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Colors of history: Billings woman shows city's past through colorized photos
BOB ZELLAR/Gazette StaffArtist Christine Pierce, above, revives memories of 120 years of Billings history with her new project, a 48-piece series of hand-painted photos of the evolution of the Yellowstone Valley.

It's all there: the broncs and the cowboys, the ranchers and the Rimrocks, a stagecoach barreling up Zimmerman Trail, a visit from European royalty, wheat fields in the dusk and the comforting presence of the Yellowstone River.

Billings and the Yellowstone Valley come to life as never before in a series of hand-painted photographs, done in a five-month creative burst by artist Christine Pierce.

The 48 photos trace the evolution of the valley from the 1880s to present day. They were commissioned by an arts- and history-minded banker to celebrate the area's rich


First Citizen Bank President Dick Zier and Pierce met through their daughters, who played basketball on the same traveling team this season.

"I wanted something to reflect the spirit of community," Zier says. "I wanted to document in art the components that make Billings and the Yellowstone Valley such a great place to live, work and raise a family."

Zier pitched his idea over a basketball game one night, and Pierce was elated at the challenge.

The 50-year old Billings native recalled her father Frank Pierce, also a Billings native, describing his childhood here. She grew up surrounded by horses and Western memorabilia so the project was a natural.

Pierce approached the Western Heritage Center and Montana State University-Billings, where the staffs welcomed her to peruse archives and select vintage photos for reproduction. She also contacted three contemporary photographers - Larry Mayer, Dennis Kern and David Scott Smith. Pierce was drawn to their work because of the strong design elements.

Zier chose about half of the 100 photos Pierce presented. The commission was sealed in January and, Pierce set to work, knowing the production would coincide with a major renovation of the bank.

The photographs debuted in mid-May.

Painstaking process Once the photos were enlarged, the hand-painting began.

Pierce used an archival, transparent oil paint and carefully glazed the colors on in layers to achieve the rich look of a vintage oil.

"The research was more than I'd thought it would be," she said, describing challenges, along with the liberties and artistic license she exploited.

"I know horses don't really have red hooves," she says, laughing. "But some of mine do."

Authentic, though, is the Norwegian flag, which was draped over a car welcoming Crown Prince Olav and Princess Martha of Norway to a 1939 Billings visit. The two stand on a long-defunct balcony of the Northern Hotel, with North Broadway and a throng of well-wishers below.

In a 1905 photo of the dedication of Yellowstone County Courthouse, Pierce went to fashion archives to make sure her nattily dressed men and women are shown in accurate colors.

For a 1931 fair fireworks shot, she researched the colors of vintage cars and the carnival wagons pulled alongside the Midway. (Lockwood and Billings Heights unfold in the background, virtually undeveloped beneath the Rims.)

The show works in multiple ways: as an artistic accomplishment, as historical treasure and as evocative homage to the spirit of a valley and its way of life.

A 1925 photo of the construction of the then-new "airport road" shows the blocks of granite that had to be blasted before the asphalt could be laid.

Earlier, circa 1900, a buckboard makes its way up Zimmerman Trail. The mode of transportation is different. The familiar rock formations are the same.

A 1930s Billings brewery photo shows the beautiful, muted shadings of the brickwork prevalent at the time.

And a trick rider at the fairgrounds stands tall on a running horse in a photo that could be of any decade.

Dressing up, playing hard The photos are fun, too, because they show the people of the valley turning out in their best for special occasions.

For a 1938 air show at Billings Logan Field, men and women appear in their finery, complete with gloves for the ladies. Nearly every head sports a hat as guests mingle to view an array of biplanes.

Fast forward 55 years, and it's 1993, with a young Hutterite girl smiling in her homemade dress and bonnet.

Artist Will James makes an appearance in a 1930 photo, doing some trick riding on his ranch. Then, 59 years later, the Cattle Drive of 1989 makes its way across the same landscape.

In a 1920 photo of the frozen Yellowstone River, workers cut blocks of ice to sell.

"Of course, people used ice boxes, not refrigerators," Pierce says.

Using a large magnifying loop, she studied the photos for detail, then went to the archives and phone books to find answers to her questions.

"I called Cobb Field to find out what color the Billings Mustangs uniforms were in the 1950s," she says. "They were a deep red, almost a maroon."

Old-timers and historians will enjoy the photos of the Billings Laundry, 1895; the Club Carlin in its vintage years, aglow with green, yellow and red neon; and the 1952 Billings Boys Club, with period bicycles.

Basketball rivalry between the two colleges shows Rocky squaring off versus the former Eastern Montana College. In another shot, freshmen look alarmingly innocent in their beanies.

"That's a hysterical photo, fun expressions, lots of fun to paint," Pierce says.

One vintage-looking photo fools the viewer. A steam engine shoots a plume into the air, but the photo was taken in 2002 during Depot Days.

The region's agricultural heritage is documented in the furrowed land, and the golf courses, country clubs and refineries all take a bow. Montana and Minnesota avenues make several appearances, and there are some stunning aerial photos of the valley in seasons' changes.

Pierce called upon her mother, Tillie Pierce, to provide detail for some of the photos, giving commentary and insight to places and events she remembered since moving here from Oregon in the 1940s. And her late father's memory of one particular incident makes one of the artworks Pierce's favorite.

IF YOU GO “120 Years: A Retrospective of Billings and the Yellowstone Valley” is hanging at First Citizens Bank, 2812 First Ave. N.

The bank acquired the 48-piece collection of hand-painted photos as part of its recent renovation. The public is invited to stop by during banking hours.

"I have two favorites, really," she says.

One is a 1940 photo of a corral of yearlings, in which Pierce's sense of play produces a red hoof on one of the horses.

The other is a well-known 1937 photo of fun lovers canoeing down Montana Avenue after the Big Ditch broke and flooded the downtown.

"That flood was a big deal, and my dad actually did canoe down Montana Avenue with his brothers and sisters," Pierce says.

In the display's first days, the public and the bank staff praised the exhibit.

Darla J. Card, of First Citizens marketing department, says, "It just makes you feel good. We're all very pleased. We're proud to have it here."