Hadley Ferguson started out as a sculptor with little interest in painting. But since she graduated from the University of Montana in 1999, the Missoula native has established herself as a premier mural painter showcasing a distinct color palette with work prominently placed on downtown buildings and inside popular businesses. Her “The Heart of Missoula Murals” on the corner of Higgins and Broadway is perhaps her most recognized, but other ones fill diners and bars, law offices, and school gymnasiums. As a young artist at 37, Ferguson is at the height of her career, but she also had to deal with a major challenge. Her 2009 diagnosis of Parkinson’s led to another diagnosis recently of a Parkinson’s-like disease called Multiple Systems Atrophy, which is degenerative and affects her neurological system. Despite the difficulties—and sometimes because of it—Ferguson continues to shine as an artist, She has taken on some high profile projects including a mural for Missoula Catholic Schools, the University of Montana School of Forestry and Conservation and—the biggest one—a mural that will permanently live in the hallowed halls of the State Capitol in Helena. To see more of Ferguson’s work, go to www.hadleyferguson.com.
How did you get your first mural gig?
One day, my husband, John, brought home an article about a company called McMenamin’s. They are a massive expanse of hotels, breweries, pubs, and theaters; the article was about the team of artists Mike McMenamin had working for him at the time. I was not a painter, I was a sculptor, but they hired me. Working for McMenamin’s was a pivotal time for me. I was paid to learn how to paint and realized I liked painting and wasn’t that bad at it. I slowly started to develop a color palette and style. I learned business skills and started to develop a sense of what it could be like to work as a self-employed freelance artist.
When you create a mural, you’re combining someone else’s vision with your own. What’s that like?
It’s a challenge. I may not know anything about the subject I’m painting so
I have to learn about it and feel connected to it. You work with a whole new group of people every time and you learn new information and you develop relationships. I wish people could see all the people involved in a project. It’s like 20 minds working together.
How do you narrow down what details go into the mural?
Usually people sit down with me and say, ‘You need to get this in and this in and this in.” The list of many things can be overwhelming. So I say, “Okay.” But then
I ask to hear the stories behind their vision. And usually the stories will start to fill in the list of facts and make them more colorful and meaningful. You want the mural to have feeling to it and you can’t feel it if you’re just illustrating the facts.
You spent time in New York City when you were little. How did that inspire you?
My mom and I spent hours at the museums. I would sit and stare at paintings and study how the brush strokes were assembled and color was used to create the beautiful illusions in front of me. I marveled at how someone could create such realistic forms on a flat piece of canvas.
Your color palette is very distinctive.
I did the murals downtown— The Heart of Missoula —using sepia tones. I like gold and yellows. I tend to go for the warmer colors instead of the cooler colors but they’re not super bright—there’s a glow but they’re earthy. I try to get drama out of the color.
How has your health affected you as an artist?
I’m good with the little small tight details, but the big stuff isn’t as easy. My arms get really fatigued so I have to do everything in little spurts. I can’t do a major all-nighter anymore. But it’s changed me in other ways. I don’t think about it every day, I just live. The things I thought of as really, really scary or emotional before don’t carry the same weight anymore. I have days when I can’t ignore it. Those are hard days. And then there are some days I feel really good. I notice those days, and I enjoy them.
Erika Frederickson is the arts editor at the Missoula Independent, plus a bookworm and cinephile. She was born and raised in the laid-back valley of Missoula, but cultivated her love for adventure and art while living in Portland, Chicago, San Francisco, and Italy where she spent a brief time as a shepherdess.