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Baixiong to India

Janet McGahan's path to painting in color

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The house in Arlee where Janet McGahan lives feels like a painter's paradise. A winding dirt road finds it nestled in the middle of nowhere, down by the river. It feels like an old trapper cabin except for its details: a multitude of plants and paintings, photographs and artifacts line the inside. Sunlight filters in past a cage of birds. Outside are mossy rock walls, archways draped in creeping plants, vegetable gardens and iron benches shaded by willows. McGahan's studio, which feels like a cool wooden clubhouse, is nestled in the backyard. She shares the hidden sanctuary with her husband, artist and writer Jerry McGahan, and their dog Annie. They still have bees from the days of running their beekeeping business, Old World Honey.

Her rich oils of street life in India and her bright watercolors of dogs, bears, birds and other animals—a handful of which you can see at Missoula's Dana Gallery—show her love for color. But it wasn't always that way. McGahan came late to drawing. She started sketching portraits of her newborn son when she was in her late twenties. "I've always had the urge to draw and paint but I didn't have much background," she says. "Sleeping babies. That was my time to practice."

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For two decades, she drew mostly in pen-and-ink and pencil, rarely dabbling in color for fear of using it wrong. Then, in her late 40s, she saw an exhibit by portraitist and master Chinese calligrapher Tu Baixiong at UM. The artist had adopted Missoula as his hometown and made a name for himself with his light-washed portrayals of Montana landscapes, for which he received the Northwest Watercolor Council's first prize. At the suggestion of Jerry, Janet tracked down Baixiong to get lessons. It took a few weeks, but he interviewed her and screened her work, then agreed to mentor her.

"He was no-nonsense," she recalls. "Once, I said, 'I'm paralyzed, I don't know what to do.' He said, 'Just pick up the chalk and start in.' He'd show me these bold strokes that were so beautiful and it just sort of broke [the paralysis]."

McGahan studied with him for four months, once a week for an hour and a half. It was intensive. "He'd sit down and read and kind of whistle and get up about 10 minutes later and stand behind you," she says. "He'd say things like, 'Ja-net! Stand up! Stand back! Look!' And then he'd start laughing and say, 'See? You see where you're off?' And he was right. If you're right up close, you can't see it. You have to step back."

Baixiong taught her the beauty of alleys. Before Missoula, he used to paint Mao Tse Tung's portrait on giant murals in China. That was his job. "He had no artistic freedom whatsoever, so when he came here he just reveled in being able to walk down the street and pick what he wanted to paint," McGahan says. "You can see it in his alley work and backyard picnics and clotheslines."

Baixiong died in 1996, three years after McGahan met and studied with him, but he seems to still be with her. On her studio walls are a few portraits he did. There's also one of a beautiful dark-skinned girl that McGahan made—a copy of a Baixiong original he had her mimic in order to learn from him.

Over the years since, she's created other portraits. One is of her friend Roy Big Crane, sitting at a table in a Homeland Security T-shirt, next to a bursting bouquet of flowers. Others are from her trips to India. In 2005, McGahan's sister needed vertebrae surgery, but she didn't have health insurance, so they found a hospital in Delhi. McGahan has gone to India a couple of times since, painting street scenes of children, a woman elegantly peering out of a window, an elephant being bathed by two men at a refuge. While there, she also teaches homeless children—some of whom have been taken off the streets and housed in a shelter where they sleep and eat and learn. She gives them colorful markers and pencils to draw their lives. "Boy, it's the easiest thing," she says. "You don't have to do any bureaucratic stuff. Part of the fun is that Indian kids under those circumstances are so receptive and open and cooperative." Like she was with Baixiong. She says that even years later, she's still learning how to do art.

Baixiong used to show McGahan his paintings and test her, saying, "Do you think it's finished?" At the time she thought, "How would I know?"

"I know what he means now," she says. "Are there enough layers and depth and background? The more you paint, the more you see into the shadows and understand color temperature and what you've got to have. I feel like I could be a lot better critic to him now."

Janet McGahan's watercolors and oils are on display at the Dana Gallery, 246 N. Higgins.

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