Brushstroke by brushstroke, Terri Porta is telling the history of Billings on an enormous downtown canvas.
That canvas is made up of the walls and ceiling at the entrance to the City Hall parking garage on Second Avenue North. Porta started working on the huge mural on May 7 and plans to finish up by the end summer, when she will have left her mark on an estimated 4,600 square feet of wall and ceiling space.
She also hopes, sometime soon, to make available a smartphone app that will offer viewers of the mural an “augmented reality” experience. That means they will be able to hold their phones up to any one of the painted panels and receive more information about the historical scene in question, through text, videos, photos and audio narration.
Tracy Scott, manager of the city’s Parking Division, said the project was suggested by a downtown gallery owner, who also recommended Porta, who did a similar commission for the Franz Montana Sweetheart Bakery on Midland Road, where she painted a 120-foot-long depiction of the Rims overlooking Billings.
Scott said the project fit in with the Parking Division’s strategic plan, in which a consultant suggested doing something with the first and last 30 feet of the wall space in the city’s parking garages to make them more inviting. Porta’s mural, Scott said, should make the garage look “not so intimidating.”
If this project is successful, she said, the Parking Board will consider whether to expand it to other city parking garages, probably through an open invitation to area artists.
The division budgeted $18,600 for the project, Scott said, which sounds like a lot until you consider the cost of materials and the estimated 900 hours that Porta expects to spend on the project. The mural, which will run on both sides of the main entrance and wrap around to take in some of the exterior walls, will also be covered in a clear, protective coating when it is finished.
The Parking Board knew it wanted a mural of some kind, Scott said. It was Porta who came up with the idea of a historical timeline of Billings’ history. Porta is a native of Billings who already knew quite a bit of local history, but she has been immersing herself much more deeply as she works on the mural.
Kevin Kooistra, director of the Western Heritage Center, has been impressed with her diligence and enthusiasm. He said she has been coming by the center every day or two, peppering him with questions, combing through photo archives and learning more and more of the city’s history.
“I think she thinks she’s being annoying at this point,” Kooistra said, “but I’m really happy to help her. … She’s been really meticulous.”
She has also been generous. Kooistra said she recently gave the Western Heritage a $300 donation.
Though the center does sometime charge for use of its resources, Kooistra said, “because it was a community project, it wasn’t my expectation to receive anything.”
Panels that Porta has completed so far include a depiction of the 1937 flood that inundated the downtown, a general view of North Broadway in the early 1900s, a portrait of the old Cobb Field and a panorama of West Billings in the shadow of the Rims.
Porta said she has tried to be historically accurate, but given time constraints and the size of the mural, she won’t be trying to make everything look exactly as it did in old photographs.
“I’ve done photo-realism,” she said. “It’s fun, but this is art.”
Her favorite form of painting is plein air, creating works that she says “have an impressionistic style and a realistic viewpoint.” Working in the parking garage is something like plein air in that she is out in public, open to view, and as a result she spends quite a bit of time talking to passersby about Billings history, among other things.
“Anyone can stop and talk to me. That’s what I really like,” she said. “It’s such a special thing for me to connect with people and their stories.”
In addition to the larger scenes, the mural will be dotted with smaller insets of people and places, which so far include the old Skyline Supper Club on the Rims, puppeteer Herb McAllister and his “Froggy Doo,” former Billings Mustangs manager Woody Hahn and Hazel Hunkins, who grew up in Billings and went on to become an important crusader for women’s equality and the right to vote.
Porta said part of her goal is to introduce people to some of the lesser-known but notable and interesting characters from Billings’ past. She was particularly excited to learn about Hunkins.
“She was right here, from our town, having a big impact on history,” she said.
Porta said the mural is “still in flux,” because she is still learning local history and wants to leave herself, and her mural, open to new possibilities.
“The more I learn, the more I want to know,” she said.