In his final show at Montana State University Billings, retiring art professor Neil Jussila said he happened to be in the right places at the right times.
As a teenager growing up in Butte in the late 1940s, he was lucky to fall in with a group of older painters who would gather to sketch and paint the mountains, pollution-tainted sunsets and gallows frames over mines. Afterwards, they’d meet to discuss whether abstract impressionist Jackson Pollock was one of the greatest ever, along with other philosophical art questions.
As a youth, Mr. Jussila said, he sketched elk, deer and bear that he copied from hunting and fishing magazines.
In brief comments at a reception last week, he said that in college, he discovered “that I’m not very good at painting wildlife.” He told a gathering of about three dozen that if he could have gotten good at painting elk and made a living at it, he probably would not have turned to teaching and expressionism.
But while studying at Montana State College in Bozeman, he said, he also had great art teachers who introduced him to their passions for avant-garde music, poetry and Zen Buddhist art.
Indeed, one professor, Bob DeWeese and his wife, Gennie, are central characters in Robert M. Pirsig’s 1974 philosophical novel/travelogue, “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.” The late DeWeeses often are referred to as “the papa and mama of Montana contemporary art.”
Mr. Jussila said that while serving in Vietnam following graduation, he became fascinated with Francoise Gilot’s best-seller, “My Life with Picasso” about her years with the painter. Much of the public was enthralled with her lurid accounts of Picasso’s abusiveness and infidelity (Ms. Gilot bore two of Picasso’s four children and took them when the artist had had one mistress too many. He had remained married to another woman).
But Mr. Jussila says he was drawn to Picasso’s rejection of conventions and style, which he referred to as “straitjackets” for artists.
Despite distortions and odd angles, Picasso’s work is far more representational than most of the paintings in Mr. Jussila’s farewell exhibit, “Trout Fishing in Montana: Meditations on the Enchantment of Color — the Infinite Loveliness of Being.”
One can look hard for the trout in the 31 paintings there are no “Brookies Descending a Staircase.” It’s all colors, textures and contrasts.
Mr. Jussila’s artist’s statement describes the work as “luminous color-poems, which suggest a spontaneous, spiritual connection to the vastness of this isolated place of birth that is home.”
Asked about the apparent lack of representational imagery, Mr. Jussila said his painting is about senses and feelings he experiences while casting - not the fish themselves.
“No one can figure it out because there are no rules,” he said.
Again being in the right place and time, while Mr. Jussila was fishing for a graduate degree in Bozeman, he made acquaintance with Ben Steele of Billings. Mr. Steele introduced him to a lifelong passion for fly fishing.
Mr. Steele, a namesake of the Northcutt-Steele Gallery where Mr. Jussila’s paintings are on display, recommended the younger artist for an opening at Eastern Montana College.
Disparaged as “Heywood’s High-Rise High School” (for EMC President Stanley Heywood) the school was amid a massive expansion phase and burgeoning student populations sparked in part by young men enrolling to get deferments from the forced conscription of the draft during the Vietnam War.
Mr. Jussila joined the faculty in 1969 and moved into the recently completed eight-story Liberal Arts Building.
Although he has gone his own way in a Montana art world dominated by wildlife, landscapes, Indians and cowboys, Mr. Jussila says he enjoys and respects more traditional art. He cited the likes of Mr. Steele and his realistic prisoner-of-war renderings, the iconic cowboy artist Charles M. Russell and one of Mr. Jussila’s mentors, the late Bill Stockton of Grass Range.
The display will be at MSU Billings until Feb. 10.