Isabelle Johnson was among the first and most influential Modernist artists in Montana. Our largest holdings of a single artist, the YAM’s collection numbers 826 paintings and works on paper and numerous boxes of archival materials. Along with her friend and fellow artist-rancher, Bill Stockton, she pioneered Modernism on the Northern Plains. Stockton said it was Cezanne who taught Isabelle how to look, “with the eyes of a poet at the very things she loved.”
Born on a sheep ranch in Absarokee, Montana, Isabelle studied painting and sculpture at Columbia University and Skowhegan. She taught at Eastern Montana College in Billings from 1949 to 1961, where her students included Edith Freeman, Donna Loos, Jim Poor, and Theodore Waddell. They remember her advice, “to look and see.” Her drawings and paintings are based on the changing seasons of nature and work on her ranch and in the surrounding mountains. In 1983, she received the Montana Governor’s Award for the Visual Arts.
Terry Melton wrote of Isabelle in 1971:
“To say that she was a well-schooled painter who ranched might have only a slight edge over a well-informed rancher who painted. Therein lie the real essence of Isabelle Johnson’s work. Her drawings and paintings are essences of Absarokee, the home ranch and the magnificent Stillwater country of southern Montana. Her pictures are totalities of fragments of that great country: Smells of cattle, grassland, sheep and river; sounds of the North Wind and the Chinook; documents expressive and factual of living, growing things, knowing all is tempered by the coming of the winter of the land but never the winter of the spirit.”