Michelle Osman grew up in Costa Rica but has lived in Bozeman, Montana, for the past seven years. Here, she discusses the allure of Big Sky Country, how small towns are disappearing, and the shape of the landscape.
“The sky around here feels huge, so it can be difficult to box the landscape into a small canvas. When there’s an amazing cloud formation, I stop and watch the sky. I don’t know when I’m going to get to paint the scene, but it becomes part of my mental collection of clouds. And the more unusual and original the cloud formation is, the better. The sky portrays a sense of time because the clouds are so specific to that exact moment, and they morph and change. It’s a precious thing to get to experience them. Sometimes, when I see a storm coming, I’ll head to a hill I know of or a road outside of town. That way I can see the storm clouds building over the mountains or moving across the fields.
When I was an undergrad at Montana State University, I never painted landscapes and wasn’t interested in them. But having lived in a big city for a while, I returned to Montana with a fuller appreciation of how stunningly beautiful the landscape is and how it’s changing. Bozeman is growing while so many towns in Montana are shrinking and disappearing. There are a lot of sidewalks ending in fields. My husband and I went through one little town on the way to a friend’s wedding, and it was barely a town at all. It had a post office and one bar, and everything except for the post office was for sale. There’s this narrative of what’s happening to the place. I’m trying to make a subtle comment on that but not trying to beat the viewer over the head with it.
16 Mile Road was a fun adventure. My husband and I wanted to drive around the Bridger Mountains. We got back around Ringling, so we were starting to circle back around again toward the Gallatin Valley. We thought 16 Mile Road looked like it cut through, but halfway down the road, we came across a broken-down pick-up truck in the middle of the road. We had to inch around it, and the two guys asked if they could hitch a ride. They ended up hopping in the back of our truck, and we cut through the ranch on dirt roads. They were really glad we came by—there was no cell phone service, and it was going to be a hike to get anywhere with reception. Not a lot of people head down dirt roads late in the day on a Sunday. The reason there are no clouds in that painting is because it was the summer before last, and there were forest fires that were blacking out most of the sky. Because of the smoke, everything was glowing vibrantly. That hill was so beautiful—sometimes the hills in the West are so barren that you get to really see the muscle of the landscape. It’s just gorgeous.”