Montana-based artist Kira Fercho paints aspens, horses, and herds of buffalo roaming across backgrounds inspired by her home state.
By the time Kira Fercho was 13 years old, she was selling paintings of Montana landscapes at local gift shops for $100 apiece. Today, she’s still painting aspens, horses, and herds of buffalo roaming across backgrounds inspired by her home state, but now her pieces fetch as much as $50,000 and can be found in several galleries and museums across the West as well as in the collections of celebrities such as Emmylou Harris, Dan Rather, and Karen Pence. “It’s part of the small-town-girl, American-dream-scheme that I have going on,” Fercho says with genuine appreciation for her good fortune.
“My grandpa taught me how to draw Joe Camel off the back of the pack of cigarettes,” Fercho says. “Technically, that was the first thing I learned to draw. I was 3 or 4 years old.” From there, she drew the donkeys and other farm animals at her grandpa’s ranch. Her parents took notice and enrolled her in art classes so she could hone her natural skills. “I always thought painting was magical,” she says. “It was my way of escaping and dreaming of something different. I always knew painting was going to be a part of my life. I just didn’t know how big of a deal my paintings were going to be. My paintings are very famous — and much more well-traveled than I am.”
These days, Fercho gets up every morning at 4:30, hops into her Porsche 911 Carrera, and heads to her CrossFit class. After that, she goes straight to her studio, a 4,000-square-foot space in the country just outside of Billings that doubles as a gallery. She changes into her painting clothes — leggings, a tank top, baseball cap, and an apron — and swaps out her Nikes for a pair of paint-splattered Birkenstocks.
By the time she stands at the easel to begin painting that day — usually four pieces at a time — she’s already worked out the range of darkness and light of each piece. With meditative music playing in the background — “something Native American with some type of flute or nature sounds” — she begins applying oil paint in thick layers with a palette knife in lieu of a brush.
“So much of it is surface value and texture,” Fercho says. “If I don’t have a fairly decent idea of what it’s going to be in the end, I can sink a ton of time into a painting and not have it turn out too great. I can shift the color a little, but I can’t change a light source, and I can’t change the composition of a piece.”
Most of her finished paintings are so thick they’re almost sculptural, with the thickest parts representing what’s closest to the viewer, and colors that evoke the subjects she knows best. Fercho describes the style as modern impressionism and herself as a modern impressionist or Western tonalist. “The colors are very much where I’m from — the Plains — so I really understand the slight color variations.”
Her pieces are large, 40 by 50 inches on average, and are usually made up of at least 20 layers of paint — and sometimes as many as 50 — needing three to five days in between to dry. A single piece can take nearly three months to complete. To make her deadlines, she usually paints for up to eight hours each day, with breaks for lunch and dinner. Sometimes she goes back at night to work on them a little more.
Because she’s worked on them at all hours, the result is a finished work that changes as the light moves across it each day. “It’s exciting to see what the shadows do and the drama of the piece. There are paintings I’ve had hanging in my house for six years and every day they look different.”
No matter what she’s working on — another landscape or the tepees that she’s now become equally known for — nearly all of Fercho’s paintings are commissions, which she approaches as collaborations. “I love working with people and hearing their thoughts on what they want to achieve, lookwise, and being the vehicle for that,” she says. “I naturally love to build things, and I love to be the final step or part of the design process. Most of the time, people help me come up with pieces that are stronger than what I would’ve come up with on my own.”
Still, the ridges and recesses, the layered neutrals and pops of bold turquoise and red, are all hers. “What’s unique about my paintings is the tactile nature of them. I love that overall feel,” she says. “That thick, tactile paint was always my signature.”
Visit Kira Fercho online at kirafercho.com
From the November/December 2021 issue
Photography: (Yellowstone King) Becky Lee/courtesy Kira Fercho; (All others); Michelle Willis/courtesy Kira Fercho
Cover image: Riders