There’s something about these women.
Their deep humanity.
A new exhibit, “Circling Back,” by Helena artist Amy Brakeman Livezey portrays a number of turn-of-the-century Western women caught for just a moment in their busy lives.
There’s a sense of power and reflection and deep humanness captured in each action portrait.
The exhibit has its opening reception 5:30 to 7 p.m. Thursday, Aug. 15, at The Myrna Loy’s Jailhouse Gallery.
In one painting, “Up In Arms,” five young women stand together, their arms intertwined, deeply engaged in conversation. They’re so graceful and light, they seem to almost dance.
In another,” Prepared for Anything,” a woman in Western riding gear holds a rifle at her hip, ready to shoot.
In a third, “Florence in the Yard,” a woman scatters feed to a flurry of chickens at her feet.
All of them are moments of the everyday.
And all “have as their inspiration an antique photograph,” said Brakeman Livezey in a recent interview in her studio.
“It’s mostly women of the West — maybe even the Western Myth,” she said of the show’s theme.
Last year she received a grant from The Myrna Loy’s Grants to Artists program, and used it to visit the Buffalo Bill Center of the West in Cody, Wyoming, to browse through their photo archives.
Her people also come from such places as the Montana Historical Society photo archives as well as collections at the University of Wyoming and the Maureen and Mike Mansfield Library.
“I can look at 50 photos and find one that really piques my interest,” she said.
“It’s not just the face, it’s what the body’s doing.”
At times, it’s hard for her to put her finger on just what pulls her to that image.
But she sees a few common themes emerging in the historic photos.
Often, there are pioneer women standing in front of dark buildings. She imagines someone called the woman out of the house to have her included in a snapshot of the homestead.
For her, “they become a metaphor for isolation, not being free — living in the dark.”
“There are a lot of pictures of women with children that speaks to me of hardship — of a lot of work.”
And then there are the Native American photos, which she described as “so painful, so raw.”
One painting she was working on the day of the interview depicts a Native American woman erecting teepee poles.
It’s called “Homestead Act.”
For Brakeman Livezey the image and title speak of what happened to Native Americans when the West was opened up to homesteaders.
Her paintings often feature strong women, some of them homesteaders.
“I think 18 percent of homesteaders were single women,” she said. They were drawn West because they believed that through their own hard work, they could make a new life.
And, in many ways, that seems also a theme of her own life — striking out to be a painter, which she now does full time.
Brakeman Livezey calls the painting style of her recent work “abstract figurative.”
She doesn’t paint detailed portraits, but rather conveys an emotion, expression, movement or background with just a few brushstrokes.
The focus is the people.
The backgrounds are abstract shapes, or perhaps a fragment of a building.
Circles often appear on the canvases, and Brakeman Livezey admits she isn’t exactly sure why they began to appear.
But she likes them, and they seem to fit, particularly, with this body of work that circles back into bygone times.
“What I love about mixing the abstract in with these historic images is that it sort of pays homage to that complexity of history. ...We’re looking at it from our shoes and trying to figure it out and there’s no way we can.”
“I do like trying to find an emotional connection,” she added. “It’s a humanistic thing to do.”
The discerning eye will also see more in the canvas than just the figures and the abstract shapes.
“They’re all mixed-media,” he said. “I have a stash of old sheet music, and I collage it in.”
In another painting, she worked into the corner of a painting an old handwritten note she’d found that just seemed to fit.
Brakeman Livezey enjoys not only where the photos lead her, but also an accidental splash of paint, or adding a line with lumber marker.
These days she works mostly with acrylic paint because it dries fast, and all her paintings are created from layers and layers of color.
Brakeman Livezey, who grew up in Ohio, came West and worked part of the year as a hunting camp cook in Cody, Wyoming, while she was a student.
After earning a master of fine arts degree in filmmaking, she wanted to do film work, which drew her to Helena.
She wandered into The Myrna Loy and was soon put to work operating a projector.
For the past 20 years, however, painting rather than filmmaking has been her passion.
For more information, visit www.amybrakeman.com.