An insider look at artists and galleries

By Sabina Dana Plasse

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Rising Thunderhead by Todd Connor. Oil on canvas, 30” x 40”, at Creighton Block Gallery.

Whether the focus is Western, modern, classic, Russian Impressionism, Western tonalism, or Native American fine art, these artists and the gallery owners identify their environments and the worlds in which they live, emphasizing that their art is a conduit for the appreciation of Western life and its offerings. At Creighton Block Gallery, there is a world within a world of traditional Western fine art as well as contemporary fine art, where the best in both can be discovered, especially among the living artists who are frequently exhibited there. For artists Terrance Guardipee and George Gulli, the beauty and alluring work of Native American ledger art and the craftsmanship of totem poles connect to collectors and art lovers on a sublime and ethereal level. In addition, the Western artist community is also home to the creations of Kira Fercho, whose interpretation of Montana in her paintings can be found in her galleries and studio and are also exhibited in spaces, homes, and businesses around the West. Western Home Journal invites you to explore Western fine art as another element of your existing or dream home and surroundings in the West.

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Rodeo Drive by Tom Gilleon. Oil on canvas, 36” x 36”, at Creighton Block Gallery.

Creighton Block Gallery:

A Sanctuary for Contemporary & Traditional Western Fine Art

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Red Sky Riders by Kevin Red Star.
Acrylic on canvas, 48” x 72”, at Creighton Block Gallery.

“Our connection with clients begins with passion for the bravery and creative genius of the artists we represent, and our goal is to accommodate our clients for all of their fine art needs.”
—Courtney Collins

In the search for western fine art, discovery can lead an art collector or art admirer to fascinating places. At Creighton Block Gallery, located in Big Sky, Montana, it’s the ethos of gallery founder Colin Mathews and gallery director Courtney Collins to turn that search into a worthwhile discovery mission. “The gallery is a success because of good fortune, high standards, and the extraordinary team that we have,” says Mathews. “Our good fortune began in 2010 when the developers of Big Sky Town Center asked my wife and me to move the gallery we created in Virginia City, Montana, to Big Sky.”

Collins explains that it is an extraordinary experience to sell art in Big Sky at Creighton Block. Although Creighton Block is in one building, there are two distinct galleries. One gallery with mostly larger works is dedicated to showcasing traditional western art, and a second gallery presents contemporary fine art. As Collins says, “We have a unique client base. To be able to express our passion for the art that we offer clients in the Big Sky market is one of the most exciting opportunities one can have. The Yellowstone Club, Moonlight Basin, and Spanish Peaks clientele comprise our target market, and many of them come from all over the world. A Montana home is not necessarily where the art they buy is going to be placed.”

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#2 Pants on Fire by Duke Beardsley.
Oil on canvas, 30” x 72”, at Creighton Block Gallery.

“Our connection with clients begins with passion for the bravery and creative genius of the artists we represent, and our goal is to accommodate our clients for all of their fine art needs.”
—Courtney Collins

Mathews grew up in San Francisco and lived in a house that his father purchased in Sausalito, which was once the home of Richard Diebenkorn, a celebrated Abstract Expressionist American painter and printmaker in the 1950s and 1960s. After studying art history at Stanford University and in Europe, Mathews ended up practicing law in Washington, D.C., for 30 years as a partner in the law firm of Vinson & Elkins before coming out West. Collins grew up in New York City and Chicago, and studied design at Syracuse University. With a solid background in interior design as well as over 10 years of experience in the business of fine art, Collins can execute a vision for all of her clients and art collectors. As Mathews points out, “We have a working partnership at Creighton Block that includes a shared passion for art, but we each have a unique set of individual skills that we bring to the gallery.”

Art collectors have found Creighton Block Gallery to be an important component of their Montana experience, attending the gallery’s summer auction and sourcing special works including a wide range of contemporary western art. “We keep in mind that art is timeless,” says Collins. “I am always looking for art that can act as a bridge to a collection. I seek pieces that can transition between a traditional home and a contemporary home. The work that sells the best is the most versatile.”

Mathews adds, “This is a rich market, and we have the good fortune to be able to approach important artists without hesitation. In addition to well-established artists, Courtney has been instrumental in bringing new and developing artists to Creighton Block Gallery. Our roster of artists includes names like Virginie Baude and Ben Pease, as well as famous artists like Tom Gilleon, Kevin Red Star, and Todd Connor, to name a few.”

“I am always looking for art that can act as a bridge to a collection. I seek pieces that can transition between a traditional home and a contemporary home. The work that sells the best is the most versatile.”
—Courtney Collins

According to Collins, a growing movement toward contemporary work is very apparent. Recently, she has been encouraging artists to explore this direction because designers are sourcing and procuring modern and contemporary fine art to appeal to their clients. “It’s important to have a balance and to have art that is thought-provoking,” says Collins. “But, I also have a feel for what designers want, and what’s new and different as well as what will sell.”

Mathews adds, “We sell more pieces that are contemporary rather than traditional historical or representative paintings. What really pops is work that crosses over between the two worlds. Examples of artists who do this are Tom Gilleon, Kevin Red Star, Duke Beardsley, and Brad Overton. We also are seeing a great deal more of black & white and abstract photography and mixed media works, especially with Ben Pease and Miles Glynn.”

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Double Bison Belt Buckle by Ellie Thompson and Co. Sterling Silver at Creighton Block Gallery.

Creighton Block Gallery is always interested in what established artists are doing as well as what is out there by new artists on the rise or well-known artists looking for a change. Says Mathews, “We have work to appeal to a range of tastes, but we will not take work that we don’t connect with or find a way to be passionate about. The work has to be excellent, the creativity has to be interesting, and we have to admire it.”

Seeking the best art that exists, Collins and Mathews are particular and passionate about what they procure for Creighton Block Gallery. “You buy the painting, but you get the story for free,” says Mathews. “We can tell a story about the artist and the painting for every work we sell,”

Collins adds, “Our connection with clients begins with passion for the bravery and creative genius of the artists we represent, and our goal is to accommodate our clients for all of their fine art needs.”

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#1  Appetite for Destruction by Brad  Overton. Oil on canvas, 60” x 60”, at Creighton Block Gallery.


Kira Fercho

embodies the West through the classic beauty of impressionism

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She by Kira Fercho, 6’ x 4’, oil on canvas at The Grove Hotel in Boise, Idaho.

What depicts and defines art in the West is not only its native subject matter, but also a Western artist’s approach and connection to their work and place. Kira Fercho is a Billings, Montana, native, which is also where she works and raises her children with her husband, Kent. In her Billings studio and Big Sky gallery, Kira produces and sells her work, which she has been exhibiting throughout the West in public and private collections and in art spaces for more than 20 years. Like all Impressionist painters before her, Kira paints what she knows—the people, the landscape, the animals, the Montana way of life, and in general, she paints what surrounds her.

A student of Russian and French Impressionist painting combined with Western tonalism, Kira uses an “East meets West” approach in her work that is scripted by her use of the almighty palette knife (which is 90 percent of how she paints) and with, at times, the addition of a natural hogs hair brush. “I am a painter and can paint any color and any size,” tells Kira. “It’s about reaching people’s passion and enjoyment through my expression. Seventy-five percent of my work is mostly commissions, and much of it is for men 50 years old and older, who are often successful and accomplished businessmen, in a place in their life where they would like to invest in fine art for their home, and they have chosen me to enable their vision.”

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Wisdom by Kira Fercho, size 5’ x 4’, oil on canvas.

“I have an undefined love with the texture of paint. It has to be something that I have never seen before. There has to be a sense of risk in a painter to create something that moves past safe and, somehow, makes it subconsciously very right.”
—Kira Fercho

Quentin Eggart, owner of EEC, a professional architects, engineers, surveyors, and builders company, who designs and constructs both commercial and residential projects in Billings, is a Kira Fercho collector who also built Kira’s Billings studio. “Quentin’s love of the Montana State University Bobcats led to the commission Cat Fight,” reveals Kira. “The construction of my pieces and the high-quality build I create allows my work to be perfect for custom homes with varying wall sizes and areas. People invest in work for the rest of their lives rather than decorating to fill up space. They want to use space appropriately, particularly men.”

For Kira, her piece Winter Serenade is an example of fine art wherein the painting is more of a color palette than a texture piece. It presents the space and use of scale to create a modern appeal. She says, “Capturing the essence of the West is important. It’s why people live in the West, and it’s what they want—an impression, moment, or sentiment—to live in their homes or businesses.” Kira imposes these significant people, places, and things in time through her understanding of infinite space, scope, scale, color palettes, and subject matter. However, it is her thick impasto-style oil paintings that define her as an artist and, with paint that is often hanging off the canvas, these pieces beg an admirer to discover a sublime sense of being outside her process and application. “Paintings have to go beyond perfection,” explains Kira. “I have an undefined love with the texture of paint. It has to be something that I have never seen before. There has to be a sense of risk in a painter to create something that moves past safe and, somehow, makes it subconsciously very right.”

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Appaloosa by Kira Fercho, 5’ x 5’, oil on canvas.

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“Original art always has a story,” says Kira. “It’s also why fine art is important.” As Kira’s reputation expands in the West, opportunities for more commission pieces in public spaces have become available to her, including a recent commission for The Grove Hotel in downtown Boise, Idaho. With Ann Jackson of Jackson & Company, Kira created three works for The Grove’s newly remodeled lobby and entry area. “I created sketches for Ann Jackson who presented them to the owners of The Grove, which resulted in three large oil paintings, of which one is 12 feet long. Ann chose the colors, she showed me the furniture, the carpet, which she designed herself, the upholstery, and other fine finishes. Storyboards were presented to owners, and the result is what exists in the hotel lobby today.”

Kira adds, “Boise River Welcomes You is a large painting, a landscape, which has 50 different types of vegetation, which are regional and meant to draw people in. They say the lobby is the face of the hotel, and my painting represents the big, beautiful eyebrows that have to be perfectly shaped. There’s a real bravado in this work as it’s one of the largest oil paintings many people who come through that lobby will ever see.”

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Boise River Welcomes You by Kira Fercho, 12’x4’, oil on canvas at The Grove Hotel in Boise, Idaho.

Other works of Kira’s commissioned by The Grove Hotel, which are also exhibited in the lobby, include Hope and She. Hope presents Kira’s Impressionist geese, which symbolize a hope for life and spirit in the quiet depths of winter. As Kira reveals, “The break-up of the landscape with the geese in flight presents movement in a silent season. There is a spiritual quality to them forcing you to get out of your head and look up. Painting is about looking up and looking on. This work is from a French palette and represents how French Impressionism starts with light and moves to dark. She, a female portrait of a bear, represents my relationship with my oldest daughter. It hails more from a Russian palette, which is heavy on texture, and you can see it is based on neutral colors with jewel tones popped in—it’s being in the moment of a moment.”

Perhaps what’s most defining for Kira’s success and desire to be an artist is her ability to define herself through her work. Her painting, Appaloosa, reveals her love to paint, especially with oil, but also her command of impasto painting that reveals deep texture, conveying emotion and infinite space. “The impasto style is the eye that pulls together to form the lines and the texture, making the subject come alive. There’s not much color and line in Appaloosa, but its style presents the bigger picture and my own spirit as an artist, mother, and woman in the West.”

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Hope by Kira Fercho, 6’ x 4’, oil on canvas at The Grove Hotel in Boise, Idaho.


Terrance Guardipee

Connects the Past, Present, and Future through Ledger Art

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Running Eagle Victory Ride by Terrance Guardipee. Oil and pencil, antique Montana map,
antique Montana checks, World War II ration book and stamps, 23” x 18”, October, 2018.

The power of art and its beholder is never so powerful as it is with the work of ledger artist Terrance Guardipee. Guardipee is an internationally acclaimed Blackfeet painter and ledger artist consistently recognized for the traditional depiction of his Blackfeet heritage and contemporary innovation represented through all of his work. He is one of the first Native American artists to revive the historical ledger art tradition, and was the first ledger artist to transform the style from the single-page custom into his signature map collage concept. The map collage concept is based in the ledger art style, but incorporates various antique documents such as maps, war rations, and checks in addition to single-page ledgers.

“It was around 1850, the middle of the 1800s, when the buffalo started to be wiped out,” Guardipee explains. “When the buffalo became scarce, instead of letting our form of pictograph writing or record-keeping die out, we transferred it to paper.” Utilizing antique documents in all of his artwork dating from the mid-19th century, and typically originating from the historical and present Blackfeet homeland of Montana, Guardipee’s work is not only an homage to his ancestors, but it’s also personal to his own family heritage. He adds, “When individual warriors would go into combat, if they lived, they would come home and they would draw what they did in combat.”

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Running Eagle, Blackfeet Warrior Woman War Raid by Terrance Guardipee. Oil and pencil, 1897 Montana ledger paper, antique documents, 36” x 19”, September, 2018.

“The ledger paper, antique checks, and documents I use in my artwork are from Montana, which is the ancestral homeland of the Blackfeet (Pikuni) people.”
—Terrance Guardipee

Guardipee is an enrolled member of the Blackfeet Nation of Montana, and illustrates his personal experience of Blackfeet culture in combination with his educational experience in his artwork. Guardipee was raised in the Blackfeet homeland in northern Montana, and as a result, the cultural life and history of the Blackfeet people became a foundational part his identity. Guardipee participates in the traditional Blackfeet ceremonies often depicted in his artwork. His understanding and personal knowledge of authentic Blackfeet history and traditional culture is expressed throughout his work. Guardipee says, “The ledger paper, antique checks, and documents I use in my artwork are from Montana, which is the ancestral homeland of the Blackfeet (Pikuni) people.”

Guardipee lived in Montana until he attended the Institute of American Indian Arts [IAIA] located in Santa Fe, New Mexico, where he studied two-dimensional arts. His educational experience at IAIA enabled him to incorporate the contemporary color palette he is known for in a manner that is consistent with Blackfeet tradition.

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Blue Bird Woman by Terrance Guardipee. Oil and pencil, antique Montana map, antique Montana checks, Blackfeet bingo, World War II rations and stamps, 23” x 18”, October, 2018.

“I am so proud to be part of ledger art and its growth and existence into the new millennium.”
—Terrance Guardipee

The innovation Guardipee has demonstrated in his artwork is recognized by numerous museums, prominent Indian art markets, and private collectors.

Through his paintings Guardipee reveals he is, “Showing the change from living in the 1800s… There is a change and evolution with the time. It’s moving forward.”

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Running Eagle, Blackfeet Warrior Woman Leader of the Crazy Dog Society by Terrance Guardipee. Oil and pencil, 1897 Montana ledger paper, antique Montana documents, World War II ration, 19” x 36”, August, 2018.

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Black Wolf, War Medicine by Terrance Guardipee. Oil and pencil, 1897 Montana ledger paper, 36” x 19”, September, 2018.

Guardipee is the godfather of ledger art, which he created twenty years ago. His work is featured in the permanent collections of prestigious institutions such as the Smithsonian Institute, the Gene Autry Museum, the Hood Museum at Dartmouth College, and the Museum of Natural History in Hanover, Germany. Furthermore, Guardipee was the featured artist at the National Museum of the American Indian in 2007, and was selected to create an image for The Trail of Painted Ponies at the 2008 50th Anniversary Heard Museum Indian Art Market. Terrance has placed first in ledger art several years in a row at Santa Fe Indian Market, as well as winning best of western art in 2017.


George Gulli

Dreaming of Totems

By Jennifer Walton

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When George Gulli sleeps he dreams of totem poles. He contemplates the massive straight larch logs free of their imperfections, center-lined for their design, and cradled upon several sawhorses. He thoughtfully considers the intricate carvings, which could range from traditional Pacific Northwest Coast Native American tribe symbolism to bold and unique designs that he will arrange on the pole to depict his client’s life, environment, or the poles’ site. As a third-generation carver inspired by his father, his larger-than-life totemic art studs the Rocky Mountains, but also lives as far away as Canada and Ireland. For 37 years, his dreams continue to reflect the gratitude he feels bringing this sacred and oft forgotten art to the world. 

The history of totemic art depicts many elements, most notably tribal ancestry, individual clans, wealth, status, and legends. Sometimes events or celebrations were told as stories, hence the reference, “Story poles.” The most identifiable totem poles are those from the Northern Pacific Coast, as in Alaska and British Columbia. However, the American Coast Salish tribes in northern Washington play an essential part in the art’s history and its importance in providing interpretation, cultural teachings, and preservation for future generations. Surprisingly, the word totem is not a Northwest Coast Indian term, nor is totem pole whose origination is an Anglo-European term for “monumental wood pillars carved by people of the northern Pacific Coast.” Rather the terms totem and totemism are “anthropological terms that refers to a variety of beliefs and practices concerning relationships between human groups and natural phenomena, usually animals but also plants, celestial bodies, and other living beings, places, and powers of nature… whose idea-typical version is a free-standing, painted, multi-figured pole, often with outstretched wings.”
*Pauline Hillaire, Scalla-Of the Killer Whale, a Lumni cultural historian.

“Today people want art that they can relate to and enjoy, and I want them to know that if they have a special place and want a carving, I’m their guy.”

—George Gulli

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So, how did this soft-spoken, wildly intelligent Montanan whose grandfather carved stone in Italian quarries and whose father relished its medium in wood while living in California, take to carving enormous felled trees that require the ultimate in creative visualization to produce a totem so dictated by precision and patience that few non-Natives are ever fully recognized by First Nation tribes as serious artists? By watching his father. “I didn’t want all the knowledge to go away,” says Gulli, “and I began to understand that with each client, and my experience in getting to know them, and the joy they exhibited in having something made specially for them, a piece that looks beautiful in their yard, was really my joy. Being an artist is wonderful. It works for me.” And his clients agree. 

There’s the Canadian brewery that ordered an astonishing 24 poles. And, then there’s the couple from Jackson, WY who upon receiving their first work of art a few years back, proudly claimed, “You haven’t heard the last of us yet!” Their recent installation involved a trio of totems whose carving took 10 months. The images on the poles and the sizes of the poles were requested, however the order of the design and details were up to Gulli’s imagination. And, then there’s musician Jason Mraz, whose pole Gulli states combined “a hummingbird on the back of a surfboard, mixed in with an owl, and a cat holding a guitar that I put strings on.” Traditional? No. Whimsical? Possibly, but as Gulli reiterates, “Today people want art that they can relate to and enjoy, and I want them to know that if they have a special place and want a carving, I’m their guy.”

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That special place, whether emotional or physical is what Gulli is tempted by. From designing, to measuring, to the pole’s initial cuts, with traditional hand tools like chisels and calipers, to non-traditional tools like grinders and sanders, and chain saws to “chunk out” large pieces of wood, Gulli realizes it is a privilege to carve for that client. “Being able to expand out of my heart is my greatest joy.” That satisfaction is readily seen in both his traditional and non-traditional designs. When a client asks for an eagle or a wolf, Gulli explains its historical significance. The former is known as smart and resourceful as he rules the sky with the ability to transform himself into a human. The latter is very powerful and known to help people who are sick or in need. Totem poles include various symbols that enact powerful reactions to those who stand beneath the monumental sculptures. Alternatively, the poles can signify the entrance to a property, define an honored location, tell a family’s story or a village’s  tale, or commemorate special occasions like marriages and anniversaries. Towering overhead, a totem pole is a complex piece of art constructed from a tree that characterizes an idea or statement and when raised is emblematic of a ceremony.

“People blow my mind with their requests. I am always amazed. It makes my heart full.”

—George Gulli

Gulli’s eye for scale and detail is excellent. Working with poles that range in size from 4’ to a staggering 50’, his process is a lesson in restraint and composure. After the carving is complete, selected areas are hand painted prior to sealing the entire pole for protection. Designs from start to finish can range from six weeks to two years depending on size and style. “People blow my mind with their requests. I am always amazed. It makes my heart full.”

To meet Gulli, visit his studio in Victor, MT, where his passion for poles is palpable. Or, visit his website to inquire about the pole you’re dreaming about.