A Conversation with Craig birch on his Experience at the Mad Wolf ranch Artist Retreat



August 10th through the 13th, 2023 marked the first annual artist retreat hosted by Cassens Fine Art at Mad Wolf Ranch in Browning, Montana. This breathtaking locale, nestled just beyond the Eastern boundary of Glacier National Park, served as an idyllic backdrop for six accomplished plein air painters. 


Among these talented individuals is Craig birch, an esteemed  oil painter residing in the Bitterroot Valley in Southwestern Montana. In an exclusive conversation with Cassens Fine Art, Craig Birch shares profound insights into the world of art, unveiling the vulnerability and resilience that lie beneath the surface of artistic creation.





Can you share your initial impressions upon arriving at Mad Wolf Ranch and experiencing the surroundings of East Glacier in Glacier National Park?


Well, that's quite a request, considering the sheer magnitude of it all. First and foremost, I felt incredibly grateful to Michelle for inviting me and giving me the opportunity to paint alongside some incredibly talented artists. The camaraderie among the group was exceptional.


As for the environment itself, it was truly awe-inspiring. The sheer vastness and grandeur of the place were overwhelming, leaving you with a feeling of wanting to immerse yourself in it for much longer. You see, it's one thing to be struck by the immediate beauty, but it's quite another to establish a deeper connection with it, discovering hidden gems you may have initially overlooked. The limited time we had to achieve this made it feel somewhat rushed, but nevertheless, it was a fantastic experience. In short, it was an unforgettable journey.


What were your expectations for the retreat, and how did those expectations evolve as the days unfolded?


To be honest, I didn't have many expectations initially because I hadn't been on many retreats like this before. I approached it with an open mind, ready for whatever might come our way. Surprisingly, it exceeded any expectations I might have had. Michelle, along with her mother, took excellent care of us and provided clear explanations for everything.


One thing that stood out was the relaxed nature of the schedule. It wasn't a rigid, minute-by-minute agenda that you often encounter. There was no pressure like, "We must be here at one o'clock, two o'clock, three o'clock." Instead, it allowed us to immerse ourselves in the surroundings and truly get a sense of the place without the constant clock-watching.


It was a refreshing change. It allowed us to focus solely on our craft, painting, without the distractions of worrying about meals, schedules, or where we were supposed to be at any given time. This was something I've heard echoed by fellow artists, and it made the retreat a truly unique and valuable experience for me.


Were there any particular moments or aspects of the retreat that left a lasting impact on you?


A couple of things stood out during the retreat. First and foremost, the history of Mad Wolf Ranch and how it became part of Michelle's family was genuinely fascinating. I was especially intrigued by the juxtaposition of that history with the Native American influence in the area. As a bit of a history enthusiast, I enjoy delving into such stories because they can enrich my figurative paintings. The other significant impact was the sheer enormity of the surroundings. You truly get the sense that the entire glacier area, not just the national park itself, holds a unique and special place in the world. The beauty of the region is awe-inspiring.


What elements of East Glacier landscapes resonated with you the most and served as inspiration for your artwork during the retreat?


It's a bit of a balancing act. The mountains are undeniably impressive, but as an artist, it can feel like a daunting task to capture their grandeur in a compact, wall-worthy form. However, what really struck me were the smaller, intimate details. Richie, for instance, created some exquisite small studies that beautifully captured the play of light through the aspen trees at Michelle's property. These little gems of light and atmosphere are what truly speak to my artistic sensibilities. While such scenes may occur elsewhere, the fact that they unfolded in this particular setting makes them all the more special. I'd love to revisit and reobserve them.


It's intriguing how everyone in the same place can perceive and record it differently, even when viewing the same scene. Focusing on those finer details allows for a unique and personal interpretation that goes beyond the grand vistas.


Can you describe the emotions and feelings you aim to capture in your paintings based on the retreat experience?


In contemporary terms, my goal is to convey emotions and sentiments that resonate with viewers on a visceral level. I hope that my art evokes those deep emotions, although it largely depends on whether the audience sees what I see. This challenge is universal for artists, and I'm no exception. The real challenge lies in infusing pigments, oils, and a two-dimensional canvas with the same feelings that the landscape instills in me.


What I aspire to do is not merely depict the landscape but evoke a sense of closeness to it. Humans have had an intimate relationship with the land for thousands of years, becoming an integral part of it. However, since the Industrial Revolution, we've moved away from that connection, becoming less agrarian and more focused on modern technology. It's increasingly challenging to rekindle that almost primal feeling of being one with the landscape.


As a figurative painter, my aim is to be more than an observer. I want to be a part of the landscape, to belong to it. When I step into the natural world, I don't want to waste time just painting it; I want to immerse myself in it. So, in essence, I see myself as a participant rather than a mere artist. 


Were there any specific challenges you faced during the creative process and how did you overcome them during the retreat?


Painting from life, whether it's a figure or a landscape, or even combining the two, presents significant challenges. If you're not consistently practicing it, you can struggle when you venture out. Personally, I tend to be more of a studio painter, although I know I should paint from life more often. The preference for figurative art over landscapes has been a part of my artistic identity.


When you're painting from life in a landscape, you're racing against the clock as the light changes rapidly. This forces you to make quick decisions. Additionally, your setup, including your palette and oils, must be second nature to you. This was something I grappled with during the retreat since it had been a while since I painted on location. I had to rearrange my palette so I could access my paints swiftly and efficiently. The logistical aspect was indeed a challenge to overcome, but it can be resolved with preparation and practice.


Did you find any surprising sources of inspiration that influenced your work differently from what you initially anticipated?


The abundance and density of the Aspens around the house surprised me. I kept thinking, "There's a painting here," and I wished I had more time to explore the area. As I strolled through the Aspen groves, I would imagine the play of light in those moments when it would be truly stunning. Richie managed to capture some of those moments, and I thought about piecing together something for later studio development.


However, it's a challenge because you can't sit there all day watching the Aspens. There's so much more to experience, like seeing buffalo or exploring the surroundings. When you visit a place for the first time, you can't help but wonder how it might look at different times of the day. What if I had been there at five in the evening instead of ten in the morning? These are the thoughts that artists have when they encounter unique settings like the Aspens at Mad Wolf.


It's fascinating because the average person might not immediately notice these details, but artists like Richie and myself strive to capture them and share them with others who might not naturally see them. That's the beauty and power of the work we do, and it truly shines through at a retreat like Mad Wolf.


How did your interactions with fellow artists during the retreat contribute to your creative process and the evolution of your pieces that you created there?


One of the most important aspects for me during the retreat was the absence of egos that you often have to contend with. It was refreshing to see that everyone, regardless of their experience, had their share of struggles. Even seasoned landscape artists, who have been painting for years, face challenges every time they step out with their easels. When you leave the safety of your studio, you're essentially going into battle. You're contending with the elements—wind, dust, insects, rain, and shifting weather conditions. What looked perfect 15 minutes ago might suddenly be disrupted by clouds.


Seeing all the other artists going through the same battles and experiencing the same frustrations was comforting. It reminded me that I wasn't alone, and that everyone struggles in their own way. There were no egos on display, no one saying, "Look at what I've achieved; isn't this marvelous?" In fact, some of us even shared our insecurities.


What I appreciated was that it leveled the playing field. It wasn't a zero-sum game; instead, it added an element of camaraderie. It made the experience more enjoyable because you realized that we were all in it together, facing the same challenges and embracing the same struggles. It created a connection, a shared understanding of the journey we were all on.


I really like what you mentioned about how it removes that competitive aspect and adds a sense of fun. It's like a camaraderie where you're not alone in the struggle. It's a type of shared experience, building a common spirit, and it creates a tethering effect.


Exactly, it's a bond formed through shared challenges, and it brings a unique connection that says, "I understand what you're going through, and you understand what I'm going through." It's a powerful sense of unity.


Were there any breakthrough moments or insights you gained about your artistry while working on your paintings at Mad Wolf Ranch?


Absolutely, one revelation that kept coming back to me was the need to do more of this kind of work. At home, I often have my studio waiting, and I sometimes think I should venture out more and paint from life or incorporate figures into the landscape. Much of my work involves Native American themes, and it's important to remember that they spent their lives primarily outdoors, not in a studio. They lived in buffalo-hide dwellings, and most of their existence was immersed in the natural world. This experience at Mad Wolf reaffirmed my belief that I need to engage more with painting directly from nature.


Can you share your daily artistic routine at Mad Wolf and how it may differ from your regular routine?


When I'm at home, I have the comfort of knowing my studio is there, and I can sometimes afford to be a little late due to daily life demands like taking care of animals or spending time with my wife. However, at Mad Wolf, everything else had to take a backseat because the light was paramount. If you missed the perfect light, you might have to wait until the next day, assuming the conditions were favorable. There was no margin for delay; when dawn broke at locations like Looking Glass, you had only a brief window of time when the light and clouds created a magical scene. If you were 30 minutes late, you could miss it entirely.


This experience reinforced the idea that when you're in the landscape, you're on nature's schedule. You can't let distractions or your own timeline interfere. It reminded me of advice I received from a famous illustrator, Robert Heindel, who bluntly told us that when you choose to become an artist, you need to tell the rest of the world to step aside and focus on your art. While it might seem harsh, it underscores the reality that success in this field often demands prioritizing your craft above all else. Landscape painting, in particular, enforces this discipline, as nature's schedule is unwavering and unforgiving.


Each piece of artwork tells a story. Can you elaborate on the story or emotion you aim to convey through a certain piece that you created during the retreat?


I'm currently working on a piece that I have some reservations about whether it will effectively communicate what I intend. I wanted to capture that sense of vastness and the grandeur of the landscape, but I've confined it to a 24 by 36-inch canvas. I feel like I should be working on a much larger scale to truly do justice to the essence of Glacier. Nonetheless, even if it doesn't achieve that, I hope it will at least resonate with viewers on a visual level, drawing them in with its wonderful colors. I see art as having the potential to communicate on different levels. It can depict a place, convey the feeling of being in that place, or simply exist as an object of beauty. Even if it only accomplishes one of these aspects, it's still fulfilling its purpose.


Art has this multifaceted ability to connect with people in different ways, and it doesn't need to encompass every dimension at once. It can be appreciated for its intrinsic beauty alone.


Were there any personal connections, memories, or experiences that you infused into the pieces that you created at Mad Wolf, making them uniquely yours?


I think that's the dream of every artist – to have someone look at your work and say, "Oh, I know who created this. Only they could express it this way." I'm not sure if I'll ever reach that level as an artist. When I first started drawing and picked up a brush, it was a visceral feeling of enjoyment. But as you progress as an artist, you encounter advice like, "Now you need to make it your own, something uniquely you." When I look at the vast body of art I've seen throughout my life, I sometimes wonder how I can possibly stand out. I'm not aiming to become the next Picasso or Sargent. I'm just going out there, doing what I love, and hoping that someone finds it appealing.


Looking ahead to the upcoming show at Cassens Fine Art, featuring the pieces created at Mad Wolf, what do you want viewers to take away from your artwork and the collective experience of the retreat overall?


I simply want them to take away the artwork itself. That's the ultimate compliment as an artist. I don't want them to just think, "Oh, that must have been a fun experience" and move on. It would be great if they see the artwork and think, "I'd love to have that in my home." I want them to appreciate it as a piece of art, not just because it matches their décor, but because it resonates with them on a deeper level. It would be wonderful if they see it and think, "That was a remarkable experience because this is a remarkable piece of work."


As an artist, how do you feel the retreat has influenced your creative journey and how might it continue to shape your future work?


I was hoping to reconnect with the landscape, especially given my passion for depicting Native American culture. My plan is to return to Mad Wolf and bring in Native American models, blending figures with the landscape. I've had a traditional buckskin dress made, aiming for it to be indistinguishable from the pre-European contact era, capturing the essence of Native Americans living in harmony with the land. Painting the figure in the landscape requires working swiftly, which can be challenging, but it would be a fascinating experiment. Additionally, I'd be open to collaborating with other artists, exploring their styles and environments.


Is there a specific memory or moment from the retreat that you anticipate will stay with you forever?


There's a lot that I think that will stay with me. One interaction I had with another artist sticks out to me particularly. He had an unfinished study that, when I asked to see it, he said “No.” I think he was a little insecure about it, and I thought, “You know, we all deal with this.”


I've taught a lot of classes where if you try and critique a person, you’re really forcing them to reach back into their childhood to the moment they first picked up a pencil and say, “Look what I drew, Mommy,” searching for affirmation. All of a sudden, you have opened a can of worms for that person on a psychological-level. So, that's one of the things I took away from that moment–was that we're all dealing with these insecurities that we eventually developed along the way in childhood. 


That's a poignant observation about the vulnerability that comes with creating art. To share your work is to expose a part of yourself, and not everyone can easily navigate that vulnerability.


You can create something and it can be a finished piece and you put it on the wall of a gallery somewhere or something and it's a mixed bag as to what could happen next when somebody sees it. You're literally saying, “This is me. I'm putting myself out there for you to see.” And you have to be brave enough to do that in the first place and then let whatever happens happen while being thick-skinned. I think that's one of the things that a professional art school can help with in the sense that they give you a really tough skin. If you can't take criticism, you need to get out of the game.


I remember some shows that I did where I was standing back a little trying to listen in on what people's comments were. I had painted this ballet dancer, and she had seated herself on the floor. I hadn't depicted the floor quite as well as I should have. I had a woman come by and say, “I love the top part of this, but she looks like she's sitting in a bucket.” I kind of smiled and I thought, “You asked for it, Craig. You put yourself out there and, and she gave you an honest comment without knowing that you were the artist.”


And then I thought, I'll work on that next time.




“Stories of the Soil: Scenes From Mad Wolf Ranch” featuring works from the annual artist retreat hosted by Cassens Fine Art will be on display at Cassens Fine Art for the month of October, with an artist's reception taking place on October 6th, 2023. Gallery patrons are invited to come to the reception to view the pieces and meet the artists behind them, including Craig Birch. 

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