Neil Jussila is a rare abstract expressionist in the land of animal art.

The Montana State University Billings art professor is retiring at the end of spring semester, his 43rd year teaching at the university, and looking forward to painting more luminous green, orange and brown works inspired by a life spent fly-fishing. His exhibit, “Trout Fishing in Montana: Meditations on the Enchantment of Color — the Infinite Loveliness of Being” is up through Feb. 10 in the Northcutt-Steele Gallery at MSU Billings.

Creating color poems

Although trout fishing inspires Jussila, he does not render traditional views of the sport, but rather taps into the feelings that the flowing water and swirling motion of fish evoke in him when he creates his abstract works.

Jussila’s artist statement describes the 29 paintings and seven fish sculptures in this exhibit as “luminous color-poems, which suggest a spontaneous, spiritual connection to the vastness of this isolated place of birth that is home.” He is also showing some figurative drawings of women.

Ideas born in the back room

True to Jussila’s personality, his works are thoughtful and sensory. Jussila takes pleasure in discovery, either of an idea or a new fishing hole. One of his most important artistic discoveries was made in the back room of the Log Cabin Bar in Butte, where Jussila grew up.

Jussila was part of a group of amateur artists whose weekly gatherings at City Hall were led by artist-turned-forester, Fred Mass. The sessions were occasionally topped off with a bull session at the Log Cabin, where Jussila said the older artists on occasion bought 16-year-old Jussila a beer.

On one of those sessions in 1949 during a particularly severe snow storm, a bus driver came in ranting about a Life magazine cover on Jackson Pollock earlier that year that posed the question “Is he the greatest living painter in the United States?”

Mass told the bus driver that to be able to capture the joy of the spring thaw after a frigid Butte winter is a gift possessed only by abstract artists like Pollock, who was born in Cody, Wyo.

“There is no other way to express something like that,” Jussila recalled Mass telling the driver.

Up until that point, Jussila mostly painted animals, including elk, deer and bear that he replicated from the cover of Outdoor Life magazine. The conversation changed Jussila’s life.

“My life has been being in the right place at the right time. I live in gratitude. I have been blessed with this gift. But it comes with a responsibility, to see where it will lead me,” he said.

Jussila went on to study art at MSU and had another stroke of luck, to study under teachers who had great appreciation for music, poetry and Zen Buddhist art.

“They had a passionate response to it. They didn’t say, ‘Study this, we’ll have a test on it.’ But I always paid attention to it and acted on it. It opened me up to have a life of the mind,” Jussila said.

Living, painting in the moment

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Following his graduation, Jussila served in the Vietnam War and said his mind was further opened to the big issues of life, death and morality.

“I began to look at the console of life. I read a paperback version of ‘My Life with Picasso’ when I was in Vietnam,” Jussila said.

The notion of living in the moment and the understanding of how to help give birth to an idea further changed Jussila’s perspective on life and art.

“How we express ourselves in life with intelligence, that’s what matters,” Jussila said.

In art, if the viewer can feel something or sense the message of the artist, the work is a success, Jussila believes. That includes realistic works by renowned Montana painters like Ben Steele or Clyde Aspevig. It also includes works by Montana’s iconic Western artist Charles Russell and the late Montana artist Bill Stockton, who was Jussila’s mentor.

Another mentor stepped into Jussila’s life when he entered graduate school at MSU, World War II veteran Ben Steele. It was Steele who introduced Jussila to fly-fishing. And it was Steele, who was already teaching art at MSU Billings, who recommended Jussila for an opening in the art department in the late 1960s.

Jussila said he has had other opportunities along the way, including watching the late ceramic artist Peter Voulkos sculpt and working with talented students including Brian Scott, who inspired Jussila to use a sculptural approach in some of his canvases.

“I have no problem with taking what is in the world and putting it into my work,” Jussila said. “It’s all about innovation and creative thinking, that’s the trip.”

Contact Jaci Webb at 657-1359 or jwebb@billingsgazette.com.

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Contact Jaci Webb at 657-1359 or jwebb@billingsgazette.com