Mural program to exhibit University of Montana artwork

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In the School of Visual and Media Arts at the University of Montana, students are working away in studios and showing work in various galleries on campus. But it can be tricky to connect with the public.

That’s why Kevin Bell, a UM art professor, is particularly excited about a new collaboration that will place student work in downtown, literally in the streets, where the audience could be anyone passing by.

“This is a big project and these panels are much bigger than what most students are used to working with, and so we’ve had to select students who were able to work with project size. We also wanted a variety of different types of work,” Bell said.

They range from painting to printmaking, photography, a photograph of an on-site life-sized sculpture, and even a 4-by-4 foot woodblock.

“New Perspectives,” which opened on Friday, features nine mural-sized works by students and recent graduates. It’s a new collaboration with Allez!, a curated revolving mural gallery on the side of Radius Gallery’s new building at 120 N. Higgins Ave.

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Brian and Karen Sippy, who own the building, were “looking to give the university a way to be out in the community,” Karen said.

Brian said they’ve been active with both UM and downtown and thought of it as a way to cross-pollinate.

“This will allow UM art department current students and recent graduates to have their work displayed in a beautiful public art gallery or venue for an entire semester,” he said.

Allez!, which is pronounced “al-lay,” is French for “let’s go.” It was started up in 2021 when the Sippys opened the doors of their new building, most of which is dedicated to Radius Gallery.

With lighting and framing, it’s an outdoor gallery that’s open all day and night and on weekends. It can act like a mural but has the flexibility of a temporary installation. That also means they can be sold, and the Sippys are letting UM decide how to divvy up any potential sales.

Making murals on deadline

Bell said this was a particularly tight turnaround — four weeks, during which participants were at work in a newly converted studio space in Schreiber Gym.

Earlier in the Allez! history, participating artists would have their work scanned and printed on material that was weatherproof. Now, they have an option to do something less mediated. Some have their work printed on an e-panel, an aluminum-based plate that’s then laminated, Brian Sippy said.

Now, though, painters can work directly on the panel — that happens to be MFA candidate Lily Kip’s preferred surface because she can lay down smooth, uninterrupted brushstrokes without the resistant texture of canvas.

An application of a final varnish makes the work resistant to graffiti. While the Sippys said they haven’t had to deal with graffiti at Allez!, if a piece is defaced by spray paint or marker, it can be cleaned if necessary.

Colton Rothwell, a recent graduate, works in photography. He was a finalist for the Hopper Prize this year; and in the fall, a portfolio of his titled “Elegy,” that drew on his experience growing up queer in rural Idaho, was featured on Booooooom, a photography site. For this Allez!, he contributed a large shot of a figure standing in a field, mountains as a backdrop. They have a large blanket situated over them, leaving only bare legs visible.

Kip works in narrative painting, most often with the figure rendered in loose gestural brushstrokes that give the viewer a precise rendering of the scene but only an ambiguous sense of what might be happening. Most often, she works from photos shot on her phone.

For this piece, she selected a photo shot in Portland, Oregon, of a crowd seated on the grass. They were there watching migrating flocks of swifts, a detail she opted to leave out. Since it’s a public piece, she decided to incorporate more figures than normal to touch on the notion of community.

Jules Lucero began at UM as a painter and in her senior year, tried something different.

“I’ve just been printmaking since,” she said.

She thought of a cool and unusual contribution — instead of a print on paper, you’ll see the block she carved, where all the exposed gouges, from large to small, come together for a scene of rabbits lounging on the grass, a crow looking on, with a cloudy sky and mountain in the background.

Lily Luna Bennett’s piece, “Warrior for Resistance,” is the most startling and will likely raise the most questions. It’s a photograph of one of the MFA candidate’s wearable sculptures in action — an intimidating figure in all-black, futuristic garb looms at over 7 feet high on the California Street Footbridge.

Bennett said she’s influenced by both fashion and sculpture, including the wearable pieces by Nick Cave (the visual artist, not the musician). This particular piece was inspired by warrior aesthetics and politics and was made after the U.S. Supreme Court decision overturning Roe v. Wade.

“I want it to be, really, a symbol of strength” she said, with the black also alluding to mourning.

Bennett said there were some amusing interactions while shooting the photo, with her friend in the costume. One couple, for instance, hollered and turned around rather than crossing.

Eric Jensen, who finished his master’s degree last spring, works in landscape painting verging into abstraction. The four-week deadline was fast for an oil painting of this size, he said, and so he chose a subject matter he was comfortable with. He painted a mountain-top view of the grassy hillside below with light breaking through an arc of clouds.

From far away, it “reads like an epic Western painting with that massive amount of depth and that dramatic lighting,” he said.

Then, further up close, you notice the foreground is broken up into a range of abstract shards in purples — the color choice is unusual because, while “wrong,” it will “still evoke something.”

“I hope that when somebody comes up to the painting, the reverse happens,” he said. “Instead of the illusion being strengthened, the whole thing crumbles.”

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