On the evening of the first Friday in October, the crowd for Missoula’s monthly art walk seemed double its normal size and wasconcentrated almost exclusively at the intersection of Broadway and North Higgins Avenue. Cars had trouble passing as people spilled onto the street, television cameras were set up on the adjacent corners and all eyes were aimed at the north side of the Allegra Print & Imaging building for the unveiling of the first two panels of a mural, “The Heart of Missoula.” Local artist Hadley Ferguson, who spent more than a year researching and working to accurately depict the history of the city’s downtown, took in the scene and couldn’t help but put it into a larger perspective.
“Some of the first pictures I found when I started this were of crowd scenes at that intersection in the late 1800s,” says Ferguson. “They were always revolving around major events, community events, and here was this art project that drew a crowd in the same exact place. It seemed to create a similar theme to what the mural’s pictures were like.”
This Friday, Dec. 2, Ferguson, 29, will complete the mural project when the final five panels are revealed, completely covering the north wall of the Allegra building. Whereas the first two panels focused on the University of Montana and the heart of downtown, the five smaller panels feature primary landmarks and benchmarks from early Missoula, such as the Star Garage, Kohn Clock, Garden City Brewery, the arrival of newspaper printing and Missoula’s railroads. The smaller panels measure as much as 7-by-22 feet, compared to the first two, which are 12-by-16 and 12-by-24.
“It’s been a huge project, and a huge responsibility,” says Ferguson, a graduate of UM’s arts program. “It was really important to me to be accurate, not to overlook any of the details, and make sure that it was something that really benefited the city.”
Ferguson first started creating murals when she worked with a company of artists in Portland, Ore., who painted them for local businesses. After moving back to Missoula in 2001 she began freelancing, and a broad range of her work now appears in local offices, restaurants and shops. For instance, Ferguson is responsible for the football scene in Paul’s Pancake Parlor (“I don’t know football very well so I was told exactly what they wanted right down to the play on the field”), the fresco-type painting at Liquid Planet and the cosmopolitan design at the Hob Nob Café, just to name a few. With her first foray in outdoor work, Ferguson’s aim was to apply similar principals as in her indoor work, using her images to influence the atmosphere and enhance the environment in which the art is displayed.
“I realized how many people go into a coffee shop and see a painting and it creates a mood,” says Ferguson. “I wanted to do the same thing, and have the downtown reflected in the way it was back in an older time. My hope is that people will see the paintings and pick up on what Missoula was like historically.”
The Missoula Public Art Committee and the owner of Allegra, Rick Bice, chose Ferguson for the collaborative public-private project based on her previous work with indoor murals. Bice and private sponsors offered to cover costs, and the committee made a $10,250 matching donation. Once the committee approved Ferguson’s proposed designs, she started painting in August and finished the newer panels just last week. The size of the mural—each panel is powder-coated aluminum bolted to a steel framework, painted with acrylics and clear-coated with eight protective layers—meant that Ferguson couldn’t work from her small home-studio; the first two panels were completed at Western Truck Rebuild and the final five at Rick’s Auto Body.
“The bonus was that I learned a lot about fixing semitrucks and I got to drive a forklift,” she says. “But even [the shops] weren’t big enough for us. We originally wanted the panels to be 14 feet, but we had to cut the size down so we could get them in and out easier.”
The role of public art in the community is not lost on Ferguson. For all the art galleries located downtown, and for all the public art projects supported by the city, UM and private businesses, there’s a surprising lack of outdoor murals. The Public Art Committee commissioned a mural by Stanley C. Hughes called “Studebaker” in 2000 for the east wall of the Studebaker Building, as well as a ceramic relief in an alcove of Fire Station #1. The south side of the Wilma building once showcased a mural, but that was quickly covered. None of those examples are nearly as prominent or large-scale as “The Heart of Missoula,” and Ferguson hopes the work resonates with the public—and maybe even changes the social dynamic of downtown.
“This is just my personal thought, but I see these paintings showing a Missoula in the late 1800s that was centered around one general store, maybe one hotel,” she says. It was a community that was even closer than it is today. Missoula’s always been a tight community, but it’s more vast now with a bigger population and so many more businesses…In a way I hope this project helps bring people together, like it was back then, where people came together to help keep the town going.”
The final five panels of “The Heart of Missoula” will be unveiled Friday, Dec. 2, at Allegra Print & Imaging on the corner of Broadway and Higgins Avenue at 5:30 PM.