During October's First Friday art walk, a large crowd flooded the top floor of the Missoula Art Museum to see drawings inspired by the 1815 volcanic eruption of Mount Tambora on the island of Sumbawa. The solo exhibit by beloved Missoula artist Courtney Blazon, titled The Year Without a Summer, had built up a buzz over the previous several months. Blazon is known for her beautiful but often creepy, richly storied and extremely surreal marker-and-ink works, and for this particular project she went the distance. She raised over $7,000 for the project and holed up working in her studio for months of sleepless nights. The result is four large-scale illustrations and dozens of smaller pieces rendered with extraordinary detail and inspired by the eruption, capturing death and illness, folklore, climate change and even the birth of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein.
Blazon's First Friday talk helped provide viewers with part of the deep backstory behind the exhibit, and the museum offers a booklet for further investigation. Even so, there's no way to absorb all the characters and symbolism Blazon has woven together. Here are just a few of the smaller details you might not want to miss.
Cholera is everywhere
The volcanic eruption killed over 100,000 people and devastated crops, but it also led to the spread of a deadly strain of cholera. Unlike typhus, which swept through the poorest regions, cholera was an equal opportunity bacteria that infected the water of rich and poor. Three of Blazon's large-scale paintings depict the colorful cholera plankton. "Sur La Fin Du Monde" shows the bacteria bubbling up through the ground. In "Poetry of the Seven Sorrows," the plankton seems to have taken over the entire water system and, finally, in "Welcome to the Pleasure Dome"a piece that takes place long after the eruption (perhaps in the present time)a character sports what Blazon imagines as "the latest cholera-inspired fashion": a dress with the plankton printed on it.
Seven is a key number
The number 7 shows up in two of the pieces. Most obvious is "Poetry of the Seven Sorrows," a reference to a Chinese genre of writing that was revived by poet Li Yuyang after the volcanic eruption led to famine in China. The piece also shows seven people dressed as harlequins who famously died during a Parisian masquerade ball. They died of cholera, of course. In "Welcome to the Pleasure Dome," Blazon's futuristic characters with strange attributes—one has a garden spade for a leg, for instance, while another spews a green substance—might seem familiar: They're the seven deadly sins.
- “Welcome to the Pleasure Dome” is part of Courtney Blazon’s new exhibit at MAM.
"Pride" provides a glimmer of hope
Almost all the seven deadly sins show how we haven't come very far since the eruption of the volcano, according to Blazon. For 200 years greed and envy and all the other "sins" plagued the world, resulting in starvation and addiction. But "Pride" is depicted by two children. "Sometimes I think we don't have enough pride in ourselves," Blazon says. One of the children has her head turned all the way around, representing the hope of evolution and innovation. "I feel like that's our design flaw," she says. "We should be able to swivel our heads all the way around."
Obvious volcanic explosions show up in almost every one of the large-scale pieces. But Blazon also took the liberty to showcase other examples of natural and human-made pyrotechnics happening at the time. In "Sur La Fin Du Monde" you can see a temple-like structure with fire spurting from the top. This exotic tent illustrates the obsession people around the world had with volcanoes, from Vesuvius through to Tambora and Krakatoa.
Sideshow attractions popped up, including in London, where one building created a Vesuvius eruption show every half-hour. Additionally, the impact of volcanic eruptions like Tamobra led to weather patterns producing St. Elmo's Fire. In the same piece, you can see blue light bursting from the tops of the buildings and ships. "They're nature's pyrotechnics," Blazon says. "Those were reported worldwide. I used them a lot [in the pieces] because they're really fun. Well, not for the people at the time. I think they were really concerned when that was happening."
Symbols of starvation
The area around Sumbawa was known for breeding ponies. Those who survived the volcanic eruption in nearby countries lost so much food that they were forced to eat whatever they could—favorite animals included. They also mashed up leaves into a paste to provide some sustenance. In "Sur La Fin Du Monde," Blazon combined the two ideas with a picture of leaves falling out of the stomach of a rearing pony.
The apocalypse includes climate change—and a Ken doll
You'd know that doll with the rounded-off crotch anywhere. The naked, blonde-haired surfer in "Welcome to the Pleasure Dome" is Barbie's boyfriend, Ken. He represents the fate of Sumbawa now: an impoverished island overrun by wealthy surfers in an ocean plagued with plastics. In the corner of the piece, a cloud-seeding plane attempts to curb global warming. The effect of putting sulphates into the atmosphere parallels some of the same properties of volcanic gases, Blazon notes. "It might be a good idea now, but I don't know," she says. This is how, she explains, the story comes full circle.
Check out The Year Without a Summer during MAM's regular hours or on Thu., Oct. 27, when MAM hosts an End of the World Masquerade and Costume Party at 7 PM. $20/$15 members. Visit missoulaartmuseum.org for more details.