Fifty years ago, when Montana artist Isabelle Johnson was interpreting the often-harsh Montana landscape in a modernistic painting style, she raised hackles.
She also won over fans and students like Ted Waddell, who were drawn to her forceful personality and courage as she led the way for modernistic artists to veer away from the “Charlie Russell gospel.”
Johnson died in 1992 at age 91, still painting and writing on her family’s ranch near Absarokee.
Two decades after her death, she is being celebrated for her artistic bravery with a book and exhibit, “A Lonely Business: Isabelle Johnson’s Montana,” at the Yellowstone Art Museum. The museum partnered with Peter and Cathy Halstead, of the Tippet Rise Fund of the Sidney E. Frank Foundation, to publish the 134-page book about Johnson and her influence on other artists, and to host an exhibit featuring 100 of Johnson’s works.
The book is for sale at the YAM, and the exhibit opens Nov. 5 with a reception from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. It runs through Jan. 3, 2016.
The 11,500 acres of the Tippet Rise Art Center includes part of the former 3,000-acre Johnson Ranch in Stillwater County. The ranch is protected by a conservation easement controlled by the Montana Land Reliance.
As a special feature of the exhibit, Stillwater and Carbon county residents are invited to a free day on Sunday, Nov. 8, from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. at the YAM to view Johnson’s work. Visitors may also take advantage of a $1 admission on Saturday, Nov. 7.
Robyn Peterson, executive director of the YAM, praised Johnson’s tenacity and passion for painting and teaching.
”She was a forceful personality and somebody who gave credibility to departing from the Charlie Russell gospel at a time when no one else was going that,” Peterson said. “She had artistic bravery, giving people permission to develop their own vision of the environment without being straight-jacketed. She did this with very little fanfare.”
YAM senior curator Bob Durden said the exhibit will survey Johnson’s early work all the way up to her final painting. It will also include her journals and letters.
”The greater context you can provide for an artist’s work, the more appreciative of their work the viewer becomes,” Durden said
Durden said the book and the exhibit give testament to Johnson’s observational abilities as a painter.
”Every line is important. The things that are absent are as important as the things that are present in her paintings. The line of the cottonwood tree is very poetic.”
Johnson taught at Eastern Montana College for several years, influencing Waddell and Missoula artist Donna Loos. She retired from teaching in 1961 and spent her later years on the family ranch with her two sisters, Pearl and Grace. None of the sisters ever married.
Longtime Billings arts supporter Sally McIntosh remembers ranching next to the Johnsons in the 1970s.
”Isabelle and I shared a love of sheep, teaching and art,” McIntosh said.
McIntosh remembers taking her toddler daughter Morgan over to the Johnson ranch to have lunch with the three sisters. Isabelle used to take Morgan to the bottom of the stairs and tell her about the wolf that lived upstairs. Isabelle also talked art with Sally and Morgan.
”She once asked me what artist influenced me the most, and I told her for me it was Picasso. Then I asked her the same question, and she said for her it was Cezanne. The time I spent with Isabelle influenced many of the life choices I made the rest of my life,” McIntosh said.
Another friend was Donna Forbes, longtime director of the YAM. Forbes first met Johnson in 1950 after Forbes returned from a yearlong study trip to New York.
One of the lessons she taught Forbes was to paint with rhythm, value and harmony.
”Her ability to see color was reflected in the honesty of her palette as she painted the mountains and prairies, the cattle or sheep, the wildflowers,” Forbes said.
Outside of the region, Johnson is not well-known, Durden said. She earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of Montana and a master’s degree in art from Columbia University. Johnson also studied at the Los Angeles Museum School and in Europe, but she spent most of her life on the family ranch because of her intense connection to the land.
”Making the art was ultimately more important to her than having a career or having fame outside of Montana,” Durden said. “That doesn’t take away from the fact that she was a serious painter.”