CULTURE: ART Melissa DiNino checks in on her sidekick, June, after a long day
of range riding in Centennial Valley, Montana, to prevent
livestock losses from grizzlies and wolves. Photo by Louise Johns

A range rider and watercolorist paints in experience, intuition.

BY BRIAN D’AMBROSIO

IIn any creative life there are dull turns and droughts. Our work feels dehydrated, blank, strained. We have little to express and are tempted to express little. These are the times that artist Melissa DiNino finds most difficult—and most valuable.

“My art is ever evolving and hard trial and error and learning,” says DiNino, an instinctive and dramatic watercolorist who also works as a range rider and ranch caretaker throughout Montana. “Art is something that is at its truest to me when I’m struggling with something emotionally or sitting with certain thoughts for a while, clearing out thoughts, or trying to understand something that seems like emptiness.”

Indeed, DiNino has spent ample time mulling over the juxtaposition of the keen pursuit of fulfillment with the slow creep of meaninglessness. Born near the Naugatuck River in the suburbs of Connecticut, on the semi-rural edge of the city of Waterbury, she was nurtured in a tight- knit, gregarious Italian enclave that contrasted its outsized, aloof urban sensibilities.

DiNino moved to Montana several years ago after studying biology and conflict resolution in college. She soon found a job in the Centennial Valley as a range rider. The work is tough and entails, she says, “monitoring livestock on horseback to encourage successful coexistence of livestock and predators like wolves and grizzlies in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.” After a few days of “weeping from loneliness,” she fell in love with the job, and with Montana to boot.

“Jamie” | 9 x 12 inches | watercolor on paper
“Leave no trace” | 30 x 22 inches | watercolor on paper

“Like my art and through it, my understanding of horses has grown deeper in the past few years.”

“There was a part of me that struggled with the idea of leaving my familiar community, yet I was very excited about wild, open spaces … I’d never seen such an open, jarring landscape before.”

This new venture unlocked DiNino’s inner creativity and triggered a reaction that she began studying carefully. She drew some as a child, and when her winter job as a dogsledding guide was cut short in 2017, she revisited art, this time in the form of the watercolor painting her mother had practiced for years.

“I found out that I really liked it,” she says. “From the first painting onward, I had no idea what I was doing. Soon, watercolors became a way to challenge myself and to grow, and I wanted to see where I could take it. [They] taught me more about myself: art as a way to deal with things that I’m struggling with around me, art as the mental space to release it all.”

Since first picking up the paintbrush, DiNino has been consumed by the need to acquire knowledge, expand her mind and better conceive of truthful possibilities. Horses are one of the subjects that she frequently channels into the narrative and figurative perspective of her painting.

When she’s not range riding, DiNino spends time in the corrals connecting with horses. Moments like this have shaped and informed the artwork she creates today. Photo by Andrea DiNino

“Like my art and through it, my understanding of horses has grown deeper in the past few years,” says DiNino, referencing her horse, Willa, which she saved from slaughter in 2019. “It’s interesting working with a slaughter-bound rescue horse and giving the relationship between the two of us the space and time to trust each other without expectations. If you’re experiencing some type of emotional incongruence, a horse can see right through that. When I have anxiety built up and if I try to hang out with Willa, she will start snorting at me, not letting me near her. She demands that I be honest with my emotions first and she makes me work through them before she is ready to work together.”

Realistic. Naturalistic. While DiNino struggles with labels, she concedes that her work probably falls somewhere between the two designations.

“Sometimes I get really nervous about exhibiting all of the emotions in my art that are tied to vulnerability,” she says. “Light and happy or something that is dark or feels uncomfortable, I’m hoping to convey all of that through my art and not think too much. Whether I’m nervous about exhibiting those emotions or not, I ask myself, is it authentic?”

“Katie” | 24 x 18 inches | watercolor on paper
“Esme” | 22 x 30 inches | watercolor on paper

Notwithstanding her panic about being able to stay in sync with her true self, DiNino has clearly been pensive about her art, deciding calmly and quietly to paint the flowing, muted boundaries of the West. In the future, she plans to be living and riding and creating in the McLeod area near the West Boulder River. Her most explicit goal as an artist is to obtain a studio space of her own. Currently, she lives and works out of a 300-square-foot cabin in Potomac with her partner and two dogs, and her workspace is a small desk. Such compactness limits, she says, the size of what she can achieve.

“I appreciate a lot of physical and emotional space in my life,” DiNino says. “Emotional space helps me focus on getting to that state to create art. When my emotional space is blocked, I’ll go outside and hang out with my horse for a while. Personality-wise, I thrive off of space and silence.”

DiNino also aims to continue to self-excavate, to plow through the superficial layers in order to reach the core, allowing for more of that expressive freedom that she elegantly executes with her watercolors.

“For me, art is the process of regulating emotions,” she says. “[It] gives me so much time to reflect and dive deeper into different things that are in my mind that I don’t know how to work with or understand. Art is trying to understand, or at least beginning to try.”

Brian D’Ambrosio is a writer and media consultant based in Helena, Montana, and Santa Fe, New Mexico. A licensed private investigator, D’Ambrosio is at work on a second volume of stories about notorious and unsolved crimes in the state. His most recent book, Montana Murders: Notorious and Unsolved, was released in December 2020.