A Conversation with Kenneth yarus 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 Kenneth Yarus from Kalispell, Montana. In an exclusive conversation with Cassens Fine Art, Kenneth Yarus shares how his recent retreat experience at Mad Wolf Ranch has significantly influenced his artistic journey and is poised to shape his future works.





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


Glacier Park holds a special place in my heart, and I've always had a deep affection for the eastern side. What struck me immediately was the dramatic contrast between the vast plains, seemingly barren, and then the sudden emergence of those majestic mountains. I absolutely love being there and having the ranch as a base. It's situated perfectly, right at that sweet spot where you can witness the mountains rising up, almost at the gateway where the aspens start to appear. You know, those clusters of aspens have a kind of enchanting magic to them. It's hard to explain, but there's a connection I feel when I'm around them, and being in that setting with the ranch is truly something special.


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


To be honest, I had very little knowledge about the place. I hadn't even had a chance to scout it on Google Earth, which is something I usually do to get a feel for the lay of the land before arriving. This summer was hectic, and I was just going from one thing to the next. When I finally got to the ranch, I thought, "Well, let's see what happens." I brought my paints and tried to stay open-minded, ready to connect with whatever the experience had in store. And I have to say, I was completely blown away. I'm actually glad I didn't know much about it beforehand because it felt like a delightful mystery unfolding before me. The sheer size of the ranch and the freedom to wander around really fueled my creative spirit. It exceeded any expectations I might have had. That ranch is just amazing.


I think there's often pressure with paint outs, especially when the goal is to create paintings. You feel like you're on the clock. But this retreat felt different. Michelle did a fantastic job keeping it informal and allowing us to just go with the flow. It was a breath of fresh air, a chance to be in the moment and truly appreciate the little things. We each had our favorite spots, and we could come together for meals and then go off to do our art. It had this wonderful rhythm of connection and disconnection that I really enjoyed. The limited cell service was a plus.


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


Well, I have a deep love for mountains; they're my absolute favorite. Being up in the mountains always fills me with awe. However, during our time at the ranch, we were situated just far enough away from the mountains that we could see them but didn't venture into them as much. It was nice to have that broader context. Artistically, the bison were incredibly captivating. I don't usually paint wildlife, but after this experience, I'm seriously considering exploring it for this show. Bison are just so impressive, especially when you consider that this is their native habitat, a place where they once freely roamed and owned the land. That aspect was a significant source of artistic inspiration for me.


There's this indescribable wild feeling up there. It's like you're on a piece of land that has barely been touched, and when you add the presence of bison, it's not hard to imagine what it must have been like hundreds or even thousands of years ago. If they were just regular cows, it wouldn't be the same. But the bison, along with those imposing electric fences, really give you that sense of time travel. It's pretty cool; it's a special place.


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


Absolutely. When you're out plein air painting, it's like you're constantly chasing this elusive, ever-changing essence. There's an element of improvisation when you're painting on location, and you'll see some of that reflected in the show through the works I created on-site. However, as I revisit those memories and create new paintings, I want to tap into a more contemplative and serene atmosphere.


I'm not necessarily going for dramatic effects; instead, I aim to convey the profound sense of peace and quiet that I experienced. It's a challenging endeavor, but that's the goal. I'm hopeful that I can transport people to that serene place through the canvas, even if they couldn't physically be there. Paintings have that unique power, and I've felt it personally. So, I'm excited about the potential.


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


The creative challenges I encountered out there were quite unique. Being in a different environment from what I'm accustomed to, especially when it comes to painting mountains, posed a fresh set of challenges. I'm used to incorporating foreground elements to make viewers feel like they're right there in the scene. However, with the foreground consisting mainly of grass and such, it forced me to rethink my usual artistic formulas. I believe in honoring the subject, even if it's something as seemingly ordinary as grass. So, I'm looking forward to delving into that aspect in my studio work, trying to capture the essence of how grass feels. It might sound unusual, but there's depth to grass.


That's an intriguing concept, breaking down an element like grass. I've never thought about it that way before.


Oh, absolutely. So much of art involves breaking things down and focusing on what truly matters. With grass, it's not just about individual blades but capturing the essence of it within the larger ecosystem. Similarly, when painting trees, I often remind myself not to paint just one tree but to convey the entire forest. It's about setting a different goal. I typically don't paint much grass in my alpine landscapes, so this will be an exciting challenge.


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


Elements like grass and aspen trees, which I don't usually paint, turned out to be quite influential. Aspens, for instance, have this delicate yet robust quality that I don't often get to explore. Balancing their subtlety and vertical strength was a challenge during plein air painting, and it'll be equally challenging in the studio. Then there's the bison. Capturing their complex forms and personalities, especially without painting from life, will require me to draw from my photos and infuse artistic interpretation. My goal is to create pieces featuring a bison, aspens, and that grass. These three elements had a profound impact on my time at the ranch, and I want to pay homage to them in my work.


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


You know, whenever you gather with like-minded artists, there's this almost subconscious exchange, even if it's not some profound conversation that leads to a sudden revelation. It's more like nurturing a plant—you place things near the roots, and they grow and connect naturally. Without that, you don't flourish as well. So being around such talented artists and kindred spirits, casually bouncing ideas off each other, dropping color names, and sharing insights, it all pushes your creativity to another level. It's not only fun but also incredibly inspiring. The life of an artist can be quite lonely most of the time. So those shared moments of camaraderie are like rays of sunshine. I'm incredibly grateful for them. 


It must be nice to have those shared experiences with fellow artists who can relate to your creative journey.


Oh, definitely. It's like a supercharged learning experience. It was truly impactful and cool. Some artists might feel intimidated by it, but in the Western art realm, there's no sense of competition. Everyone is so supportive and cool. I didn't feel the need to impress anyone because they're all artists I deeply respect, and I know there's something to learn from each of them. It was a comfortable, non-competitive atmosphere.


That's great to hear. It's refreshing to know that there's such camaraderie among artists in that setting.


It's a different vibe, for sure. Some events can easily become competitive, but this one felt like an artistic portal opened up. It's facilitated in a way that eliminates the competitive aspect, allowing people to create freely, with time and space to do so. Michelle did a fantastic job setting it up, and every artist embraced it. It was a wonderful experience.


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


One significant insight was realizing that I'm not particularly skilled at painting grass. You see, I've spent a considerable amount of time wrestling with the foundational aspects of picture-making, and I've been gradually becoming more comfortable with entering the realm of artistic expression. However, being pushed out of my usual subject matter comfort zone was incredibly beneficial. It forced me to tackle different biomes, like grass and aspen trees, which stretched my creative boundaries. I'm incredibly grateful for that because it prevents me from falling into creative ruts. Embracing these challenges has been a driving force for my work, and I needed that push.


Could you share a behind-the-scenes glimpse into your artistic routine during the retreat, from the initial concept of a piece to the final strokes?


When I'm working plein air, it's anything but the serene image society often has of artists peacefully painting in nature. It's quite a frantic experience. You're racing against the clock, the weather, and various elements, and you become acutely aware of time passing. But as you get lost in the painting, you lose track of time, which is part of the fun. It's like trying to control what you can, but also surrendering to what nature offers. The process involves following procedures and systems I've developed to become competent, but it also means dealing with the inevitable failures and learning on the fly.


Plein air painting is essential for my growth as an artist, even if I don't always create great paintings. Sometimes you swing and miss. But being in that learning mindset allowed me to explore and experiment freely. It's a constant balance between analytical process work and intuitive, reactionary work. There's a lot happening in my head. Plein air painting can be quite challenging, but it's also exhilarating. Nature can throw curveballs, and you have to adapt. In the studio, everything is under your control, but plein air forces you to stay open to the unexpected, which is why I love it.


It's like going to war for a few hours, as one of the other artists put it. Winston Churchill, who was also a painter, likened it to a chess game. You make decisions that influence the outcome, and it's mentally taxing. People often think we're just out there having a good time, but every day, I'm physically and mentally exhausted. It's both challenging and deeply fulfilling, and it keeps me constantly learning and growing as an artist.


Can you elaborate on the story or emotion you aim to convey through one of your pieces from the retreat?


Currently, I'm in the process of setting up a piece that focuses on the bison. I anticipate this will be one of the most challenging works because a tree or other natural elements can harmonize differently on a canvas. A bison carries a unique presence and impact. It commands attention in a different way. Even if you paint a buffalo next to a tree, the buffalo still dominates the scene. So, my goal is to use the buffalo within the landscape in a way that feels harmonious. I want the painting to convey the idea that the bison is an integral part of the landscape.


I think of modern agriculture with cows exploiting the landscape, but the American prairie was shaped by bison over countless eons through their coexistence with it. I aim to make a statement about that, with the bison seamlessly integrated into the painting. I might use scale to emphasize this, creating a larger painting where the bison appears small in the grand scheme of things but harmonizes with the other elements. It's a puzzle I'll work on in my sketchbook, but my goal is to capture the sense of wholeness that we experienced at the ranch, the uniqueness of the ecosystem. I'm genuinely excited to create this piece.


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


When you participate in group shows tied to a specific place, the deeper goal is for your work to seamlessly blend in with the overall atmosphere and emotion that the place can evoke. I believe that places matter profoundly, which is why I'm drawn to landscape painting. Where we are and what we experience in our time here has meaningful connections. My hope is that viewers, when they come to see the show, feel drawn into that place collectively.


I want them to sense that through all the artwork, not just my own paintings. I'm essentially honoring what I felt and saw during my time at the ranch. There's a profound sense of peace there, and I hope that when people take my paintings home, they create a shared space of peace in their own environment. Even if they've never been to that ranch, they can still connect with that emotive place and be reminded of it. Amidst the chaos of their lives and homes, they can find a little sanctuary infused with that sense of peace. That's the overarching goal, and while it's ambitious, I believe it's achievable. I'm incredibly excited about it.



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


The retreat has definitely had an impact on my creative journey. While I'm still primarily focused on landscapes, the experience allowed me to explore a new perspective. I was captivated by the distant view of the mountains, and I intend to delve deeper into this aspect. It's not necessarily a juxtaposition, but rather a balance between being amidst the mountains and observing them from afar. I appreciate the sense of distance and the feeling of space that the plains offer, which is different from the dramatic mountain landscapes I'm used to. It's a new headspace for me, and I'm excited to explore it further. As for the retreat itself, I amassed hundreds of reference photos, and I'd love to continue painting from them. Hopefully, I can return next summer to gather even more inspiration.


What personal insights or growth did you experience as an artist during your time at Mad Wolf Ranch? How do you see these reflections manifesting in your art moving forward?


During my time at Mad Wolf Ranch, painting aspen trees posed a significant challenge. There's not the same depth of field as in broader landscapes; you're dealing with forms and leaves that are layered right in front of each other. Attempting to capture the subtlety, and sometimes the chaos, of the scene while making it coherent was a demanding task. However, it was also incredibly motivating. I hope to use this experience to better tame the chaos in my work, synthesize elements, and convey what truly matters.


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


There were many wonderful experiences during the retreat, but one of my favorites involved trying to capture a sunset. We thought we had more time and were rushing in the truck to reach a hilltop. It became clear that we didn't have the time we thought. That moment, when our plans went awry, and we had to adapt and be present in the moment, was memorable. Instead of being disappointed, I embraced the new situation and set up to paint Divide Peak in the sunset. Surrendering to the moment, going with the flow, and letting go of control was so much more peaceful than trying to force things. I hope to carry this sense of surrender and presence forward in my life and art. It was a beautiful experience, and it has broader implications beyond the retreat itself.




“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 Kenneth Yarus. 

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