It began with a bison.
Sure, Rilie Tane Zumbrennen considered herself an artist beforehand. She’d sold plenty of work and even revolutionized the art department at Elysian Elementary. But the bison mural marked the opening chapter of her life as a local celebrity. You’ve probably seen the painting—it’s become a downtown icon: a stunning 40-by-30-foot bison head on the side of the Grand Building, the home of Jake’s Bar and Grill.
Rilie first caught wind of the opportunity in the fall of 2021. A contest, organized by the Downtown Billings Association, called for volunteers to pitch their own unique mural design for the building, along with an artist’s statement. Rilie’s sketch, depicting a mighty bison head “burned” into the side of the building, stood out from the crowd, and what started as a dream became a test of all her talent. After months of planning, armed with a paintbrush and perched on a boom lift, Rilie introduced her vision to the public in the summer of 2022.
“The bison took eight days,” she recalls. “The Jake’s logo took another two and a half.” Her work speed is especially impressive considering that—apart from the power-washing and wall-prep—all the work landed with the July sun on her shoulders. Sunrise to sundown, operating the boom lift by herself, Rilie zigged and zagged methodically along the bricks, splashing color from ground to gutters.
“That pretty much started my career,” Rilie says. Before the mural, her main practice had been pyrography. A pyrographer burns designs onto wooden objects using a heated pen known as a poker. Depending on the temperature of the poker and the length of exposure, a spectrum of black to brown shades will decorate the wood and lend extra depth to any design. Rilie still sells a variety of works created through this process, from decorative oars to plaques that are custom framed by her husband, a carpenter. She’ll occasionally add extra accents to the wood with acrylic paints, and she taught a class on combining the techniques in Big Sky last summer.
Since that same summer, when Rilie introduced the world to her style on a massive canvas the requests haven’t stopped—not only from Billings, where Rilie is currently at work on ten indoor murals for Wilson’s Cabinetry and planning to paint a mural on the Clocktower Inn, but from all across Montana. Recently, Rilie has earned a gig at a new concert hall in Missoula, where she’ll paint a mother bear and her cubs next summer. She’ll also show off her gallery at the Legends West Art Show, from March 16 to 19 in Great Falls.
The Great Falls audience will have the treat of viewing her newest creative endeavor: burnt hats. Inspired by a Montanan artist, Rilie has lately translated her pyrography skills to cowboy hats, on which she burns mountain ranges and landscapes based on her customers’ preferences, from the cactus-littered hills of Arizona to the snowy crags of the Beartooths.
“The response has been overwhelming,” Rilie admits, but she thrives on the pressure. “You have to know that it’s going to be busy and it’s going to be messy, and you can’t get stressed out.” This is her main advice for her kindergarten through eighth-grade students, with whom she’s collaborated to paint an eagle mascot on the Elysian cafeteria wall and decorate various windows each year.
“It’s interesting that most of my students are willing to do art,” she says. “I don’t have to force them to stay engaged like some other teachers might. The only problem is they won’t necessarily want to do my assigned project. In that case, I make sure they meet my requirements, and then I let them do free art, whatever type they want. There are so many things to create.”
For Rilie, the work isn’t over when the bell rings at 3:00. Reflecting on her insane schedule, she says, “You know, when you’re going to college, you’re up ‘til one in the morning a lot of the time doing your homework. So I went from doing schoolwork to doing my artwork in the evenings, and my weekends are filled with art. It doesn’t feel like work. It’s fun.”
Rilie is most comfortable working at home, and she doesn’t have plans to set up a studio anytime soon. “I sit at a foldout table in my living room and watch TV and paint and wood burn right there on the couch,” she says. While she’s working, she likes to watch true crime documentaries and hang out with her family.
Unlike the content in her favorite shows, Rilie’s art subjects have always been humble and wholesome: bear cubs and buffalo, rivers and mountain ranges—and she doesn’t see her inspiration changing, even as her career goes stratospheric. “I’d describe my style as modern western,” she explains. “It’s really just tailored to the Montana scene.