Capturing Big Sky
Kathy Kovala’s paintings freeze seminal moments in time
Visitors and locals alike will likely recognize the colorful, Big Sky-themed watercolor cards sold all around town. But odds are good they wouldn’t recognize the artist behind the iconic images. Her name is Kathy Kovala—a 78-year-old artist who has been coming to Big Sky with her family for years, and she’d love to meet you.
Kathy and her husband Chuck are currently in town on their annual vacation to Big Sky, but Kathy’s also got business to attend to—checking in with the many vendors to drop off more cards and prints, catching up and taking more orders.
Chuck can be found fishing the Gallatin, a passion passed down by his family. And he’s gracious with his catch—early on in their recent trip the couple met a family visiting Big Sky from Dallas, Texas. Kathy and Chuck invited them back to their vacation rental to show them how to clean a trout, sending them away with eight fillets for dinner.
The Kovala’s South Fork neighborhood vacation rental is filled with prints, original works and stacks of cards, and she brought along her watercolors to create new works, including a fly diagram. She needed help identifying them, but the owner of her rental happened to be a fishing guide, and she said he’d help her do so.
Kathy’s paintings always start with a photograph she’s taken.
“I’ve climbed on hills, I’ve dug in ditches, and laid on the ground. Almost everything is a memory,” Kovala, mother of five, said. “The bridge jumping one is from visits out here with my kids. It was something they loved to do.”
Kovala is referring to a watercolor card she did showing the annual summer ritual of splashing into the Gallatin from the green bridge at the Deer Creek Trailhead.
One of her earliest paintings of the Big Sky area was of Soldiers Chapel—Chuck’s parents who had been coming to Big Sky since the 1940s would often bring visitors there. Another early work was “Fence me in Montana,” originally a photo taken at Lone Mountain Ranch of a peaceful field lined by wooden fencing.
In the early 2000s, Mark Robin from the Hungry Moose was one of Kathy’s earliest customers. He loved the green bridge painting, purchasing it and asking her to paint a “hungry moose.” Both of those paintings still grace the walls of the market. He might have purchased the few cards she’d had, but Debbie Applebaum from Willow Boutique and Lynn Anderson from the Country Market had cleaned her out of the 60 cards she had on hand.
Applebaum said she still sells many of Kathy’s cards, especially of the chapels in town, which make great wedding souvenirs.
“Kathy just hits the mark with what she paints,” Applebaum said. “She captures all the activities, from floating to horseback riding, all the things that make Big Sky what it is.”
Kathy returned to Big Sky the following summer with more cards, and on the advice given by Robin, she updated them with plastic sleeves, creating a more durable product.
“Mark really helped me get the card sales off the ground,” she recalled. “All of a sudden, I was in the card business. Mark was really influential for me.”
It was at the Moose that Kathy was stopped by an employee of the Yellowstone Club, who commissioned her to do nine paintings of the club, from images of the ski lifts to the golf course and the Warren Miller Lodge. She said she didn’t even know what the Club was at the time, but when she mentioned the possible job to a friend they advised her to jump on the opportunity. She did, creating nine new works of art.
Since she started selling cards around Big Sky, Kathy’s been asked by many of her vendors to paint other scenes—from whitewater adventures for Geyser Whitewater to horseback rides at the 320 Ranch, cross country skiing at Lone Mountain Ranch, golfing, fishing the Gallatin and many more.
“It’s just really fun,” Kovala said, describing the many interactions and friends she’s made along the way. “You know, I’m 78. I’m getting to the point where I ask myself, ‘Why don’t I just vacation? Why don’t I just enjoy my life?’ And then I go and I talk to all these people, and they all know me, and I just love it.”
Kovala is originally from Wisconsin; you can still catch the accent. She eventually moved to Minnesota, and now spends three months of the year with her husband on Kauai, Hawaii. Like she does with Big Sky, Kathy paints the sights of her Midwest and island homes. She does more than just nature and outdoor paintings—in Winona, Minn., a number of her works include historical buildings. In Hawaii, tropical flowers, beach and under the sea paintings abound.
In Big Sky, her cards remain in demand by all sorts of folks.
“But the locals seem to appreciate them way, way more than the visitors,” Kathy said. “Because it does represent where they come from. And not everyone can afford the big purchases, but they certainly can take home memories of what they did, and it’s easy to travel with the cards.”
Another aspect of painting Kathy loves is teaching others how to do it. She was just recently visited by representatives of Dillman’s Bay Resort in Lac Du Flambeau, Wisc.—a watercolor painter’s haven—to be the teacher for a week-long class in Hawaii.
“I’ve had such an exciting life with my art,” Kathy said. “It’s brought me to exotic places.”
Kathy said she would be interested in teaching a class in Big Sky next summer if she can get the ball rolling on that. Students could learn her new technique, which she calls “rock and roll.”
She explained: “When I put a color in, all I do is wet that area, and then I draw in the colors, and then rock and roll it, and let the watercolor shade itself. You don’t even need a brush, and it stays so crisp and clean. It’s not painterly, it just uses a lot of water.”
Kovala brought a number of her paintings on the trip to Big Sky this year, with the intention of hanging them in an art display at a local lodge. That plan fell through, though, and she’s hoping another business might be interested in displaying her creations. She’ll be in town until Aug. 12, and would be happy to discuss the opportunity. Her email is email@example.com, and phone number is (715) 360-9929.
For more information on Kathy, her art and her classes, visit www.kathykovala.com.