baskets to wood collage and watercolors — and always traveling to far-flung destinations — China, Bali, Spain, Alaska — painting what she saw in extraordinary journals. Hanson even started a company she still runs with her sister, doing illustrations for everything from backcountry medical training manuals to tree-climbing guides for the U.S. Forest Service. The melding of art and architecture always came naturally. “They are all so related,” she says. “They all inform the other.”

Hanson loved the Tetons and found her work experience with Carney invaluable, but by 2008, she was ready to open her own studio in the Teton Valley. “I wanted to work with something I call ‘right-sizing,’” which is building in a way that honors place by making minimal impacts on the planet.

Passing Lane (winter from above series) | BLEACH, COLORED PENCIL, AND PEN | 8 X 6 INCHES | Hanson is a passionate and accomplished athlete. She’s an avid backpacker, runner, and cross-country skier, pursuits that often show up in her watercolors.

Since then, as the only employee of Natural Dwellings Architecture — “a very conscious choice,” she says — Hanson has designed dozens of homes across Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho that respond to their geographical settings and their owners’ living systems and values. Though the styles and aesthetics of each house are as different as the clients who commission them — from modern glass and concrete marvels to cozy farmhouses — all of Hanson’s designs employ her passion for energy efficiency and expertise in building science.

In 2012, Hanson’s yearning for home and family brought her back to the Bitterroot. She continued to spend several days a month in the Tetons, designing homes there, and considered her birthplace — at “half the elevation of the Teton Valley” — something of a respite, despite what she describes as remarkable similarities between the two valleys. “In the Tetons, there are meetings and people, an explosion of ideas.” But then she comes home to “figure it all out. This is where I come to create,” she says.

Five minutes down the road from the log cabin where she was born, Hanson lives in a modern-day homestead she designed and built that also happens to be the first — and still only — house in Montana to earn Passive House U.S. certification. The house — simple and agrarian in form, modern Scandinavian in style — is an ode to the Bitterroot and an expression of her values about energy efficiency, natural resources, wildlife, and, not least of all, beauty. It’s also her art studio and the base camp from which she and her partner continue to launch myriad adventures each year, including a long-planned sabbatical in 2022 that saw the two of them running across the U.S. with their dog. “One of us was always on foot,” she says. “It was an awesome adventure.”

For Hanson, art, architecture, and adventure are ways to answer the questions she is always asking. “I have my dad’s engineering sense and my mom’s artistic sensibility,” she says of her “professional, yet hippy” parents: “real world and art,” she laughs.

When it came time to build their own house in the Bitterroot, Hanson and her partner, Mike, dissolved the lot lines on 13 parcels to protect open agricultural land and natural wildlife corridors. The house, simple and agrarian in form — what Hanson calls the Western vernacular — is a 1,700-square-foot, net-zero home designed to optimize pastoral views while minimizing heat loss in winter or gain in summer. The two silo outbuildings function as a second kitchen with a pizza oven and smoker, and a fully insulated and heated bathhouse. Photo by CHUCK COLLIER SCHMIDT

Katy Ann Fox, who shows Hanson’s watercolors at Foxtrot Fine Art in Driggs, Idaho, sees this combination at the root of everything Hanson does. “Creativity spills out of Meghan, and it’s evident immediately when meeting her. She is so excited about art. … and the clean lines and professionalism from her life as an architect just add to her talent,” she says.

Lisa Simon, owner of Radius Gallery in Missoula, represents Hanson as well, showing several of her mixed-media works using reclaimed wood. “Visitors in the gallery spend a lot of time in front of Meghan Hanson’s artwork, dwelling on the details and stepping back to see the whole,” Simon says. “In her wood art, Meghan brings a unique approach to the genre of landscape that ties her formal training to her passion for adventure. With her superb powers of observation, she marries the precise recordings of an architect with equal amounts of exuberant joy for the outdoors. Her works convey a deep love for nature, its textures, varieties, and colors. The result is refreshing and appreciated by many art enthusiasts and collectors.”

Inside Hanson’s personal home, a Scandinavian modern aesthetic — with white interiors, black windows, and a sealed concrete floor — complements the clean lines of the home. Hanson used walnut, oak, cherry, and maple for the ceiling, cabinetry, and stair treads. The great room utilizes an island as its centerpiece, rather than a dining table, and has several small seating areas throughout. Photo by CHUCK COLLIER SCHMIDT

Sculptor Auguste Rodin said that “true artists are almost the only [people] who do their work for pleasure.” With Hanson, it’s so clear from her buoyant energy and appetite for beauty — and from the delight her clients and collectors take from inhabiting her work — that she is precisely that kind of artist.

From the Beginning: On designing a home

Though every one of Meghan Hanson’s designs is decidedly different from the next, the process by which she digs into each architecture project is the same: She compiles as much initial information as possible about the owners and the site. “When you layer the owners’ values, site values, and programmatic needs on top of each other like onion paper, it’s going to tell you the appropriate design,” she says. The following are some of the questions Hanson asks of each project upfront.

• What are the owners’ personal values, and how do those relate to the house?

• What are all the elements of the site: views, light, wind, soil, geography, wildlife, roads, etc.?

• What kinds of energy considerations can be made? What is important to the owners and appropriate for their lifestyle?

• What are the budget requirements?

• How do the owners live day to day? Who gets up when? What do cooking and meal preparation look like?

• What views do they love?

• Do they travel and need to shut the house down for periods of time?

• What about guests? How do they like to entertain?


Carter Walker is the author of several guidebooks, including Moon Montana & Wyoming (November 2022), Moon Montana (January 2023), Moon Wyoming (January 2023), and Moon Yellowstone to Glacier National Park Road Trip (May 2023). She lives in the Horseshoe Hills of Montana with her partner, two daughters, and a motley collection of well-traveled animals.

No Comments

Post A Comment

error: Content is protected !!