Great Falls artist Brenda Wolf has been painting polar bears since she lived in New York City in the 1990s.

Visitors at the opening reception last month of Art Auction 43: On the Wing look at artworks up for bidding in this year's benefit event at the Yellowstone Art Museum.

Stanley is formidable.

So much so that some staff members at the Yellowstone Art Museum are wary of his stare. That's even though he's made of oil pastel and

paper and hangs on a wall in the second floor gallery at the Yellowstone Art Museum. Stanley the swan has attitude. And that's saying something, considering that all you see of him are his penetrating eyes and beak.

Great Falls artist Brenda Wolf embraces Stanley's swagger because she put it there. Wolf said she has met swans like Stanley in Brooklyn, N.Y., where she lived before moving to Montana several years ago. Stanley is not the graceful swan that many would imagine, and Wolf is not your typical wildlife artist. One aspect that sets Wolf apart is that she “paints” using only her fingers and hands.

“I have a different technique than many pastel artists,” Wolf said. “A lot of them will work on gritty paper or paper with a tooth so it grabs and holds. You can see the texture of the paper and see all the strokes. I use a very high grade paper, 100 percent rag. I use my fingers to put it down and then I blend, blend, blend. People are very fascinated. I can't think of working any other way.”

Wolf first got involved in the annual YAM auction in 2005, when she made her debut with an oil pastel depicting a grizzly bear. It sold for $2,000 more than the price Wolf put on it. Since then, nearly every year Wolf's large colorful pastels have sold for $1,000 or more above the price she attached to them. The value placed on Stanley is $3,200.

“I have a nice following down there,” Wolf said.

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Although she's been a graphic artist and freelance artist for more 20 years, Wolf said she was flattered to get accepted into the YAM Art Auction where the region's premier artists are featured.

“To be chosen, I felt very special, lucky, like it was a true validation. When that first piece sold, I was over at the hotel room later jumping up and down on the bed saying, 'They like me as an artist.'”

Wolf said she starts all new works with the eyes. She finishes the eyes before she sketches in the rest of the face or the body.

“If you've looked at a lot of my work, I only care about the head. You're not going to get the personality from the body. It's all in the features, the tilt of the head or the glint in the eye.”

If anyone had told Wolf years ago that she'd be living in Montana painting wildlife, she would have choked on her bagel and lox. Traveling to Montana with a girlfriend helped her meet her future husband. And after years of working as a graphic artist in New York City, including on projects with the New York Times and Martha Stewart, she switched from painting abstract oils to specializing in wildlife, starting with the polar bears she loved watching at the Central Park Zoo.

“I wouldn't say it's photo-realistic. You recognize the animal, but they are not perfectly drawn right down to the details. I like to have that suspension of belief where my hand comes in,” Wolf said.

Wolf doesn't choose the animal she paints. They choose her, she said. A few years ago when she attended her sister's funeral in Rhode Island, Wolf said she walked into a field that was filled with ravens, which was an unusual sight there. Then she began to paint them, calling one of her works, “Stark Raven Mad.” But most of her animal paintings have a human name, like Stanley. Last year, she painted “Toby” for the art auction. Even though he was a bear, he looked so friendly that people got the urge to touch him, Wolf said.

“I don't always know what the journey is, but I love the ride. All of my animals represent something, a catharsis of some sort,” Wolf said. “Whether I start dreaming about it or thinking about it, I don't always know what it is for.”

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

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