Artist captures 'untamed spirits'

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— Susann Saarel mimicked her father's hobby of photography by surrounding herself with cameras and lenses at a young age. She began looking at the world through a Kodak Instamatic at the age of 7.

But this city girl from southern California recently has found Montana's countryside to be the most inspiring place for photography.

And her photos are proof of a newfound homeland.

Saarel's fine art photography will be exhibited and for sale at the Small Works Gallery in the Depot Art Center beginning today through April 8. Saarel will visit for an opening reception to her first one-woman Colorado show from 5 to 7 p.m. today at the Depot.

Saarel said her first one-woman show was in her hometown of Livingston, Mont. a town less populated than Steamboat Springs with 15 art galleries.

"Actually, it was a real success. I took sepiatoned portraits of local people," Saarel said.

Instead of displaying Livingston locals to the people of Steamboat Springs, Saarel will bring this community a series of photographs featuring rodeo men and women titled "Untamed Spirits."

Of the 24 pieces Saarel will bring to the exhibit, she said about half are of men and half of women (who actually intrigue her the most). Prices range from $495 to $795.

Saarel's husband and twin toddlers headed out to Steamboat Springs Tuesday with a car full of photographs hoping to be more successful than she was the first time she appeared in the Small Works Gallery.

Susan Schiesser, Small Works Gallery director, approached Saarel a year ago about doing a one-woman show because of her success in selling a couple of pieces.

"It seemed like forever away but suddenly it's right here," Saarel said of the date.

More than three years ago, Saarel didn't picture herself moving out of Los Angeles to Livingston, Mont., but a newlywed husband with a dream created a new life that she now deeply respects.

"I was looking for an escape. This was the perfect opportunity to go with a lifelong dream," Saarel said. "Montana is just beautiful. There's such good subject matter here."

"Untamed Spirits" originated from her first Livingston Roundup rodeo in Montana where she was left awe-stricken.

She's learned a little history about rodeo and women in the rodeo since her professional career began three years ago. While city folk may seem fearless to many outsiders, Saarel said she looks at cowgirls with the deepest sense of respect.

"It's completely amazing to me that here in this small town is where all the action is," Saarel said. "I can't help be totally enthralled."

Equine and rodeo images caught with a camera using a panning technique keeping the subject in the viewfinder to create a blurred photograph to show quickness and speed have led Saarel to impressionistic photography.

Saarel said a little girl looked at one of her photographs in the Pro Rodeo Hall of Fame and said, "Mommy, that's exactly what I feel like when I'm on my horse."

"A lot of photos freeze the action but don't capture the feeling," Saarel said.

The most effective photography occurs for Saarel when the background has bold tonal contrast and floodlights create white streaks of light throughout the reproduction.

Although a career in tourism kept her busy in southern California, Saarel said photography has and will remain a love.

"The Livingston Roundup in great for that," Saarel said, adding a slow shutter speed also is key.

Saarel has won several awards: "Blackjack" took first place at the Quicksilver Photography Show and Sale Western Images; "Imagine Bucephalus" took first place at the eighth annual Fall American Photography Competition and Exhibition; "The One Arm Bandit" took first place in two-dimensional work overall at Idaho's Dogwood Festival Invitational.

Her photographs appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Western Horseman, Montana Magazine and Southwest Art.

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