Main streets across Montana are lending their storefronts, streets and histories to one artist’s mission to capture each in a painting.
Missoula artist Laura Blaker, 59, began painting as a child and found her forte in scenic paintings. She is now using her talents to showcase the individual personalities of 200 Montana communities in her series titled, “Main Street Montana Project.”
The idea came to Blaker during a trip to Virginia City, where she was teaching a painting workshop almost two years ago.
While driving through White Hall, Twin Bridges and other small towns along the way, she was struck by how each had its own unique town center or main street with its own history.
Inspired by the smalltown diversity, Blaker said she made it her goal to paint every main street in Montana that she could, around 200 in total.
She took six months to prepare, taking photos in different cities as she traveled around the state.
That documentation was the most time-consuming part of the project, Blaker said. She often had to re-take photos in order to get the right lighting, while fighting time constraints in each town.
On Jan. 1, 2017, she started with Missoula. Her plan was to paint most of Montana’s largest cities first before working her way down to smaller, more rural towns.
Since beginning the venture just over a year ago, Blaker has completed paintings of Darby, Hamilton, Polson, Kalispell and, most recently, Bigfork, for a total of 26 main streets.
She starts with a black canvas and employs a popular technique called impasto to create her distinctive paintings.
Blaker uses a palette knife rather than a paintbrush to layer color over color to create a 3-D effect, depicting each place she visits in vivid detail.
Each painting takes between 20 and 35 hours to complete, depending on the complexity of the scene, and showcases unique features found in each town, like the courthouse couplet in Kalispell or the yellow-wheeled stagecoach that gives tours of downtown Virginia City.
Photographing each town prior to painting brought Blaker into close contact with several of Montana’s residents, who introduced her to their towns and the histories behind them.
“It’s not so much about the history. It’s more about somebody’s history of living there,” Blaker said. “I’ve always been fascinated by a town and what it has to offer and what growing up and living there was like.”
Though she anticipates the project will take a few years to complete, Blaker said she hopes to one day compile a book of her finished paintings, coupled with the stories and histories she gathers in each place.
She said funding has been her main concern in executing the series as she travels across the state.
One single-day journey took her to several towns over 700 miles because she said she refused to pay for lodging overnight.
Blaker came to Montana over 30 years ago after living all over the country and traveling across Europe.
She settled in Montana for the feeling of community — the friendly small town joy of knowing everyone.
That feeling is what she aims to portray in her main street paintings.
The artist focused much of her career in graphic design, but also has experience painting sets for community theaters in both Missoula and Bigfork, along with murals for 40 HuHot Mongolian Grill restaurants.
Since beginning her main street project, Blaker said she has received a huge response from both communities and individuals wanting to support or buy her work.
So far she has sold 14 of her 26 completed original paintings, but said she still has prints of each for sale.
Originals go for $500 a piece, a relatively low price for original art. The modest prices were an intentional choice she made to allow admirers with smaller budgets to purchase a piece of Montana.
Prints go for $150, and soon she hopes to have other merchandise like mugs, t-shirts and posters for sale.
Blaker has begun preparation for her next projects, Somers and Lakeside, which she said will give her the opportunity to paint Flathead Lake.
For more information about Blaker and her artwork, visit mainstreetmontanaart.com.