When Billings artist Mike Capser was 15, he began spending his summers alone in a cabin in the Snowy Mountains while tending cattle.
His days were filled with work, but at night he'd sketch the panoramic vistas surrounding him. He sculpted the wildlife he saw from his mountaintop perch.
"I was isolated,” Capser said. "I had no friends to play with and no television to watch, so I worked on my art. It was all cowboy art at first because that was my life.”
Capser continues to create breathtaking mountaintop scenes, but these days he paints them in his rooftop studio in Downtown Billings. He has gained a national reputation for producing lifelike cast-bronze sculptures of wildlife and people, and his original watercolors sell almost immediately after he finishes them. His artwork is displayed in 3,000 galleries around the United States.
"I'm well-collected and well-known in Billings,” Capser said.
In celebration of his 25th anniversary as a full-time artist, Capser is hosting a Saturday open house featuring his recent work. Because his art sells so quickly, Capser completed the watercolor paintings for the show and sale in the last few months, keeping them away from dealers and collectors so he could display them in his hometown.
About half of the 45 framed pieces in the open house are original watercolors. Others are limited-edition prints of his paintings.
"I never have my own show,” he said. "It's been years since I've had one. I travel about 90 days a year attending gallery appearances where I do signings for customers. This will be a great way to see this large accumulation of originals.”
The show's centerpiece will be a life-size cast-bronze sculpture of three ducks taking flight amid a patch of reeds and grasses.
Capser worked exclusively in sculpture when he began his career as an artist in the late 1970s. He was working as a architectural designer and sculpting on the side when he decided to strike out on his own.
"I was bringing pieces to work and selling enough of them that I made as much through my sculptures as I did at my job,” said Capser, who is 52.
He and his wife, Linda, had two young children, Troy and Todd, at the time, and his bold career move was frightening at first. Soon after, though, Capser signed with a Wisconsin publishing company specializing in wildlife portraits, and he began selling prints of his watercolor paintings.
In 1992, Capser signed with a major publishing company. Since then, he been listed among the top 25 favorite print artists in the United States, and, in 2002, he was inducted into the U.S. Art Hall of Fame.
Over the years, Capser has expanded his subject matter from Western landscapes and wildlife to ocean bays, lighthouses and cross-generational portraits.
When his publishing company asked him to paint a harbor scene, he chartered a float plane off the coast of the San Juan Islands to photograph views to paint.
Soon after the movie "Bridges of Madison County” came out, Capser flew to Iowa to paint the famed covered bridge.
"That print sold out,” he said.
But the bulk of his work still reflects the people and places of Montana.
As he showed a visitor around his studio on Wednesday, Capser pointed out paintings of brilliant winter scenes, one with two children walking in the snow. And, if you look carefully, you see two perfect snow angels.
"I like to tell stories,” Capser said. "Just like the snow angels; it's something we all remember doing as kids.”
Jaci Webb can be reached at 657-1359 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.