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A year in the making, the new Montana Women’s Mural -- “Women Build Montana” -- will be unveiled to the public for the first time Wednesday, Jan. 7, at a dedication ceremony at the state Capitol at 4 p.m.

Painted by Missoula muralist Hadley Ferguson, the mural has two panels: ”Women Build Montana: Culture” and “Women Build Montana: Community.”

The collaborative theme of the murals was reflected in how they were created.

Ferguson worked with Mary Murphy, a history professor at Montana State University, and Julie Cajune, a Native American historian, and former State Senator Lynda Moss, who introduced Senate Bill 59 in 2011 authorizing the artwork.

Ferguson was adding the finishing touches at her studio Monday, just before the framers were to pick up the panels, add a protective coating and frame them.

The panels will hang on the third floor of the Capitol on the east and west walls of the grand staircase, beneath the stained-glass barrel vault.

The images

Each 5-by-10-foot aluminum panel has a central image with four supporting vignettes around the outer edge, Ferguson said in an Independent Record phone interview Monday.

“I wanted something to do with the coming together of the two cultures,” Ferguson said, “the Native American culture and the Euro-American culture. We decided it should be trading goods.”

“Women Build Montana: Culture” is set in the late 1800s, early 1900s,” she said. It highlights traditions in that time period and features a Western Montana landscape.

The landscape, although not specific, is important, she said, because Montana’s land is an important part of the story in determining what work women needed to do.

The supporting vignettes show Native American women digging bitterroot, Mexican Americans harvesting sugar beets in Eastern Montana, Native American women beading and preparing hides, and a woman sewing a Montana flag.

The central image in “Women Build Montana: Community” shows women posting get-out-the vote flyers. The year is 1924 in an Eastern Montana town, when the Indian Citizenship Act allowed all women to vote, she said. It came a decade after women’s suffrage was passed in Montana in 1914.

A rural landscape surrounds the town, showing a train and a grain elevator.

The supporting vignettes show a woman canning peaches, women working as phone operators, a native woman teaching about the uses of plants and herbs and a scene of two women from the Montana Federation of Colored Women’s Clubs handing out scholarships.

The mural process

Ferguson relied on photographs to create the characters and scenes, sometimes combining as many as 20 images. She also used old Sears catalogs from the period and visited antique malls to get historic details correct.

“Within each image I had a lot of people model for me,” Ferguson said of how she created realistic figures, without depicting a specific individual.

Even the fabrics are accurate, based on samples from the period.

To capture the movement of wind swirling a skirt, she had a friend dress up in period costume and stand in front of a blowing fan.

To paint the scene of native women digging bitterroots, Ferguson and her daughter Sarah went out with tribal members and helped dig roots.

Ferguson’s warm palette of acrylic colors echos some of the oranges, golds and greens from the stained-glass barrel vault over the paintings.

“I’m not sure how to describe it,” she said of her painting style. “It’s one that lends itself to storytelling.”

A year in the painting

Ferguson signed her mural contract in December 2013 and will receive $35,000 for painting the murals and for her materials.

She spent four months working on the design, she said, and in April 2014 began transferring her drawings to the panels. Painting began at the end of May with the final brush strokes completed Monday.

Ferguson, who suffers from Parkinson’s disease, admits she had a few extra challenges in completing this particular mural.

“It’s just what it is,” she said of her condition. “This work is not easy for me to do anymore. When I work hard like this, it amplifies the symptoms.

“I made the decision to go for it,” she said of the opportunity to paint such an important artwork.

“It’s time-consuming work. I’m slower from the Parkinson’s,” she said. The positive side is “I took time on the details. That’s the only way I can get it done. It just emerged how it emerged. I’m very proud of it. I’ve collaborated with so many people. The spirit has been so wonderful. I think the spirit comes through. It is really a beautiful piece.”

Ferguson was one of 60 applicants from across the country who applied to do the mural.

In December 2013, when she was signed as the muralist, she told the IR: “I’m very excited. I was born and raised in Montana and I have a daughter, so the idea that I’ll get to do something like this for Montana, something that my daughter will get to appreciate is very exciting for me. It’s a huge honor.”

Her daughter also got to add a few brushstrokes to the border, and, along with Gov. Steve Bullock’s children, will take part in the mural’s unveiling.

For all the women

Telling the story of women as builders of culture and community on two panels was a major challenge, said Murphy. “Part of our mandate was to honor all the nameless women. We didn’t want to pull Jeannette Rankin out of the closet again.

“Just about every public library in Montana was started by a women’s group,” added Murphy.

Women promoting education is a dominant theme in a number of the images.

The committee also wanted to tell the story of both Eastern and Western Montana, said Murphy, including the significant types of work women did in the areas of agriculture, clerical, health and housekeeping. An important piece was including significant ethnic groups in Montana’s history, such as native women, African-Americans and Mexican Americans.

Murphy first started out helping write the preamble of SB59, she said, but her role expanded to consult throughout the project down to such details as hat styles and lettering on suffrage signs.

“It’s just been so much more than I ever would have anticipated,” Murphy said. “For all of us, the collaboration has been incredibly rewarding.”

Some might say the murals depict a rosy view of history, she said, but “we were absolutely able to document everything in the mural. We have tried to be true and unsentimental in portraying the history of Montana. We feel very good about it.

“I’m just filled with admiration for her,” said Murphy of Ferguson and how open the artist was throughout the process.

“She was just so open to renegotiation of the story and ideas,” Murphy said, “and it was all done with such generosity of spirit.”

The dedication

Ferguson, the historians and Moss will be on hand for the ceremony, as well as co-sponsor Diane Sands, a former Missoula representative who is now in the Montana Senate.

“It has been a really long, wonderful process for me,” Moss said, which started in 2005 when she first came to Helena as a state senator from Billings.

She noticed at that time that none of the art in the Capitol related to the type of people she saw coming to the Capitol. “I thought there was a disconnect.”

While her bill in 2005 failed, the next bill, SB59, co-sponsored with Sands in 2011, passed.

“It received overwhelming support from Democrats and Republicans in the House and Senate,” she said.

To Moss’ knowledge, the women’s mural is the first type of art in any state capitol honoring women as community builders.

All $50,000 raised for the mural, its framing and installation and its upkeep, came from private donations, Moss said.

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Reporter Marga Lincoln can be reached at 447-4083 marga.lincoln@helenair.com

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