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ART

Artist Dale Livezey, shown here in his Helena studio, says he prefers to paint pictures of the beginning and the end of the day. It’s a time to shift gears, he says, a time between awake and asleep.

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Welcoming with Paint Dale Livezey is an alchemist of the Montana landscape BY ADAM BOEHLER

Welcoming with Paint

Dale Livezey is an alchemist of the Montana landscape

BY ADAM BOEHLER

PHOTOGRAPHY BY THOMAS LEE

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ale livezey led the way up the

wide staircase to the second floor of Montana’s state capitol, saying quiet

hellos to a few familiar passersby. The rotunda was crowded with bodies, most of which were hurrying through to somewhere important, heels clacking on the cold marble floor. Others were posted behind display tables offering information on various Native issues. We stopped for a moment amongst it all and craned our necks up at the capitol dome. Eventually Livezey nodded in the direction of a hallway and I followed him toward the governor’s office. On the far wall straight ahead hung three black-and-white photographs: Joseph K. Toole, John E. Richards and Robert Smith—the first three governors of Montana. “It should be hanging there where those men are,” he said. “So you can see it from the rotunda. I talked to the governor about it, but what do you do?” I couldn’t help but agree. Instead, his painting hung on the sidewall immediately to the right as we entered the gover- nor’s sprawling offices. We backed up as far as we could in the narrow entrance to take in the 8-foot-by-6-foot piece, being careful not to knock any files off the front desk. The majority of the image is composed of that

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Confluence, 72”x96” Canyon Creek Hills, 30”x40” He was 12 years old the first time he

Confluence, 72”x96”

Confluence, 72”x96” Canyon Creek Hills, 30”x40” He was 12 years old the first time he was

Canyon Creek Hills, 30”x40”

He was 12 years old the first time he was captivated by the fading light out West. He was 20 when he moved away from Ohio for good, to Helena, and he’s been capturing that fading light in his paintings ever since.

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famous Montana sky, bleeding from turquoise at the top to a dusty pale orange at the horizon line. The lower third is immediately recognizable as a scene near Three Forks. Distant snow-capped peaks rise faintly above tablelands and rumpled hills burnished with the day’s last minutes of light. In the foreground two of the three rivers in that valley meander towards one another, causing the viewer, naturally, to wonder where they merge. “It’s called Confluence,” he said. “Headwaters of the Missouri.” The urge to step into the image is strong. You want to walk those rivers upstream through the willows to those distant hills before that fleeting light is gone. And that fleeting light is another of Livezey’s hall- marks. Almost all of his pieces are of a crepuscular nature, capturing those brief, deeply affecting moments at dawn and dusk when colors are almost supernatural and shadows pull long across the landscape. At their best these scenes of growing or fading light evoke a question about our own mortality. Standing there, staring into that landscape half expect- ing it to dim like actual dusk, I was reminded of the story he told earlier that day about his first trip out West and a memory of fading light.

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pon arriving at liveseys studio that morning

one of the first things I noticed, after the 5-by-10-foot piece on an easel, was a little

wooden sign painted white and mounted high on the wall. It read: Livezey Fruit Farm, Barnseville, Ohio. His grandfather had started the farm, he told me, even- tually giving it to his father who sold it after two years because, as Dale says, his father “didn’t want the endless work and low pay” common among farmers. So his father took a job at a federal land bank 80 miles away, where the family settled on a smaller farm with some corn and a creek running through it. “We grew up in the outdoors, there,” he told me. “But I dreamed of bigger spaces from an early age.” So did his father. “That was another reason he didn’t want to be a farmer. He wanted to explore.” And they did, he told me. That’s when he told me the story. “The first western experience I remember was … pulling into Dubois, Wyoming. The sagebrush and the

nighthawks—it was spring. And it was so magical. The smells and the dry air. The sunlight—it was the end of the day so the sunlight was fading. I knew I wanted to come out here then.” He was 12 years old the first time he was captivated by the fading light out West. He was 20 when he moved away from Ohio for good, to Helena, and he’s been capturing that fading light in his paintings ever since. As is the case for nearly every artist, success and exposure weren’t quick to arrive. He took an interest in painting around the time of that trip to Wyoming. However, he avoided art classes in school as well as the strictures of the one private tutor his parents wanted to hire for him. Instead he painted on his own time, according to his own instincts, starting with recreating pictures of paintings he’d find in magazines or art books. “I just messed around with it,” he told me over a paint- ing he’d made of raccoons when he was a high school sophomore. “I didn’t consider it a career path.” But that changed when he arrived in Montana in 1978. He attended the Western Rendezvous, then an annual gathering of western artists in Helena, and saw something he’d never seen before. “I’d never seen professional artists show [their work] in my life, I mean … contemporary people selling art. And there were western images, and there were these unbeliev- able price tags on them. Like, what?! They get away with that? So I started taking it seriously then.” That show sparked the realization of a possibility— that he could sustain himself through his art. So take it seriously he did. It was around that time that he signed on for one of the few art classes of his life—a weekend workshop led by a 30-something Clyde Aspevig in Helena. He and 20 or so others spent two days painting outside under Aspevig’s light tutelage. “That (was) the first time I painted on location,” he said. “It was just a two-day deal, shared with a bunch of other people. But it definitely influenced me.”

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hen rick newby met dale livezey in the

late ’70s, he was pursuing his own art, mostly in the form of the written word. In the inter-

vening years they’ve remained in touch as they developed their respective careers. They were years that saw Livezey bouncing around

careers. They were years that saw Livezey bouncing around Nightfall on the Bighole, 30”x40” Simms Bench

Nightfall on the Bighole, 30”x40”

bouncing around Nightfall on the Bighole, 30”x40” Simms Bench Morning, 48”x60” the western and central

Simms Bench Morning, 48”x60”

the western and central parts of the state—to a new job at a sawmill in Augusta or on a ranch over near Grass Range. All the while he studied the landscape and painted one scene after another. And like anyone who’s spent any time in Montana, the more he saw of it, the more river bottoms he smelled, the more coulees he walked, the more of its air he drank, the more it perme- ated his spirit. Eventually that emotional transfusion began coming through in his work and he started finding success. Newby, now a respected poet, critic and editor who

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58 The large nature of Livezey’s work requires customization. He had to make an easel he
58 The large nature of Livezey’s work requires customization. He had to make an easel he

The large nature of Livezey’s work requires customization. He had to make an easel he could easily raise and lower to reach all parts of the work.

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focuses on artists of the American West, has watched that progression for nearly four decades. “He made [Montana] his own,” Newby told me. “His paintings are very distinctive. You can almost always tell it’s a Dale Livezey painting when you encounter one. It’s a very powerful style.” In 2007 Newby published an essay for a catalog of Livezey’s work aptly titled “Beckoned Into Landscape.” He opens the piece by referring to Livezey as “a poet of dusk and of daybreak.” His landscapes, he continues, “speak of place, but even more of percep- tion—and of perception attached to feeling. They are, in the best sense, emotional landscapes; they call up—through an alchemy of pigment, compositional rightness, and painterly skill—emotions that reside in every beholder.” After days of poring over images of Livezey’s work and speaking to him about his process, I found that Newby’s assessment rang true. Dale Livezey is absolutely an alchemist of the Montana landscape. He finds that fine line between abstraction and representation. The images he offers us aren’t merely a reproduction of an actual scene. He starts with a real place but maybe condenses the horizon, moves out-of-frame mountains into the frame for a fuller texture. He’ll raise the face of a bluff or include a shallow draw that coaxes the viewer into the scene, forcing them to wonder what’s around that corner. So that while it’s fully a rendering of a familiar Montana vista, if you tried to stand in the place he stood to capture it, you’d never find it. Because what you’re looking at more closely resembles your memory of a well-loved place, or perhaps the way you may have seen it in a dream, Dale Livezey paints pictures of how Montana makes us feel.

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tanding there in the governors office, literally in the way of

democracy in action, I stared at those rivers wishing I could step into them, wishing it was summer again.

But all I could do was dodge a passing staffer and step forward for a closer look. When I did, the helpful young lady behind the front desk came around with a smile and a postcard version of the painting, saying there was more information about the artist on the back. I took the postcard, hooked a thumb over my shoulder and said, “You mean that guy?” She blushed and apologized. Dale Livezey, pleasant and soft-spoken, said not to worry. It was day two of the 2017 Montana legislative session, and she no doubt was busy. After I scribbled a few notes we turned to leave. Just then a very sharply dressed man came alongside us and said hello to Dale, who introduced me to Lieutenant Governor Mike Cooney. They made small talk in the manner of long-time acquaintances as we walked back down the hallway, through the bustling rotunda toward the stairway and our waiting ride. It was frigid out there, single digits. And there was almost no color in the January day. I wanted to go back to Confluence, live in all that warm color.

Dale Livezey will do that to you.

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