Arts & Culture

“Woman to Woman: Female Portrayals” started as an exhibition of portraiture at the Paris Gibson Square Museum of Art (The Square) in Great Falls. These works illuminate experiences and interpretations of six women artists who belonged to the first part of the 20th century—Fra Dana, Raphael Schweda, Josephine Hale, Mary Trinitas Morin, Val Knight, and Winnifred Dawson.

At the time that these women artists were creating work early in their careers, Charlie Russell had risen to fame as a local artist. His log cabin studio and gallery opened to the public in 1930, four years after his death. Twenty blocks away from the studio, Mother Raphael Schweda painted in the art tower at the Ursuline school and convent. Schweda (1884-1972) was born in Prussia and entered the Ursuline Order of Catholic Sisters in Montana at Saint Peter’s Mission to the Blackfeet, in 1912. She spent most of her adult life at a school for girls that was built by the Ursulines that same year in Great Falls—Mount Angela Academy. She was a classically trained painter who had earned a Masters of Arts degree from Notre Dame. During her years at the Academy she taught both Latin and art while maintaining a private art studio on the 6th floor.

Fra Dana (1874-1948) painted from her sunny flat near downtown Great Falls during the same time period. She married in 1896 and had joined with her husband to start a lucrative cattle business in Bighorn County, but Fra Dana refused to be sequestered there. She left the ranch from time to time to further her studies (attending the Art Institute of Chicago and the New York School of Art,) and traveled extensively (including trips to Paris, Cuba, Brazil, Egypt.) Though she often worked the ranch beside her husband it was said that she had a prenuptial agreement with a clause devoted to her continued travels and art education. The number of portraits done by Dana emphasizes her connection to popular culture and the people around her. 

Mary Morin Trinitas (1908-1965) attended Catholic school in Missoula and joined the religious order of the Sisters of Providence at the age of 19. She relocated to teach art and French at the new College of Great Falls, which was established by the nuns in the 1930s. Trinitas held a Masters of Art and was well connected to the art scene across the state. She was a founding member of the Montana Arts Association and a familiar figure at the Archie Bray Foundation. Although she is well known for her mixed media, stained glass, and metallurgy, she also painted portraits of women. Though her death was premature at the age of 50, Trinitas’ large body of work is provocative and influential.

Another artist who made her home on the plains during this time period was Josephine Hale (1878-1961.) Hale was the youngest of 11 bilingual children (French/English) whose family had immigrated to South Dakota from Canada. She moved to Montana at age 20 and became a teacher and was widowed by age 26. Hale did not let challenges hamper her dreams and defied limitations placed on women years. She volunteered during WWI to serve as a Red Cross nurse in France and supported herself by renting the family ranch near Ulm. She boarded family members in town, travelled extensively and painted with fervor throughout her life. One of her impressionistic pieces was selected as part of the 1936 Salon in Paris.

Val Knight (1905-1990) was a progressive modernist painter who was integrated into the art community of the northern plains over several decades. Largely self-taught, she was a founding member of a local women artists’ co-op and taught art lessons to local students. Knight’s creations in oil, encaustic, watercolor, and clay are a testament of her versatility and tenacity. Many private collectors in the area boast a
Val Knight figurine, sculpture, or painting in her particular color pallet. Though often painting in the abstract, she was also commissioned for portraits. Knight painted into her late 80s and over 50 works were recently gathered for a retrospective exhibition at The Square in 2015.

Another self-taught painter, Winnifred Dawson (1915-1965,) was appointed superintendent of the Fine Arts building at the Montana State Fair. The Fair moved to Great Falls from Helena in 1939 and Dawson was at the forefront of an annual art exhibition that provided a stage for local artists. The ranch wife was a talented artist who was well known for her portraiture and invited to display her own work nationally. She led the charge for women in the arts locally through her leadership role at the State Fair.

The works of these women artists mostly hang in museum vaults and on private walls. Dana’s and Hale’s works are held in the University of Montana’s permanent collection at the Montanan Museum of Art & Culture (MMAC,) Sister Trinitas’ are housed in a small gallery devoted to her on the campus of the University of Providence while Mother Schweda’s holy murals are still celebrated in local churches and at the Ursuline Centre. The late Winnifred Dawson recently had a painting selected as the annual accession into the Montana State Fair’s permanent collection and Val Knight’s works are mainly collected by her family and friends, though a recent gift by John and Mait Board of Helena added 25 works to
The Square’s Permanent Collection. 

By teaching, serving, and creating, these women artists interacted with and impacted the art community post-Charlie Russell. Though the majority of their works include portraits, landscapes, and still-lives, their portraits are especially significant as they give us a glimpse into the ways in which women saw one another at the time. Hale, Trinitas, Schweda, Dana, Knight, and Dawson are artists whose works provide a deeper understanding of how women experienced and expressed their surroundings, physical and social. Their work reveals life on the plains very different from Charlie Russell’s celebrated works.

Learn more about exhibitions at the Paris Gibson Square Museum of Art in Great Falls at www.the-square.org