Going into the back of Convergence Gallery is, at first, a little like finding yourself in that Brad Pitt movie, Se7en, where the detectives investigate murders in unlit apartments. It's dark and you're armed with a flashlight. Though there are objects glowing in the room, it's hard to see what they are until you pass the beam of light across them. In this new gallery on Main Street, there are no dead bodies, thank goodness. No serial killers or blood-chilling heads in boxes, either.
Instead, the flashlight reveals swirls of blues and greens gleaming around the eye sockets of animal skulls, which sit neatly on tables. A painted bison skull houses the tiny skull of bird inside its nose. Colorful paintings glow on the walls, too, including a bear and a warthog strumming guitars around a campfire, surrounded by pine trees swaying in the wind, under a bright red sky. The flashlight, which is ultraviolet, brings out the brightness of each wispy paint stroke. Like watching a movie in 3D, images seem to bend toward you at times. It takes a moment to look past the flashiness of the glow-in-the-dark paint and really notice all the little details of the paintings.
The exhibit, Growing Wildflowers in Skulls, is by Missoula artist Luke Smith. Smith has carved himself a niche using glow-in-the-dark and ultraviolet paint. Despite the gimmicky feel of the concept, Smith says it was a practical decision. Smith often does live painting at festivals down at Caras Park or outside of town. People gather around and watch as he creates a painting on-the-fly or fleshes out an image that he sketched out on the canvas ahead of time. But, as most festivals go—especially music festivals—people only really start getting amped up for action just as the sun is setting.
"The first time I used the paint was at Love Your Mother Earth Festival," Smith says. "I realized that after it gets dark outside it's hard for people to see what I'm doing. I'll start out with regular paint during the day time and then when it gets dark out I'll get a black light and [start painting] with the UV paint."
To illuminate his glow-in-the-dark live painting further, Smith sometimes shines a color shifting device on the piece, which emits different kinds of light and changes the colors in the painting. The effect looks cool and trippy, but keeping track of colors adds an extra element of chaos for Smith.
"It can be completely insane because the colors change and you have to remember which colors are what," he says. "Greens will look dark red because the light is either black light or green light or blue light. I've been painting on a stage before and lost track of what I was doing and then when I got the painting into regular light I looked at it and I'm like, 'Oops! What did I do?'"
Besides finding a niche in UV and glowing paint, using skulls as a canvas started just a couple of years ago, after Smith found some old cow bones in his grandmother's shed. They were relics from the ranch she and Smith's grandfather ran in Dixon. He says he'd seen artwork on skulls before, usually painted on just the face.
"I always wondered why they don't paint the whole skull," he says. "I asked my grandma if she had some skulls for me and she gave me a few. I started painting them live at festivals. I realized I could just take a piece of rebar or a stick and put them in the ground and paint them right there."
It's not easy to get a steady flow of skulls. Bison skulls, for instance, can cost $200 or more and Smith can't afford to do that. He depends on friends and acquaintances who offer him skulls from their ranching boneyards or collections. In one example from Growing Wildflowers in Skulls, Smith has painted the skull of a draft horse. The horse once belonged to some friends of his and, after the exhibit ends Jan. 31, it will be returned to the owners, now brightly painted, as a keepsake.
Smith's first experimentation with painting bone also ended up being a personal memento for friends. One weekend, on the friends' ranch outside of Spokane, he found the top half of a cow skull and decided he wanted to paint it, but wasn't sure what to do. That night, he partied late with his buddies. He fell asleep under a tree next to a bonfire and woke up surrounded by curious cattle.
"I was a little bit frightened," he says, laughing. "But Roots, their dog, a large border collie, he and his daughters came ripping out of the woods at full speed chasing the cows down the hill and left me in a cloud of dust. I was thinking, 'What am I going to paint on the skull?' So I painted Roots and his daughters on it. [My friends] bought that from me. They have it hanging in their new house."
Smith did another painting for the exhibit, one of musician Andy Frasco as he performs at the Top Hat. "He's got his face smashed down on the piano and he's laughing like a lunatic and his hair's going everywhere," Smith says of the image that inspired his work. He sketched out the piece enough so that it resembled Frasco, and then painted it with glowing colors and gestural strokes that gave it an animated feel.
Smith got his degree in animation and illustration from the Seattle Art Institute, but making glow-in-the-dark art on skulls or anything else isn't something you learn in a higher-education program. Still, he's found a place for his style. WE Missoula, a nonprofit run by musician Will Peterson, helps other nonprofits put on fundraisers and Smith has done live painting for several of its events.
Talking with Smith about his work is a little bit like shining a flashlight on one of his paintings. A he tells it, his pieces often stem from strange, dreamlike stories—like the one where he wakes up surrounded by cattle. When he's not doing live paintings, he works at his home in the dark under UV lights, sometimes listening to bluegrass, the skull or canvas coming to life with each new glowing stroke. His style could lend itself to abstract art, but in the end, he's looking for something familiar to emerge.
"I start with chaos and eventually form comes out of the chaos," he says. "I need to make a story. But, in the beginning, it always starts as a fun experiment in my mad science laboratory."
Luke Smith paints live during the International Wildlife Film Festival fundraiser "Sounds Wild" at the Roxy Theater Thu., Jan. 23, 7 to 10 PM. Free, but donations accepted. Smith's Growing Wildflowers in Skulls continues at the e3 Convergence Gallery, 229 W. Main St., through January.