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  Comments (0) Total Wednesday Apr. 16, 2014
Celebrating Biodiversity
Brett Thuma in his gallery. | David Vale photo
As Brett Thuma tells the story, he almost lived here his whole life. The Edgewater Motel in Lakeside was for sale and his father, an Illinois resident with the peculiar love for Montana that many experience, was all set to buy it. He and his wife, Joan, figured they could make a go of the combination motel, restaurant and fishing guide service. Joan, toting the one-month-old Brett at the time and perhaps the more practical of the two, was somewhat less taken with the possibility of dividing her time between front desk, grill and crib while her husband spent long days as a guide on the lake. In the end, Brett grew up in Illinois, living there through high school and college. But three weeks after graduation from Albion College, he made his way west to Montana and never looked back.

Brett, it seems, fell in love with Montana at an early age when his family came west for a visit. Although he eventually settled in Northwest Montana, he fell in love a bit southeast of that. The family trip began in Yellowstone and headed northwest. Big Sky was more an idea than a town at the time. But as the light snow drifted down and the sun set on the mountains and ski lifts that late August evening, Brett knew Montana was the place he wanted to be. It was several years later, with degrees in Art and American Studies, that Brett came to Bigfork to paint signs in the Meissenburg sign factory.

I talked with Brett recently at his gallery at Twin Birch Square in Bigfork Village, a gallery he established almost 20 years ago. “When I first came to Montana,” he relates, “I worked in the sign factory by day, but I spent all of my spare time photographing, painting, or just experiencing the nature that is Montana. We have such extreme biodiversity here: The variety of native plants, the fish, the wildlife. The charismatic megafauna, alone, would make it exciting, but that’s just the beginning.”

Charismatic megafauna? “Charismatic megafauna refers to the large animals like bear, moose, and mountain lions; animals that capture the imagination. You sit on a rock in a good spot and stay still and they’ll just wander by you, going about their usual business. And it’s not just the big game. The diversity of songbirds. It’s all so common here that you can easily take it for granted. But we shouldn’t, because it’s really special.”

Brett considered becoming a wildlife biologist early in his career. He was advised that it can be a great career, but one in which it’s also very difficult to make a living. So he became an artist.

“Some artists,” he notes, “get their inspiration from photographs in magazines. I don’t. I spend a lot of time out in nature. I find it spiritually uplifting to spot a species I haven’t seen before. And I’ve seen most of them. I’m still looking for the Woodland Caribou, though.”

“Sometimes I paint on the spot,” he continues. “But I also take lots of photographs with lots of different angles and exposures so I can get the shapes, the colors, and the shadows just right. My paintings look like paintings rather than photographs. They don’t have the detail that some do, but the content is authentic. You can look at the flowers or trees in my paintings and recognize the species. None of them are generic.”

Brett now makes his living as a full-time artist, painting the wildlife and landscapes that are Montana, sometimes for himself and sometimes on commission. The walls of his gallery are covered with prints of his works.

“Yeah, the originals go pretty quickly and I don’t paint that fast.” I look at his extensive portfolio, which he has on display at the desk. “Yes, there are a lot, but that’s twenty three years worth of work. I like to spend time in the gallery where I can meet with customers. It limits the amount of time I can spend painting, though.”

Brett’s mother, Joan, remains part of the picture. When Brett spends his days on the lake or in the field, Joan is oftentimes behind the desk at the gallery. Not quite the Edgewater Motel, but the magnetic nature that is Montana ultimately made her call Bigfork home.
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