HELENA, Mont. -- You don't have to know much about art to enjoy watching it happen on a swath of Montana ranchland where painters set up easels for a day each summer, and onlookers stroll.
At the Sieben Ranch, a working livestock operation in rolling country between the Continental Divide and the Missouri River, blank canvases are transformed within a few hours during the Western Rendezvous of Art, now in its 34th year. Its exhibits, workshops and auctions of contemporary art take place mainly in historic Helena, but the Quick Draw is 26 miles away at the ranch run by kin of Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus, D-Mont.
The Western Rendezvous, the Montana Historical Society's biggest fundraising event of the year, is set for Aug. 16-19, with the Quick Draw on Aug. 18. While the artists work among barns, weathered log buildings and stout cottonwood trees on the Sieben land, caterers set out an elaborate, alfresco brunch. Events end with an art auction in the shade of the cottonwoods.
Most of the artists at the Western Rendezvous are in the Northwest Rendezvous Group, which consists of several dozen people and began years ago as a collection of artists who got together for campouts. Now hotels and lodges have taken the place of camping as the members gather annually in Helena.
"It's an eclectic group we've got," said painter and member Barry Eisenach of Arvada, Colo. "Flowers, historical, landscapes, animals," he said in listing the painters' subjects. His are wild animals, cowboys and historic ways of life among American Indians.
Northwest Rendezvous member Joan LaRue of Tucson, Ariz., has participated in the Quick Draw at least a dozen times and remembers finishing a painting in as little as 2 1/2 hours.
"You are a tad pressed for time," LaRue said. "That's the downside. The part of it that's really, really good is that the Quick Draw is an up-close opportunity for the patrons to be part of the action. They are not just spectators. They can ask whatever they want."
LaRue said that in the summer she relishes escaping the Tucson heat and sometimes combines the art show with vacation time in the Northern Rockies. This year, before getting to Helena she plans to paint in Wyoming's Teton Valley.
Eisenach, a Quick Draw participant for about 10 years, often adds Glacier National Park to his itinerary. West Glacier is 215 miles northwest of Helena. For people who want to expand a trip to the Art Rendezvous into a larger Montana visit but don't want much driving, the state capital of Helena and the surrounding area offer plenty to see and do on either end of the art show.
The city's Mount Helena invites day hikes, and the fishing on the Missouri River near the Sieben Ranch is world-class. Also near the ranch, a summer tour operator runs boat trips through the river's craggy Gates of the Mountains area chronicled in journals of the Lewis and Clark expedition.
Neighborhoods in Helena, Montana's capital city rooted in gold mining, are walked easily. A couple of blocks uphill from downtown's Last Chance Gulch, the town's stunning architecture includes the Cathedral of St. Helena, inspired by a grand house of worship in Europe and dedicated in 1914. For people who are drawn here by the Art Rendezvous and want still more art, it's easy to find.
Collections at the Montana Historical Society Museum cover Montana history and culture, and one features the work of Charles M. Russell, Montana's "cowboy artist" who lived from 1864-1926. Across the street, art in the domed state Capitol includes a 25-by-12-foot Russell painting titled "Lewis and Clark Meeting Indians at Ross' Hole."
It's three miles from downtown to the nonprofit Archie Bray Foundation for the Ceramic Arts, recognized internationally as a place for ceramic artists to gather. Some of the pieces produced in Bray studios dot the property, previously a brickyard, and others are displayed more formally in a couple of galleries there.
At the Quick Draw, art has included the written word. LaRue wears crimson cowboy boots to the Sieben Ranch and recalls a cowboy poet writing about her in verse titled "The Gal in the Red Boots." He read it aloud.
"I usually like attention, but I was a little embarrassed," LaRue said.
Still, she and other members of the Northwest Rendezvous keep returning, and the Quick Draw attracts so many spectators that tickets often sell out days or weeks before the event.
If You Go...
LODGING: Helena has a variety of hotels, motels and bed-and-breakfast inns. Mid-August rates, double occupancy, start at $147/night at the Great Northern Hotel and $135/night at The Carolina Bed and Breakfast, two upper-end establishments.
GETTING THERE: Helena Regional Airport is served by United Express, Delta Connection and Horizon/Alaska, offering connections in Denver, Salt Lake City and Seattle. Major car rental companies operate at the airport.