Native women gather to dig bitterroots, Mexican-American children harvest sugar beets, two African-American women hand out a scholarship and a group of women post get-out-the vote flyers on a wall in an Eastern Montana town.
These are just a few of the vivid vignettes featured in the new “Women Build Montana” mural unveiled Wednesday at the Montana State Capitol.
Waiting in anticipation for that moment were hundreds of women, men and children jamming the Capitol’s grand staircase, shoulder to shoulder, and wrapping around the third floor balustrade areas as they waited for the blue curtains covering the panels to be lowered at the end of the dedication.
Missoula muralist Hadley Ferguson thanked the crowd, saying “It’s truly an honor to have you all here.”
Having been raised in Montana, she said, this project was meaningful to her on many levels.
“You are all part of this,” she said, saying the mural reflected the stories that many Montanans had shared, and that many had collaborated on it and donated money to fund it.
She also shared the words she wrote for her artist’s statement: “The generations of women in my family have set examples and carved the paths for my mom, my daughter, and me to have the life and experiences we live today. That is what this project is about. This piece is about the generations of women living in Montana . ...All these women worked hard to create the communities, homes, schools, policies, rights and opportunities we live and carry on to new generations today. Hopefully, any woman can look at these images and see a piece of herself in them.”
The mural also reflects Ferguson’s heartfelt efforts and spirit.
For the past year, Ferguson worked with historians and former State Sen. Lynda Moss, who was the moving force behind creating the murals, to first plan and draw out the scenes for the panels and then paint them, beginning painting in May, and ending Monday afternoon, when she made her final brush strokes.
That women would see themselves in this mural was also Moss’ goal
Moss, the former state senator from Billings who introduced SB59 to create the mural, told the crowd, “This has been a remarkable journey for me that started in 2005.”
For the momentous dedication day, Moss wore an embroidered red shirt she’d inherited from her grandmother years ago. She wore it often as a state senator, she told this reporter, to remind her of the strong Montana women who came before her.
Moss told the crowd she used to spend a lot of time in the Old Supreme Court and nearby rooms serving on a committee and noticed at that time how little of the art in the Capitol was about women and their contributions to Montana.
“I was seeing people come here from all over Montana” from Indian country and rural and urban communities to prepare and speak on bills.
“I remembered thinking,” she said, “we need to make sure these stories are in our public art. So my vision was ... that we would create a mural in our state Capitol that would honor women as community builders.”
“This journey has been a very collaborative one,” she added. Although her first bill in 2005 failed miserably, SB59 received overwhelming support in 2011 from both Democrats and Republicans.
She said she hopes the murals inspire future generations to follow in the footsteps of the Montana women who came before them and continue to build community.
People from across the state raised more than $60,000 to fund the project, Moss said. The first contribution was 100 pennies, representing the contributions by children of Montana.
“All of the vignettes can be traced back to history,” Moss said of the scenes in the mural. “I have met all these women,” she added, saying that although they depict no particular person, they represent the everyday people of Montana.
Montana State University historian Mary Murphy, who consulted on the project since its conception in 2011 and wrote the preamble to SB59, told the crowd “for those of us who have been doing women’s history for 30 years, this is a tangible representation of all that work.”
The mural is to hang in the Capitol for at least 50 years.
Murphy read from the SB59 preamble, saying that women’s labor can be seen across Montana, from the stories told by Pretty Shield and Mildred Walker, to the beadwork and star quilts women crafted, to the libraries, theaters and hospitals they built.
Salish educator and historian Julie Cajune, a consultant on the mural, told the crowd that the mural “gives me another reason to be proud of Montana.”
Not only is Montana the only state to recognize American Indians in its constitution, she said, but “now our state Capitol recognizes that women have been the sinew to keep body and soul, community and spirit together. We have a lot to be proud about it.
“Women have not just been homemakers. They’ve been healers, pharmacologists, teachers, spiritual people and warriors. Women have done everything…”
Working on the mural, Cajune said she got to know Ferguson “soul to soul.”
“I want to tell you what a fine artist she is .. .but also what a fine human being she is,” telling the crowd that Ferguson had to see and feel what it was like to dig bitterroot and to see how a woman dressed in native buckskin regalia would ride a horse.
“Thank you,” she said to Ferguson, then after saying a few words in Salish, she presented Ferguson with a handmade quilt that she wrapped around Ferguson’s shoulders.
Montana’s First Lady Lisa Bullock, who officiated Wednesday’s dedication ceremony, noted in in her address some of the closing words from the preamble of SB59, “with few exceptions this story of Montana’s past is not represented in the Capitol’s art, and a mural commemorating Montana women’s contribution to the history and government of the state would enrich and more accurately tell Montana’s story to its citizens and visitors alike.”
The ceremony closed with the unveiling of the two facing mural panels, “Women Build Montana: Culture” and “Women Build Montana: Community” and with song.
“A woman’s voice raised up in the silence can be heard a long way,” sang the Montana Women’s Chorus. “Revolution starts in a circle rising up from the ground. We believe in the power of women to turn this world around.”