From Bozeman, you take Interstate 90 West for about 30 minutes until you land in the heart of Three Forks, Montana. Kelsey Johnson lives about two minutes from the main drag and works one block to the left. It’s small but not in a sense of loneliness. You could drive up and down main street five times and the same song would still be on the radio. She’s on Cedar St., a quaint house, repurposed into her studio. As I pull up, she’s actively painting in the window, her back to the street and her work front and center. It’s all you see - the colors, the light, the hours of time. You walk through a screened porch until you reach her - and then, quickly, you’re faced with a friendly and almost familiar face.
She turns, lights up, welcomes me in. Next, we’re walking through her studio, and right away you know that she’s made it her own. From the walls to the whiskey sitting on the counter, it fits her and you get a sense of that within seconds. “Thanks for making the trek”, she expresses. “Welcome to my studio.”
Kelsey has always been an artist. She’s drawn sketches of the things and landscapes she loves and of the things the people around her also love. It wasn’t until 2019 that she began to paint, but you would never know. Her work is so detailed and refined you would think that she’s spent a lifetime perfecting the practice. From images of landscapes to faces of people, and the animals she’s encountered - the moments of time and her memories take up most of the space in that studio. The best part of her work is beyond the details, it’s the effort. Kelsey is self-taught. She didn’t study form or movements - she discovered them on her own. Trial and error, sketch after sketch. The talent came naturally and the love for it all came with time and independence. Kelsey recounted, “I don't have a teacher, I didn't go to school for this. I'm trying to find my way. My own way, both in here and even when I am outdoors finding inspiration for all this. I want to be capable on my own. And that's always a challenge.”
The minute you really start talking to Kelsey you know she’s a good person, salt of the earth if you will. And although you could say love brought Kelsey out west, I do believe she was likely always destined to be here. Something about the way she brings the west to life in her work and in her mind. As if she remembers how it was, and how it should be. Like she’s spending time restoring it, bringing it back. A different, but equally important, kind of preservation.
Kelsey was raised outside of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. She spent four years at Penn State and graduated with an Ag Business degree. In Kelsey’s words, “I grew up in what I would call the standard American dream. Amazing family in a normal house, spending time outdoors meant camping for a day or two. The outdoors as we know it here in Montana, or anywhere in the Rockies, isn’t necessarily like the outdoors everywhere else - and everywhere else is how I knew it to be.” Moving to Nebraska for a job post-grad, Kelsey spent her weekends driving to the mountains and getting tested each time she did. Using the outdoors as an escape as she got older, maybe from reality - eight hours from Nebraska deep in the Colorado mountains. For Kelsey, the exploration of the outdoors began with hiking which later morphed into hunting.
“I get asked from a lot of women that are apprehensive about hunting what goes through my mind and my body at the moment. Really at the core of it, I don’t enjoy killing animals but it really is how we eat. I can’t say I have a ceremony, I am processing the entire experience. From the moment we get out there to the moment we’re packing out. I can’t and I won’t make it sound romantic because really it isn’t. It’s a means and it is a life. I can say that it has created a level of gratitude and even respect that maybe I didn’t have before.” Kelsey shared. “I think as women who hunt, we’re told that we should have a reaction. That it should be an emotional experience - but when are we ever expected to not have a reaction.”
Sitting across from Kelsey, in her studio, I think it was clear exactly what her ceremony was. It’s not in the moment of the hunt or hike, it’s maybe not even in the hours thereafter. It’s what happens when she has a moment to reflect and recall. When she has a pencil or paintbrush in hand and the freedom to interpret the experience by herself. One thing Kelsey made incredibly clear was that independence, to her, meant more than just the ability to do something on her own. It was the only way she wanted to live her life. Independent from the mainstream, from the redundancy of normalcy and from any expectation she didn’t want to meet. “I want to be one of the greats. I want my work to be remembered. I mean, I think we all want that in our passions and our work. I won’t quit until I’ve reached that.”
It’s safe to say we are all trying to find what fuels us. What keeps us here. For Kelsey, it’s the freedom she feels when she is painting or drawing. The collaboration of the outdoors mixed with talent. I read once, a while ago, that art is only really art when it makes those who absorb it feel something. Luckily for Kelsey, and for us, there is no shortness of that in her work nor in who Kelsey is. Like I said, she’s the salt of the earth, pretty damn great.