Larger than life

Hadley Ferguson has made a name for herself painting murals throughout Missoula, but none measure up to her next project and the challenge she faces while completing it



Hadley Ferguson is everywhere. She's on the center beam that runs through Sean Kelly's pub. She's above the cozy nook in Liquid Planet where baristas grind espresso, along the wall of Paul's Pancake Parlor and next to the bar at the Rhino. She's in the wine section at Worden's Market and at the edge of the Clark Fork in Caras Park. Most notably, she's overlooking the intersection of Broadway and Higgins, Missoula's busiest downtown streets. You can even find her on the outskirts of town, in a warehouse on Expressway and at historic Fort Missoula. The mural artist has created large-scale paintings on walls inside and outside, across the city. She's depicted images of Celtic folklore, local bar life and Grizzly football, and, in more recent years, Ferguson has painted historical scenes of Missoula in what has become her distinctive style of rich colors flooded in warm light.

Starting last year, Ferguson began to tackle even larger projects. Each morning she scales a stepladder in the gymnasium at Loyola Sacred Heart and works on four 12-by-8 murals illustrating the history of Catholic schools in Montana, a project commissioned by the Loyola Sacred Heart Foundation. In the afternoons, she focuses her paintbrush on a mural for the University of Montana's College of Forestry and Conservation of people managing the land. She also has to find time in the day for her most high-profile project to date: creating two large murals that will become permanent art pieces at the Capitol building in Helena. In a political space where images of men have long dominated, the murals will finally offer a homage to the contributions from everyday women—like Fergus—onto the state.


In the open upstairs studio of her downtown home, part of the forestry mural hangs on one wall while designs for the Capitol spread across a table in the center of the room. Sun beams through the windows and the smell of brewing coffee drifts up from the downstairs kitchen. Ferguson, barefoot, willowy with long auburn hair, possesses an ageless quality as she sketches. She's 37, but she doesn't look much different from her years at Hellgate High School when she first started painting. It's a disarming quality but one that, especially in the early years of her career, forced her to work hard to get would-be clients to take her seriously.

It takes a careful set of eyes to notice other details about Ferguson: The way her slender toes curl slightly upward. The way she climbs the stairs just a little bit stiffly. How her bright smile accompanies a slight tenseness in her jaw. Those are the visible effects of multiple system atrophy, a degenerative condition that damages the nervous system. It's an atypical form of Parkinson's with similar symptoms—rigid muscles, tremors, impaired balance—but it's more aggressive and it affects more of the body. Ferguson first noticed neurological problems in 2009, but she only recently received the MSA diagnosis. The condition has made it harder to take on large-scale murals, and so the Capitol piece will be Ferguson's last big work. She's been researching the project for several months now, sifting through old photographs, documents and history books to discover the stories of women of all backgrounds who lived on this soil.

"What struck me the most in my research was how diverse the Montana landscape was and how amazing it must have been to make a life here," Ferguson says. "It was not the easiest of conditions for women. I think it must have taken so much determination. This piece I'm working on is a broad look at how women of all cultures in Montana influenced family, economy and politics—how they built community together."

The Capitol commission would be a dream legacy project for anyone, but it's particularly apt for Ferguson, a willful artist who has built her career on art projects that require collaboration and that speak to community, even while she faces unimaginable challenges.

Anyone who knows Ferguson's palette of moss greens, rust oranges and brick reds can pick her work out of a lineup. But there was a time when the artist shied away from working with bright colors, when she found painting intimidating. As a young girl and into her college years, she felt content to merely admire artists from afar.

Ferguson grew up in Missoula, but her parents often took her on extended trips to far away places. Before kindergarten, the family moved to Bratislava for a year-long adventure (Ferguson's mother, Jana, is a Czech native), and during her stay in the now-Slovakian capital, Ferguson recalls admiring the tones of a print of "The Mona Lisa" on her bedroom wall. As a preteen, she spent a year in New York City and two years in Japan. (Later, in college, she and her father, Fred, traveled through Russia together.) In between the trips abroad, Ferguson lived in Missoula, but it was always those international adventures that piqued her interested in art. In New York especially, when she was just 9, her mother often took her to museums.

  • photo by Cathrine L. Walters

"I would sit and stare at paintings and study how the brush strokes were assembled and how color was used to create the beautiful illusions in front of me," she says. "I remember focusing in on small details like buttons on a shirt or a fold in a cloth. I remember a man interrupting my thoughts once while staring at a painting and saying, 'I can tell you are going to be an artist someday. You are very young to spend so much time looking at one painting.'"

Despite her desire to make paintings like the ones she saw at the big city museums, technique eluded her. During her college years at the University of Montana she studied sculpture and music. She didn't want to paint. "I did everything to avoid painting because I was really afraid of color," she says. "I understood the value of black and white but I didn't know how to transfer that through color. I didn't know what would make the highlights. It was a whole complex level that I didn't understand."

Even working in sculpture, Ferguson sometimes felt out of step with the artist world. While at UM, she did a study-abroad program in Japan where she learned to make sculptures of people—full figures and busts of family and friends—from clay and cast epoxy-plastic. When she returned to Missoula, she recalls someone asking her what the sculptures meant. "I said that wasn't the point. I didn't go to Japan to say anything, I went there to learn how to sculpt," she says.

In response to the pressure she felt to create "important" art, she made a self-portrait series showing images of a persona model she hired to represent herself—in classic art poses, like Auguste Rodin's "The Thinker." Photographs of edgier imagery like graffiti and cars with broken windows were transposed onto the skin.

Hadley Ferguson’s “The Heart of Missoula” overlooks the intersection of Higgins and Broadway in downtown Missoula. The mural, completed in 2005, depicts some of the area’s cornerstone industries, and helped launch Ferguson’s artistic career.
  • Hadley Ferguson’s “The Heart of Missoula” overlooks the intersection of Higgins and Broadway in downtown Missoula. The mural, completed in 2005, depicts some of the area’s cornerstone industries, and helped launch Ferguson’s artistic career.

"I was saying, 'This is how I feel like I have to be—dark and gritty. Don't make me be that way.' I just wanted to learn technique so that when I do have the ideas I can express myself well," she says. The piece, "Self-Portrait," won a merit award through a juried exhibition at UM.

Though Ferguson continued to avoid painting, she experimented with color in a few installations that ended up being both strong in technique and profound. For The Children's Peace Crane Project, her senior thesis, Ferguson hung 50,000 folded paper cranes in an array of shades (made by children in Montana, Japan and Europe) on hundreds of strands like a fragile curtain around the room. Inside that curtain, she set up six storyboxes filled with objects—a pair of tiny moccasins, military tags from young soldiers, a box of bone and ash—perched on pedestals, each one accompanied by handwritten quotes and poems by children who had experienced war and violent conflict.


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