Kenneth Yarus whisks a palette knife through a dollop of slate blue paint, loading the tool and applying a careful stroke to a freshly oiled canvas. The work in progress depicts a dramatically-lit scene at Atsina Lake in Glacier National Park, distinguished by a trio of waterfalls, each set in a different plane within the scene. He takes a closer look at his handiwork and opts to mix a dab of black into the paint, blending the mixture closer to that perfect tone.
Yarus works quietly alongside friend and fellow artist, Richie Carter, in their shared Kalispell studio space adjacent to Yarus’ childhood home. It is very much an artist’s space — paintings of various stages and sizes decorate the walls, tables and even a piano. Balancing out the professional feel are a few playful ornaments — a dartboard (Carter being the superior player), a paper rhino head and a string of still lifes featuring handguns and, in one case, cereal. Yes, it’s certainly a fine artist’s space, but there’s a sense of fun to it too — reflective of its youthful inhabitants.
Although Yarus is 28 — a fledgling in the art world — one wouldn’t know it by the quality of his work. His 3-by-4-foot mountain lake scene, “There Below it All,” sold for $8,000 in September 2017 and he was recently selected as a finalist in the Art Renewal Center Salon contest out of more than 3,500 entries. The prestigious competition, which offers $100,000 in cash prizes, is the latest in a line of accolades that mark Yarus’ career. He was the youngest artist chosen for the Western Masters Show in its 40 year history, the youngest member of the Montana Painter’s Alliance and his landscape oil paintings have been exhibited across Montana and in surrounding western states. Yarus’ work can be found at four galleries in the region, the most local being Whitefish’s Frame of Reference Fine Art at 235 Central Avenue.
Yarus has been creating since boyhood, when he’d bring himself to tears if his parents didn’t allow him to draw before he went to school. By the time he reached high school age, Yarus made the decision to pursue “the art nerd path” and was encouraged to do so under the tutelage of Flathead High School art teacher Susan Guthrie and his parents, who have since taken on the role of modern day patrons in addition to mom and dad.
“There’s a lot of people who are like, ‘you’re not going to make it as an artist so why are you even trying?’ and that’s a lot of the rhetoric that could have gotten to me if it wasn’t for my family or those really pivotal teachers,” Yarus said.
His art is rooted in realism — staying true to the scene before him — but he also incorporates a few fantastical twists: dramatized lighting, moving a cloud here and there, adding a deer or reshaping a ridge. The goal isn’t necessarily to outdo nature, but to capture the feeling Yarus had when he was in a given location. Many of those settings are in Glacier National Park or the Mission Mountains, and when time and travel permits, the badlands of Utah.
“I’ve always loved being outdoors. I don’t want to paint urban scenes …. I don’t really want to paint people because people kind of annoy me most of the time,” he said, smiling.
While he eschews people as primary subjects, Yarus doesn’t shuck them altogether. He adds them in minimally, as silhouettes, in select works to evoke the feeling of spotting another hiker on the trail and to make the wild landscapes feel just a little bit safer.
“The landscapes around here, they really are dangerous. They’re beautiful, but there’s a power to that beauty that kills people every year,” he said of Glacier. “You’re there in the place of appreciation which is really best shared, so adding the people has always been something I wanted to do.”
In the last few years, Yarus has attacked larger canvases and embraced a shared workspace with Carter. In fact, he credits a good portion of his growth as an artist to being in an environment where constant feedback is available.
“Richie’s talked me out of lots of destroyed paintings. If there’s a problem with something that I can’t figure out, he’d be like, ‘Oh, that color right there’s a little bit wrong.’ And I’ve done it for him a lot,” Yarus said. “In school that’s how it works. [The teacher’s] not like alright everybody, I’m going to talk to you one-on-one in your own little booth and you won’t talk to each other. No — you’re constantly in a place of comparison and communion.”
That spirit of collaboration coupled with a strong work ethic have helped get Yarus where he is today. He tackles his painting career just like any other day job: he shows up, meets deadlines and paints, yes, even when he’s not inspired.
“I was raised by a blue collar family where you just show up and work, so I’m used to that kind of grind and art hasn’t really been too separate from that for me,” Yarus said. “If you really want to make enough money at it, you can’t just paint when you’re inspired.”
In order to delve into art full-time, Yarus resides with his parents — a choice he’s made in part out of necessity but also out of preference.
“I live with my family. For a lot of people its like, ‘Oh you’re just a loser — a failure to launch.’ I don’t see it that way … Michelangelo and those guys worked under families or under a church. They weren’t out there appealing to a capitalist market, ” Yarus said. “Multi-generational living, I think, has a lot of really awesome benefits — I bring light to my parents’ lives that they otherwise wouldn’t have if I was living alone somewhere else.”
While he hopes to be more financially independent in the future, Yarus is grateful for the creative opportunity that his current situation provides. He can paint what he loves, what he’s good at, without worrying about catering to the market.
“You’re not a professional if you’re just good once. You have to really work at that level of excellence,” Yarus said. “I’d rather do what I love and make little money … and know that I’m making something I’m proud of.”
Reporter Mackenzie Reiss may be reached at 758-4433 or firstname.lastname@example.org.