Story and photos - By JANE WHITE - The Billings Outpost
Landscape painter Marianne Billingsley calmly worked on a landscape scene during her oil painting demonstration at this month’s Billings Artwalk. A long single braid reached almost all the way down her back, stopping short of her belt. She wore jeans and a traditional woven ranch shirt, holding her palette dotted with mustard, orange, yellow and white. Work boots covered her feet.
She was talking about an invitation she once got to paint at the Louvre Museum in Paris, accompanied by her art teacher, New York portraitist Frank Covino, and 14 other students from across the country. She was the only one from Colorado.
Ms. Billingsley, who is the featured artist at the Billings Gallery of Fine Art in August, said, “The Louvre was the scariest thing and the best thing that I ever did in my life. To be surrounded by some of the greatest paintings in the world was humbling.”
She explained that many copyists work at the Louvre and are there all year round, painting and painting.
“In the gallery, people walk by and there are a lot of copyists that work there. They have rooms full of easels behind the staircases all throughout the museum. They open a door and there are all these easels. You paint until they tell you to go.”
Ms. Billingsley copied Francoise Girard’s “Madame Lecerf.”
“She was a cousin of Girard,” she said. “She is wearing one of those little white caps. I just liked her face; she had such a sweet face.” Ms. Billingsley spent two weeks painting at the Louvre. She said the Louvre’s Bureau of Copyists decides which paintings to copy. For example, no copyist can copy the “Mona Lisa.”
“It is too famous and there is always a crowd around it, so the copyists would obstruct the crowds trying to see the Mona Lisa,” Ms. Billingsley said.
When asked why portraits are so pivotal to the art world, she said, “We can all relate to it – if it’s a well-done portrait, it makes you stop and wonder, ‘Who was that person? What were they like?’ Portraits are a window to our culture.”
She recounts the aniconic art of Afghanistan, whose culture allows primarily Arabic calligraphy and pattern in its art, but forbids any artistic representations of people, above all of Mohamed the Prophet.
“In Afghanistan, the Taliban does not allow any portraits. No paintings of people ... . It’s amazing how art affects us on levels we really don’t understand.”
Residing northwest of Golden, Colo., Ms. Billingsley says she started painting lying on kitchen floor. Her mom got rolls of newspaper, the end rolls, and put them all over the floor for young Marianne’s budding painting skills. Then she graduated to her mother’s oils.
She said her mom was a landscapist, art major and also did figures. Ms. Billingsley said she has two brothers who are creative in their own ways, for example, in computer science and other careers.
She loved the small scene that she painted at the Billings Gallery of Fine Art that evening of Aug. 3, and it was one that she had done on a much smaller basis, and later enlarged, which is unusual. She said she did it because she “loved the scene. colors, willows, and that the rocks could be seen under the water.”
She pointed at the rocks with her paintbrush. “See?” she said. “I also like that the reflection of the sky is in the water.”
The sky was clearly reflected in the water. When asked if she uses the grid technique, she said the grid is used for a well known mountain, like Mt. Moran in Wyoming, which she has painted and hung on the lower wall in Victoria F. Wetsch’s gallery.
She said she uses the grid for all portraits. “If you make a tree fatter, nobody cares, but if you make someone’s nose fatter, they do NOT like that.”
According to her biographical data provided at the gallery, she was born in Boulder, Colo., and trained as a classical realist, specializing in portraits and landscapes. She is known for her luminosity, the ability to effect light in one’s paintings.
One reason she was chosen for the Louvre was because she favored studying from nature. She said, “As a landscape painter, you create beauty from chaos; there is so much detail here.” She pointed to a dead tree in the middle of the photo she is copying. “As a landscape painter, if you don’t want that tree there, you edit it out.”
Many people approached Ms. Billingsley and talked with her about her latest projects. A minor celebrity, she handled each question, transition and wonderment with aplomb.
Farther down the aisles of the Billings Gallery of Fine Art appeared one of four owners of the Babcock Theater Building, Kim Olson. According to Ms. Olson, the building is on the Register of Historic Places because it represents the first phase of Billings’ transition from a railroad stop into a town. It is more than a century old and has many tenants, including the two art galleries open for the Artwalk, the Catherine Louisa and the Billings Gallery of Fine Art.
Mia DeLode (pronounced Maya Day LOH Day) wore a faded green apron with pockets stuffed with brushes and other artistic tools, jeans and boots, tousled graying hair and a big smile.
During Artwalk, she painted three horses drinking water from a trough during a painting demonstration outside the Billings Gallery of Fine Art. The horses were looking up and slurping, all three of them decorated with the definitive multi-colored coat, called paints in the horse world.
She said she made this particular tri-horse image from four or five photos put together. She said her friends allow her to use their photos.
Brandishing her paint brush, she declared, “I don’t paint anything that’s shiny and new; light and shadow really turn me on ... . I want stuff that nature is taking over.”
A self-described “ranch person” who is a fourth-generation rancher from central Montana, she paints cowboys, cows, sheep, wildlife and nature. She once bravely sketched a live moose, she said, and then turned the three or four sketches into a painting of the moose in the snow.
“I love Plein Air (painting outside), landscapes, barns falling down, anything that nature’s taking over,” she said. She owns the small ranch in her pictures. She says she grew up on a fairly large ranch. She had a hiatus, after which she bought her own ranch. Having taken nine years to own her own ranch, she raises sheep on her ranch for both meat and fleece.
To buy the ranch, she had to work night and day. She has Targhee sheep: “They are my moneymakers,” she said.
Guard dogs are a big part of her life, and she adores her dog of Akhbash descent, which protects the animals from predators. She also has a border collie. She lives northwest of Harlowton.
Victoria Franck Wetsch
Victoria Franck Wetsch, a striking blonde with well-defined red lips and a superb art collection in her gallery, talked about Ms. Billingsley and her other artists.
“I chose Marianne Billingsley and others contact me,” she said. She said she has artists from Nebraska, Wyoming, Montana and Colorado. She likes artists who are in the present.
“It’s important that they do what they love,” she said. “How do you define Western art? Artists from the West, and that’s what we do.”
Wetsch had several examples of her own artwork in the back of the gallery behind the cash register and the refreshments. Several 6-by-6-inch tiles stretched out across the counter. They are wooden boards decorated by a process called encaustic. It is an ancient Egyptian technique in which beeswax, resin from a tree in India and oil pigments are mixed, torched, hardened and manipulated on and into wood, usually. The portraits of the mummies on the wooden mummy cases are made via the encaustic process.
“The Fayum” is the most well known.
Ms. Wetsch made a rose and had two photos of her encaustic rose published in the Rosicrucian Amor scholarly journal. Her roses that were published captured the spirit of the Ancient Mystical Order of the Rose Croix of the Scottish Rite. She knows a lot about beeswax, beekeeping and beekeepers.
“The Egyptians were the original beekeepers. Leonardo used beeswax in his work, as well as Jasper Johns,” said Ms. Wetsch.