The Big Sky According to Dale Livezey

By AARON PARRETT

If you’ve ever visited Helena, Mont., odds are good that you have seen a Dale Livezey painting. Some of his most avid collectors live in the Capital City and have his art hanging proudly in their homes, but his works also hang in such prominent venues as On Broadway, Gulch Distillers, and Governor Steve Bullock’s office in the Capitol.

If you’re planning to visit the Queen City of the Rockies in August, be sure to stop by the Holter Museum (12 East Lawrence Street in Helena) and immerse yourself in the experience of Livezey’s magnificent artwork, exhibiting now in a show titled, “Big Sky: Paintings by Dale Livezey,” running through August 16th in the Baucus Gallery.

Few artists have been able to capture the grandeur of the Montana “Big Sky Country” as memorably and distinctively as Livezey. Scale is part of his technique: the paintings featured at the Holter are immense, with the largest of them measuring in the neighborhood of 5 by 9 feet. The colors strike the eye with all the force of a sunset along the Rocky Mountain Front, and indeed, many of his landscapes are set in the country around Augusta and Choteau.

You’ll see the landmark buttes that rise up from the bottomlands and urge the eye toward the seemingly infinite expanse of the Montana skyline.

Among the elements that make Livezey’s renderings unique, however, is his compelling use of twilight, which has a tendency to bring the landscape into an unusual and unexpected focus, revealing dimensions of mountain and prairie that are often flattened or overwhelmed in the full light of midday. It’s a secret known well to fly fishers and romantics that the hours most conducive to success in either domain are the times either early in the morning or evening, when the light takes on a kind of silvery, purplish cast, lengthening shadows and collapsing perspectives.

Some of the paintings featured in this show even depict the Big Sky in the early hours of settling night, with a full moon hanging high over the horizon line.

“River’s Edge,” for example depicts the encroaching night as if in the very act of replacing the day, a thin pink band of fading sunlight near the horizon and a brilliant yellow moon sailing through a band of teal beneath Livezey’s signature purple that portends the coming darkness.

“Just before Dark” shows the landscape fully immersed in the blue of night, the landforms locked in kinship with blues and violets that blur the line between land and sky.

Livezey employs another distinctive habit that lends considerable force to his images of the Montana landscape: he depicts the land in its raw state, untrammeled by telephone lines or highways or any of the other distracting trappings of civilization. It’s as if he has captured the state of the land in its pristine form in the twilight dawn before humanity appears.

His paintings show a side of our state that we glimpse arounds us all the time, but never fully get to see, especially from a highway. And yet he paints what we imagine we’d like to see, and often say we’d like to see.

With few exceptions (two snow geese appear in mid flight in “Evening’s Flight,” and a couple of Sandhill Cranes grace a darkened field in “Sandhills”), Livezey’s landscapes show no animal life at all, merely the hills carpeted with grass and sage and the rivers lined with cottonwood and willow.

As captivating as encountering a single painting on a wall in a fine restaurant may be, it’s impossible to convey the overwhelming experience of standing in the Baucus gallery surrounded by Livezy’s images. When the docent on duty directed me back to the display, he casually said, “Prepare for breathtaking. I hear a lot of ‘oohs’ and ‘aahs’ from the patrons passing through.”

The room is vast, but the nine paintings on display exceed the space altogether, reminding visitors that the Big Sky, as Livezy so masterfully captures it, goes far beyond the horizons that try in vain to contain it. Its brilliant colors remind us of mysteries evoked in the contemplation of space and time beneath the artist’s brush.

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