Brent Cotton | A River Runs Through Them

Brent Cotton finds inspiration in the 
waterways and back roads of western Montana

By Norman Kolpas

Brent Cotton, Morning in the Wilderness, oil painting

Brent Cotton, Morning in the Wilderness, oil, 36 x 40.

This story was featured in the October 2012 issue of Southwest Art magazine. Order the Southwest Art magazine October 2012 print edition here, or purchase the Southwest Art magazine October 2012 digital download here. Or subscribe to Southwest Art magazine and never miss a story!

Track down Brent Cotton these days and, if he isn’t in his studio outside of Stevensville, MT, you’ll probably find him along the nearby Bitterroot River. “I spend a lot of time on it, fishing or floating on a drift boat I own,” he explains. “That’s my home river, and I paint it a lot. Just in this little stretch of the Bitterroot Valley, I will never run out of material for painting.”

Rivers and art, and the deeply satisfying pleasures both deliver, have been reliable constants in the 40-year-old artist’s life. “I like to paint scenes and experiences I’m truly drawn to,” he says, “and I’m passionate about being on the water. The whole lifestyle is very special to me.”

Cotton spent his first 10 years amidst the pastures of southeastern Idaho, on a ranch his great-great-grandpa, Danish immigrant Nels Just, homesteaded in the 1870s with his English-born bride, Emma. Cotton’s love of that rural lifestyle found its earliest expression in his paintings and drawings of “cowboys and horses and tractors,” created under the tutelage of his maternal grandma, Alma Reid. “She was a self-taught but very talented watercolor painter,” he recalls. “We were a huge family, and we grandkids would always sit around the big ranch dining table, where she would spread out colored pencils and crayons and watercolors. It was like a little art class Grandma was teaching.”

Just before Cotton entered middle school, his dad took a job in Kansas and moved the family from the mountains of Idaho to the flatlands. Though the relocation was a geographic culture shock, it also turned out to be an aesthetic boon for the budding artist.

Lindsborg, where the Cottons settled, was founded by Swedish immigrants in 1869. The town’s school system had a well-established dedication to the arts. It showed special pride in respected landscape painter Birger Sandzén [1871-1954], who emigrated from Sweden to teach art from 1894 to 1946 at local Bethany College, where the Birger Sandzén Memorial Gallery now showcases a large collection of his works.

Brent Cotton, Embracing the Day, oil painting

Brent Cotton, Embracing the Day, oil, 19 x 10.

At Smoky Valley High School, Cotton was taken under the wing of arts teacher Gary Sechrist. “I was not a great student academically. But I really excelled at art, and Mr. Sechrist gave me a lot of nurturing. A lot of art classes can be a free-for-all, but he gave us structure. He instilled the fundamentals in drawing skills and composition. And he was also eager to let us have a taste of all these different media, not just in painting and sculpture but also ceramics and the computer art that was just coming on the scene.”

Immediately after graduating, however, Cotton felt driven not to pursue art but to reestablish contact with his other passion: his love of the high country and its rivers. His parents moved to Montana, and he enrolled in a month-long course in Wyoming to train as a fishing and hunting guide for packing trips into the Rockies. Soon, a lodge on the Salmon River in Idaho hired him as a supply man leading a mule team to carry gear and provisions into remote campsites. “As an 18-year-old kid,” he says, “I was loving it.”

Back in his element, Cotton began picking up chunks of basswood and knives and, entirely self-taught, carving realistic songbirds and game fish. “I decided I would be the next great carver,” he says. Taking the winter off and staying with his folks, he brought some painted carvings into a small gallery in Hamilton, MT. “They started selling a few, for around $300 to $500, and I thought to myself, Wow! I can actually make some money doing this.”

While he worked on the family ranch and occasionally as a fishing guide over the next few years, carving provided Cotton with some spare cash. He realized, however, that “it was never going to pay the bills.” But he thought that painting might, once he’d built on the foundation begun in Mr. Sechrist’s high school classes. So, in 1995 and 1996, he enrolled in one professional painting workshop after another. “It was amazing,” Cotton recalls of his sudden immersion in that training. “I’d never been surrounded by people that were so passionate about art and doing it for a living. My artistic batteries were getting so charged up.”

Brent Cotton, An Early Start, oil painting

Brent Cotton, An Early Start, oil, 24 x 30.

At one such workshop, he struck up a friendship with fellow student Christine Verner, a well-established and respected artist with her own gallery, art school, and studio in McAlester, OK. Verner invited Cotton to come study with her. “She recognized that I had some natural ability and a real hunger to learn,” he says. So he moved back to the flatlands, spending two years learning from Verner while working on her family ranch for room and board. “She became like a second mother to me, and I was welcomed into her family. She had this vast wealth of knowledge and experience that she passed down. She opened my eyes to a whole world of art I had been ignorant of, to artists I had never heard of, to a looser, more impressionistic style, to working from life and plein-air painting. I blossomed under her tutelage.”

Back in Montana in 1997, Cotton began exhibiting in area art shows and picked up gallery representation in Bozeman. More importantly, that year his work was juried into the Top 100 in the prestigious Arts for the Parks annual exhibition, dedicated to celebrating America’s national parks through representational art. “That was my first exposure on a national level,” he notes. The ensuing attention brought still more gallery interest.

Yet, making a living through art continued to be a challenge. So he eagerly accepted when an artist friend invited him to come share a little apartment near the beach in Maui. “We lived on peanut butter and ramen and tuna fish, and every day we set up easels on the beach and painted little plein-air scenes of crashing waves and sunsets and sold them for $50 to $100 to tourists walking by.”

A more significant passerby, however, was a beautiful beach jogger who kept catching Cotton’s eye, smiling and waving as she ran by. Finally, they bumped into each other in a health-food store. Her name was Jennifer, and she turned out to be from Montana, too. “The next thing you know,” Cotton recounts, “we were falling in love. We moved in together that fall, then we got married in 2002, and in 2004 we moved back to Montana to put down some roots near our families.” They’re now parents to 5-year-old daughter Hana and 3-year-old son Weston.

Brent Cotton, Spring Rain, oil painting

Brent Cotton, Spring Rain, oil, 11 x 14.

With each passing year, Cotton has grown surer of his skills, in greater command of his talent. And with Jennifer in charge of “keeping me organized, helping with the paperwork and all the other not-so-fun aspects of the career,” he is happily living the life of a successful full-
time artist.

Once having aspired to a mastery of tightly realistic nature renderings, he now describes himself as a combination tonalist and luminist. His paintings are based sometimes on plein-air studies, sometimes on the copious digital photos he snaps, and increasingly on his own imagination, and they depict atmospheric riverscapes and other rural scenes, along with select figurative works, a more recent pursuit. Often set at dawn or dusk, the scenes are shot through with dazzling bursts of illumination-an early-morning campfire in AN EARLY START; headlights reflecting on a wet country road in SPRING RAIN; dawn’s glow filtered through sheer curtains, silhouetting his wife in EMBRACING THE DAY. “When I see a scene I want to paint,” Cotton explains, “it’s usually the light, the drama, that excites me. When I stand in front of the easel, I’m trying to re-create that initial, fleeting spark of excitement, to boil the scene down to its essence of light and mood and atmosphere. That spark of light, of life, makes you feel good. It warms your soul. If I can successfully re-create what moved me, and have the same emotional response from the viewer, then I’ve succeeded.”

More and more professional accolades attest to that success. But none have meant so much, perhaps, as the invitation Cotton received unexpectedly last October to show two pieces in the prestigious Prix de West Invitational Art Exhibition and Sale, held in June at the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City. “For an artist to get that call is like being told you’ve won an Oscar or you’re going to the Super Bowl,” he says, his voice still hushed with awe. At the event, he says, “I got to meet a lot of my heroes, people like Morgan Weistling, Dan Gerhartz, George Carlson, amazing artists.”

One particular artist’s attendance, however, meant even more to him. His mentor Christine Verner drove the 130-odd miles from McAlester. “Years ago,” says Cotton, his voice catching, “she took me there and said to me, ‘If you work hard enough, and strive to be the best you can be, you’ll get here one day, too.’ And she got to see me there.”

Trailside Galleries, Jackson Hole, WY; Ponderosa Art Gallery, Hamilton, MT; Howard/Mandville Gallery, Kirkland, WA; Samarah Fine Art, Whitefish, MT; The Sportsman’s Gallery, Atlanta, GA; Paderewski Fine Art, Beaver Creek, CO; Hana Coast Gallery, Hana, HI; Cotton Fine Art Studio, Stevensville, MT.

Featured in the October 2012 issue of Southwest Art magazine–click below to purchase:
Southwest Art magazine October 2012 digital download
Southwest Art magazine October 2012 print edition
Or subscribe to Southwest Art magazine and never miss a story!

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