The Montana 6
A new group of young, excited Western painters are making waves in Big Sky Country.
Blame Daniel Keys. He’s the linchpin in this story. In 2012, Tyler Murphy, a young aspiring artist and gallery owner, signed up for one of Daniel Keys’ painting workshops. After the workshop a friendship took hold and before long the two artists were taking painting trips together. Keys had also become friends with several other artists, many of whom had also been friends with Murphy and had taken the workshops.
“They all like to tease me, sort of an inside joke, that you have to pay a fee to be my friend,” Keys says, laughing at the optics of this dynamic. “But that’s just how we all met, and once we had that in common, we started introducing everyone to everyone else. I might have been the person who led the workshops, but Tyler was the glue that kept us together, and now we’re all friends.”
This ragtag group of artists, who often found themselves in Montana painting the sky and the land in intensely productive plein air sessions, would not formally organize—no meeting minutes, no roll call, no manifesto or shared website. They just enjoyed the company, the mutual interests and the artwork. The group was then, and still today, made up of Keys, Murphy, Nate Closson, Richie Carter, Kenneth Yarus and Forrest Dickison. Though Keys lives in California and Dickison in Idaho, the group is largely based in Montana, and use Muphy’s five-year-old Montana Gallery in Billings as a hub. They call themselves the Young Guns, which is fitting because all of them are in their 20s and 30s.
For Murphy his involvement with the group and the gallery nearly never happened. In 2015, burnt out from the start-up and initial years of Montana Gallery, he needed a break. “I just had to step away from the art and the gallery for a bit,” Murphy says. “I became a barista for the summer and I ended up on this coffee tour experience where we’d serve coffee at music festivals all around the country. But then we all got laid off in the middle of Nebraska and when I came back I was thrown back into my life as an artist and gallery owner.”
For Murphy, the time away was therapeutic and helped clear his head for what would eventually become a period of great forward momentum. By 2016, the gallery owner was ready to kick start the next phase of its development, which started with a move from Red Lodge, Montana, to Billings, a much larger city where he was more connected to the Montana’s thriving arts and culture scene, and the youthful energy that flourished around it.
It was here that the group began to solidify more and come into its own. The painting
trips, which sometimes involved different combinations of the six artists, became more frequent, and the artwork began to flow more easily.
“What’s great about the six of us is that we all kind of paint differently. We’re each our own person, and our own artist,” Murphy says. “You have people like Daniel, who is the professional artist and is taken very seriously, and who we are all drawn to as a friend and mentor. He’s also played a big part of helping me keep the gallery going and helping me find some direction into the future.”
Keys’ work is certainly the most recognizable, and most valued, of the group. It’s also the loosest, with raw impressionistic brushstrokes and powerful color that radiates through his quiet landscapes and beautifully composed still lifes. These qualities become more pronounced and powerful when you learn that Keys was mentored by the great Richard Schmid. Some of those impressionist qualities can also be seen Murphy’s work, which often explores life in Montana amid the mountain peaks, golden valleys and on magnificent farms and ranches.
Closson, who lives in Whitefish,
Daniel Keys painting in Paradise Valley, Montana.
Daniel Keys, left, Richie Carter, Tyler Murphy and Kenneth Yarus pose with their easel stands.
Richie Carter, Last to Leave Here, oil on linen, 48 x 66”
Forrest Dickison, Pamiri Highway, gouache on watercolor paper, 6 x 9"
Daniel Keys, Mission Mountain Barn, oil, 6 x 12"