For more than 15 years, Bigfork pastel painter Jeanette Rehahn has elevated Montana’s most overlooked plant to gallery-worthy works of fine art

Story by Clare Menzel
There was a particular patch of grass in the yard by the house of Jeanette Rehahn’s grandmother. It was soft and sweet and light green. Decades later, she remembers it well.

“I’d go and lay in it, pet it, roll in it,” Rehahn said. “I loved that then, and now, I’m enthralled. I paint grasses. I want people to notice how they sing in the wind and move.”

The Bigfork pastel artist has painted grass-scapes for more than a decade and a half. There are no lofty alpine peaks or fiery fields of Indian paintbrush or calm, clear lakes — just grasses, and the quiet bends of the Swan and Flathead rivers where grasses grow.

“I don’t paint the standard scene,” she said. “I try not to paint the stuff everybody does.”

Nobody else in the Flathead Valley renders entire fields of rippling grass with the same detail, color, or vibrancy usually reserved for capturing Glacier National Park’s most stunning scenes. Few others pay as much attention to this simple plant and its plain blades of green. Grass is the easiest piece of nature to overlook when your chin is turned upward, toward the glacier-topped mountains. Not many look down for artistic inspiration.

“Her grasses are so seductive. They’re so beautiful. Who thinks of grass as seductive?” Valerie Vadala Homer, director of the Bigfork Art & Cultural Center, said. “I’m really struck by them. There’s a real immediacy. It pulls you in, makes you feel like you’re in the landscape. It feels alive.”

That’s by design. Like other landscape artists, Rehahn wants to convey the “alive feeling” she experiences when outside. And it’s not just grass — all of Northwest Montana strikes her in the same way.

“I call it nirvana. This place is nirvana,” Rehahn said. “When I first saw these mountains and valleys, I knew I couldn’t live here and not respond to it. It was a heart thing. That’s what it’s all about for an artist: responding. You’re compelled to. The beauty was phenomenal.”

And so, by avoiding the same scenes that already received so much artistic attention, she responded by painting the grasses. That childhood affection for glass blossomed into a professional obsession, fueled by years she had spent in an earlier career that included drawing botanical sketches for science textbooks.

“Grass influences everything around it. It’s not just grass; it’s the living carpet that covers the soil and creates a nurturing place for bushes and trees to grow. It protects the earth,” Rehahn said. “Grasses balance the earth. They’re what brings it together.”

Vadala Homer says Rehahn’s “works are all about the beauty of grass, a thing we take for granted.”

“We might not look at it that closely — but that’s what she makes us do,” Vadala Homer continued. “She’s such a master with color. She balances and chooses the colors that work together so wonderfully.”

Jeanette Rehahn pictured at her studio in Bigfork

Jeanette Rehahn pictured at her studio in Bigfork

Rehahn picked up pastels first as a student at the Art Institute of Chicago, near her childhood home of Rockford, Illinois. After a mentor discouraged her from pursuing an art career as a woman and she became disillusioned about the value of abstract art, she dropped out. As a high schooler, she had also been captivated by science, so she pieced together a freelance career that combined her interests, drawing technical illustrations first for textbooks and later for exhibits and displays at San Francisco’s Exploratorium, an interactive science museum.

But that work didn’t fulfill her creative spirit, and she drifted back to her roots after discovering gourd art with a group of friends. She began selling her gourds, which she decorated in a Raku pottery style, around the country, including at the Kootenay Gallery in Bigfork. Then, on a trip to Santa Fe, New Mexico, about 15 years ago, she picked up a book titled “Poetic Landscapes.”

“Fifty pages in, and all the hair on my body stood up straight,” Rehahn said. “I was like, ‘Goodness, this is what I’m going to do!’”

She found some old Grumbacher pastels from college and got to work. She had to retrain herself in the medium, but the timing was perfect: two years later, when she and her husband Mark moved to Bigfork from California, she realized she wouldn’t be able to make gourd art during the winter. It’s too cold here to endure long hours scraping out gourds, which often carry harmful molds, outside. So she picked up the pastels with vigor. She’s been painting scenes from her adopted backyard ever since, honing her technique and discovering a deeper love of grasses.

“I think her work keeps getting stronger and stronger, as she becomes a master of this particular landscape that she does again and again,” Vadala Homer said. “She’s able to find something new and keep it fresh. That’s a gift that not many artists have. They have to move on or change or the work gets stale. I’ve only met a handful of artists that can consistently explore the same imagery and do it over and over again and keep it alive.”

Rehahn’s work is precise, and each fine line of grass both stands out and mingles with the others. Pastels don’t blend like oil paints do, meaning each blade of grass is a different stroke of pigment. Rehahn says she is often asked how she manages to make such thin lines, and she says she doesn’t quite know; she goes into another state when she paints. She goes into a state of reminiscence, recalling the grasses as she saw them, beautiful and bright.

“I imagine it being a garden at her best, especially vibrant,” Rehahn said. “I think the biggest reason people respond is the vibrancy of the color; they’re really saturated but they’re still really real,” Derek Vandeberg, owner of Frame of Reference Fine Art, said. “It’s kind of technicolor, but Jeanette’s colors are really based in reality.”

Vandeberg’s gallery, which recently relocated to Whitefish from Bigfork, has carried Rehahn’s pieces for six years. While Rehahn currently only sells art at Frame of Reference, she hopes to grow and work with at least one other gallery. What she wants most, though, is to be among the grass.

“It’s so self-motivating — all I need is some grasses,” Rehahn said.

“I want more,” she continued. “More grasses, more painting. There’s a certain level of struggle, but I love that. I don’t care about much else. The next one is always the best one.”