To visit Melissa DiNino one would most often drive down a windy dirt road in Montana’s most remote and breathtaking corners, through the habitat of some of America’s most precious wildlife.
I first met Melissa while she was working as a range rider in the Centennial Valley of southwest Montana. Reverberating out from Yellowstone National Park, this vast, undeveloped landscape is complete with grizzly bears, wolves, elk, moose, pronghorn, and golden eagles, to name a few. Her job as a range rider was to help ranchers mitigate conflicts between carnivores and their cattle that graze in the 385,000-acre valley. To do this job, she was up at first light and in after dusk, witness to the most spectacular hours that landscape had to offer, and privy to the inside lives of many wild animals.
In the offseason of range riding she worked for the Yellowstone Wolf Project tracking wolves in the winter. This helped her tracking ability as a range rider, looking for signs of wildlife and where they had been traveling to help inform ranchers decide where to put their cattle.
As a range rider, Melissa also became a cowgirl and learned the modern-day herding techniques that help teach cattle to bunch together to protect their young from predators that might disrupt the herd. It was the scenes and people Melissa met as a range rider that would later become the subject of Melissa’s incredible watercolor paintings.
“I had never been so intimately tied to the rhythms of the landscape,” said Melissa of her time in Centennial Valley. “And while the work was challenging, I was rewarded every day by the relationships I formed - with people, place, and animals.”
Melissa didn’t grow up in agriculture, or close to the wilderness. But she did grow up escaping her city to the mountains throughout New England. As a child, she always promised herself she would live somewhere surrounded by mountains. Melissa and her sister were the first in their family to go to college. When she finished her studies in ecology and conflict resolution at Western Connecticut University, she followed her sister out west.
From Centennial Valley, Melissa has lived in Montana’s wildest corners: the Seeley-Swan Valley, the Ruby Valley, the Tom Miner Basin, where she worked another season as a range rider, and now, the Blackfoot Valley.
One thing that all these places Melissa has lived out west have in common is the harsh, snowy winters. There’s a reason why all the cattle leave the Tom Miner Basin for the winter. It’s hard for them to survive. Things got particularly tough for Melissa during the winter of 2018. She had to quit a job with a poorly managed dogsledding company. She was missing her work outdoors and her relationships with the animals and people in the community.
“Hard times tend to bring out the creativity,” said Melissa. So she began painting the scenes she was longing for and dreaming of -- the wonderful, hardy, western women she met, and their most beloved companions, horses. Throughout her childhood, she watched her mother paint with watercolors, but it wasn’t until that winter, at age 25, when she picked up a paintbrush of her own.
“When things get tough, art is the one thing no one can take from you,” said Melissa. As one of the few people living in Tom Miner during the dead of winter, painting gave her the opportunity to keep the community, the work and the energy of the place alive. “The quiet of winter allowed me to reflect, and hold onto the softer moments of those days that we often overlook. Our memories take hold of the dramatic moments in our lives, but not always the quiet ones,” she said.
The subjects of Melissa’s striking and intricately detailed watercolor paintings of women and their horses almost all have something in common: you never see a face. She wants to offer something more to her viewers, which explains why her women are gestured in such a way. “I want the viewers to create their own connections, finding someone they know, or maybe even themselves, in the painting.”
To find Melissa now, I drive down a road that twists and turns along the Blackfoot River until I turn off on another dirt road, lined with pine trees, passing a sign with a mountain lion on it, ‘Chasing Tail.’ Then I drive over a cattle guard and a beautiful meadow reveals itself out of the pine trees. Just around the hill stands Melissa’s one room, off-the-grid cabin. I am greeted by her spunky Australian shepherd, June, and Melissa’s warm and gentle spirit embraces me. She and her partner, Anthony, live and work as caretakers of this ranchette in the Blackfoot Valley. As the night closes in on us, we stand on the porch of her cabin while the sky lights up a vibrant pink color.
“These are the places that make me feel grounded in my sense of self,” said Melissa. “It is where I have found my hearth.”
Story and photography by Louise Johns.
Presented by Buffalo Jackson.