Billings artist crafts giant murals for museum

2009-10-18T00:00:00Z Billings artist crafts giant murals for museumDONNA HEALY Of The Gazette Staff The Billings Gazette
October 18, 2009 12:00 am  • 

Melanie Richard wasn't sure how she was going to create 30- to 50-foot murals for the Glendive Dinosaur and Fossil Museum while working in the cramped basement of her cottage-style home in Billings, but she had some ideas.

"The basement isn't even an 8-foot ceiling," said Richard, who has a fine-arts degree from the University of Montana in Missoula. Richard had experience painting displays for Zoo-Montana, where she volunteers as an animal handler.

She used coupons to shop for 10-foot-wide strips of muslin and painted the first mural using house paint on the cloth, not knowing how the fabric might be hung. She drew her ideas on a sketch pad, then painted the murals in sections.

"The most I could ever see was about 4 feet by 5 to 6 feet," she said.

She left the rest of the fabric in a wrinkled wad on the sides.

"The first time we saw it all at once was when she spread it out over her yard," said Otis Kline Jr., the museum's founder.

Richard donated her labor to create three fabric murals and several cutouts.

"It's over 100 feet of painting on cloth," she said.

When it came time to put the murals up, she hit on the idea of using wallpaper glue. She risked a finished mural on the experiment, which worked out fine.

In addition to the murals, Richard made both of the museum's "mountains," the sandstone cliff in the main T. rex exhibit and a granite mountain on the second floor for the mountain lion and mastodon exhibits. Wooden framing provided the skeleton for the granite mountain, which was covered with chicken wire, plastic and spray-on insulation foam and then carved to look like stone.

Richard started doing the murals about four years ago, finishing the mural of the triceratops almost before the building's shell was finished.

At first, she drove to Glendive three times a year to put the finishing touches on museum projects she tackled at home. For the last four or five months before the museum opened, she stayed in Glendive one week every month.

"If I can see it in my head, I can crank it out really quickly," she said. "I'd go down with a list of things to do."

Some of the murals, like the ones of the Cambodian temple scene near the bathrooms, were done directly on the walls.

In the temple ruins, she added a touch of humor by painting a female figure with an urn strategically covering her torso. The woman's hand gestures toward the water fountain.

Richard has also done wall murals for her church, Faith Evangelical, painting walls of the nursery and child-care area and the hallway biblical storybook scenes. Richard started as a wildlife artist, but got into murals in high school.

"My whole urge is just to produce things that I see in my head. I dislike the marketing of art."

In addition to the murals and mountains, Richard fashioned trees for the museum to wrap around supporting poles, created creatures for some spaces and fashioned coral out of leftover foam from the building's construction. She used other scrap materials in equally creative ways.

"It always worked out. I don't think we were ever stumped," she said.

Although she didn't create the T. rex sculpture poking out from the museum's exterior wall, she did whiten the dinosaur's teeth and paint the simulated cracks in the building's wall.

She originally approached Kline after hearing him speak at a creation conference in the Heights. Her original offer: to show whoever was working on displays how to make rocks and trees inexpensively.

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