Arts & Entertainment

A Painter’s Perspective on History

Crystal Oftedahl Johnson’s art exhibit explores life in Glacier Park in the early 1900s as Going-to-the-Sun Road was built

Time changes our perspectives on life, even if we’re looking at the same land on which we’ve always stood.

History offers this same outlook, a reminder that our journey comes after others who felt the same magnetic draw to this place. This is the underlying theme of Kalispell artist Crystal Oftedahl Johnson’s exhibit at the Museum at Central School, “Glacier Going Back: A Retrospective of People in the Park,” which runs until the end of May.

The exhibit features 10 painted recreations of old black-and-white photos of people in Glacier in the early 1900s Johnson found while rummaging around in the museum’s basement. She was looking for photos to use as inspiration for her painting, and history was always something she found interesting.

“I thought, if it were me, I’d just hang these photos in the museum,” Johnson, 33, said. “People need to see these.”

Instead of blowing them up and putting them on the walls, Johnson decided to follow her original plan and paint the photos in color. Depicted on the canvas are tourists from the early 1900s enjoying the scenery of the park from the lakeshore, as we do today, and the efforts that went into building Going-to-the-Sun Road.

“What drew me in was that huge project,” she said. “That road unified a lot of people across the valley. There’s a human element. They were real people and they had real struggles like we do.”

Crystal Johnson’s artwork at the Museum at Central School on March 22, 2019. Greg Lindstrom | Flathead Beacon

The paintings, which come in all sizes, have the same wooden frames, which Johnson and her husband, James Johnson, built. (Johnson said with a laugh that the frames probably took longer to make than the paintings.)

“I really wanted a cohesive look,” she said.

Painting was an activity Johnson liked as a kid, but it wasn’t anything she sought out. Growing up in the Flathead Valley, hobbies like painting were for after chores or for the downtime when you weren’t outside playing.
She knew she loved history, and the love for art would come later.

“Growing up, if you’re going to draw, you better have fed the horses and stacked the hay,” Johnson said.

Art didn’t make an impression in her life until she was attending college at Brigham-Young University in Rexburg, Idaho. She took an art class “on a whim” with a professor who loved to paint wildlife.

She discovered that she liked creating art pieces, and when she realized her professor’s paintings had buyers, and there was a market for what she would want to paint, Johnson knew she had to follow through.
“I had no skill, so I worked my butt off,” Johnson said. “My professor said talent isn’t something you’re born with, talent is the ability to persist until I get it right.”

So she persisted and practiced, and is now represented at the Dick Idol Signature Gallery in Whitefish. Her husband James is a landscape artist while she prefers to paint people, and both of them had a show at the Firebrand Hotel in Whitefish last year. She also paints commission projects, which are her favorite, because she gets to know the subjects and the people who loved them.

The couple has three kids who seem to be taking to art as well, and the family lives on the same property where Johnson grew up.

It’s the same land, but she’s different, and now she watches her children play and grow there just as she did. However, there is one big difference from then to now, Johnson said with a chuckle.

“Somebody is always painting in our house,” Johnson said.

For more information on Crystal Johnson, visit her website at

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