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Déjà view

Prestigious Oil Painters of America return to Missoula

Two years ago, when the Oil Painters of America (OPA) chose the Dana Gallery as the host for its national juried exhibition, just the show’s arrival was considered a big deal for Missoula. After all, one of the country’s most prestigious organizations, dedicated to preserving and promoting traditional representative oil painting (think Rembrandt, not Picasso), had bypassed the usual posh locales of Santa Fe, Taos and Chicago to bring more than 200 paintings and an audience of elite painters, influential collectors and respected art historians to Big Sky Country. It was a major coup for the local arts scene.

But a funny thing happened during all that initial back-patting: The Dana Gallery put on one of the most successful exhibitions in OPA’s 17-year history, and the nationally emerging gallery on Higgins Avenue was quickly earmarked for a return OPA engagement.

“It was one of the top three shows ever as far as total dollar amount,” says OPA Executive Director Kathryn Beligratis. “We pretty much determined we were coming back by the end [of the 2006 exhibition]…Part of it was that from a financial standpoint it did very well. But more than that, all the people who attended felt the community support was just unlike anything we’d seen. It was phenomenal.”

So the bar’s been set high for this weekend, when another 200-plus of OPA’s best-judged paintings (culled from more than 2,000 submissions) are hung in the Dana Gallery for a free First Friday Art Walk reception. That evening—in which a judge will award the best painting and a $20,000 grand prize—kicks off a weekend of events scheduled throughout Missoula. Highlights include Master Signature artist demonstrations (this being a group of 44 artists, appointed by committee, whose work is considered the pinnacle of the art form), guest lectures from prominent art historians and collectors, and local plein air paint outs (the popular style of landscape painting accomplished outdoors in natural lighting). Most of the activities are free and open to the public.

“This is the sort of event that puts Missoula and the gallery on the radar,” says gallery owner Dudley Dana. “That happened two years ago, and it was a huge success, so I’m just hoping we don’t screw it up this time around.” 

Fat chance. But to help you play your part as informed art-goer and get a part of the action, here’s a rundown of the major names to watch out for this weekend, from some of the big-time draws to the locals who scored a coveted spot in the show.

The Locals

Raymond J. Burton
Chances are you’ve never seen Raymond J. Burton’s work. The retired Forest Service worker submitted a painting to an open-invitation pet art show at Sutton West back in 2004 and recently donated a few landscapes to help decorate Montana Homefitters, the furniture store down near Blue Mountain Road. No fancy exhibits. No galleries hawking his wares.

“I’ve always painted, but I was never really motivated to pursue it seriously because I had a job,” says the affable, straightforward Burton. “The last seven years, since I retired, I’ve started to do it a little more.”

His work is paying off. Burton’s “Lee Creek” was accepted to this weekend’s OPA exhibition. It’s the first juried art show the self-taught painter has ever entered.

“I could draw as well at age six as I can now,” he says. “But there’s been a lot of self-study. It was a matter of learning about painting and different techniques, and taking the time to stick with it and get better.”

He took one art course in college—art appreciation, an elective—and studied the chemistry of paint to better understand how to improve his work. He also credits public television—a Bob Ross fan!—for teaching him pointers over the years.

“My work doesn’t look anything like what they do on those shows, but I learned a lot of bits and pieces watching them,” he says.

Burton’s work belies his lack of formal training. In particular, how he captures the clear, incandescent water in “Lee Creek”—an effect achieved through various glazing techniques—is superb.

“My wife and I have a camper and we go up there a lot, and I’m always taking my camera,” Burton says. “If you go up there [near Lolo Creek], you’ll see that that’s exactly how it is. I was looking for a place to capture the golden sunlight as it comes through the trees and Lee Creek is important because the water is so crystal clear. That’s a rare thing up there, something special. That’s exactly what I wanted.”

Mark Gibson
Mark Gibson and Brian Schweyen—owners of the consistently impressive gallery that recently relocated next to Dana Gallery—have been painting together for years. The two help each other hone their craft, and that collaboration has led to their evolution from self-taught weekend warriors to full-time artists and successful gallery owners.

There’s been just one hiccup with the otherwise even keeled partnership: Schweyen’s been accepted into national shows, including three entries in juried OPA exhibitions, while Gibson has not.

Until this year. Gibson’s cutely named “Waterfront Property,” which captures three radiant teepees on the edge of Bean Lake, marks his OPA debut.

“I always thought things might be, but absolutely not,” says Gibson, laughing about any possible competitiveness with Schweyen. “We’re always looking out for each other with a fresh eye toward our work, and I think part of that has put us on the same learning curve over the years. What makes it cool is we’re basically progressing at the same rate. I think it’d be a bummer if one of us actually got really good.” 

While Gibson’s work will be hanging in the OPA show, it’s worth walking the 20 feet next door to the Gibson & Schweyen Gallery and Studio to see the full collection of these emerging local painters.

Master Signature artists

Zhiwei Tu
Zhiwei is quickly becoming a regular in the Missoula art scene. At the 2006 OPA show, when he served as president of the organization, the legendary Chinese painter (he has his own museum in his native country) befriended Dudley Dana and his wife, Candace Crosby. Their friendship continued with a three-week tour of China the following year (complete with a documentary film crew capturing every step of Zhiwei’s travels) and a subsequent show at the Dana Gallery. Now he’s back again with another example of his work, “Me.”

There’s not enough space here to fully recount Zhiwei’s fairy tale-like ascent to becoming one of the world’s foremost artists. But in one often-told story, a young Zhiwei allegedly sat for two days beside a government artist sent to do a portrait of Chairman Mao in Zhiwei’s hometown, then proceeded to out-paint the professional. His town chose Zhiwei’s work to be displayed. It was the boy’s first painting. 

Jeff Legg
The Missouri born and bred artist succeeds in actually making still life paintings interesting. We mean that in a good way. He also has a way with words in his bio, demonstrating that certain panache necessary to peddle one’s work: “I must diligently search my heart to find out what really moves and captivates me. ‘Truth’ is the essential ingredient in making art. The human soul is hopelessly bound to express it.” Uh huh.

Anyway, “Cycle of Life,” a painting of two vases and some fruit listed at $35,000, caught our eye.

Daniel E. Greene
Greene stands out, even in this deep exhibition, for a number of career-defining moments. The accomplished pastel portraitist has painted Eleanor Roosevelt, Ayn Rand, Rush Limbaugh, Dave “Wendy’s” Thomas, Bryant Gumble and enough politicians to make Tim Russert blush. The Encyclopedia Britannica wrote that he was the foremost pastelist in the country. His popular Subway Series garnered widespread national media attention in the early 1990s. And for this exhibition, he’s submitted an eye-poppingly brash 43-by-40-inch painting called “Candyland,” listed at $74,000.

Ramon Kelley
Be nice to Kelley this weekend. In addition to showing one of his signature impressionistic portraits, “Fiesta Dancer,” Kelley will also serve as judge of the $20,000 grand prize competition.

How Kelley got to this point is enchanting. According to his bio with Santa Fe’s Nedra Matteucci Gallery, the Cheyenne-born painter dropped out of school after the eighth grade so he could make a living shining shoes, selling papers, working in a used-car dealership and learning to be a ranch hand. He eventually decided on a career in the Navy, in part so he could tour Europe’s museums and art collections. After his service overseas, Kelley was finally able to pursue his love of art and enrolled in the Colorado Institute of Art. He worked as an illustrator and graphic designer until, in 1965, his oil paintings were finally accepted into a prominent Santa Fe gallery. He is now considered one of the foremost teachers and painters in the country, and the author of The 5 Essentials in Every  Powerful Painting.

Calvin Liang
Liang’s career path is a bit unusual. Recognized as one of the best contemporary plein air landscape painters, and known especially for his marina scenes, he got his start in commercial animation. We’re talking credits in The Little Mermaid, “SpongeBob Squarepants,” “Xyber9” and (my personal favorite) “The Angry Beavers.” Varmints to tranquil seasides is a pretty big leap. 

Liang was born in China, but moved to San Francisco in 1987 at the age of 27. His work is on display in the National Museum of Beijing and China’s Museum of the Guangzhou Institute of Fine Arts, where he was a professor prior to coming to the United States. In 2001, he was honored with OPA’s Award of Excellence. His painting, “Sailboats on Morro Bay,” is included in this year’s exhibition.  

The Full Palette

Friday, May 2
12:30 PM, Holiday Inn-Parkside, $20
Presentation by Peter Trippi, editor of Fine Art Connoisseur Magazine, on famous British painter J.W. Waterhouse.

5 PM, Dana Gallery, Free
Artists’ reception with artists, collectors and sponsors, during Missoula’s First Friday Art Walk.

8:30 PM, Holiday Inn-Parkside, Free 
Awards ceremony, including the American National Award of Excellence, which is valued at $20,000. 

Saturday, May 3
9 AM, Dana Gallery, Free
Painting demonstrations by some of OPA’s top artists.

Sunday, May 4
9 AM, Various locations, Free
OPA members take to the region for plein air “paint outs” throughout Missoula, along the Blackfoot River valley and north at Flathead Lake.


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