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Effects of meth seen roadside

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Briar Ahlborn, 19, stands next to a billboard near the highway at the north edge of town dipping a paintbrush into a bucket of black paint on a warm Saturday afternoon. Many people wonder what she is doing — including the town’s new police chief.

“He stopped by and asked what I was painting,” she said.

Briar has six weeks to finish the painting she started as part of the Paint the State contest created by the Montana Meth Project. Participants create pieces of art across the state with an anti-methamphetamine message. It’s been called the largest public art contest in history, with a $10,000 prize.

As she paints, Briar keeps the theme she created for her painting in her mind. She wants to put a “reservation twist” on her project.

“Pass the peace pipe, not the meth pipe,” she said is her message. 

She painted the billboard white a few days earlier to cover what she says was an awful painting she did for the Paint the State project five years ago, but to her credit, she was 14 when she painted it. 

“I’ve evolved quite a bit in my art,” she said. “If there wasn’t a contest, I’d do this anyway. I’m tired of looking at the old one.”

Her father set the posts for the plywood canvas in a field surrounded by tall grass for the original painting. This time, she is painting without his help. He passed away a few years ago. Briar says she inherited her talent for art from him.

“I was six or seven and he told me to sit down at the table and he drew me,” she said. “Ever since, I wanted to be like him.”

Briar usually draws with pencil.

“Unfortunately, that won’t show up on a billboard,” she said. 

She puts down the bucket of black paint and picks up a paint tray from the supplies she brought to the site in her red car. She starts mixing the skin color to add to the painting of a Native American woman soon to have long flowing hair with feather accents, although half of her face is that of a skull. 

“Meth isn’t pretty,” she said. 

The skull represents the decay and eventual death caused by meth use.

“I don’t often see it ending in a lot of other ways,” she said. “Meth is a waste of life and money. People on it lose everyone around them.”

Briar grew up in Ravalli and graduated from Mission in 2014. She is currently enrolled at the University of Montana. She isn’t sure what she wants to major in at this time. If she wins the contest, she wants to use the money to help pay for college expenses and maybe get a better car.

“Books are expensive,” she said.

She works at a cleaning service in Missoula to pay for the cost of living while attending college. She found her first job when she was 12 at a melon farm. Her second job was at Rod’s Harvest Foods, and she worked there for four years while attending high school.

“I rode the bus to school, and then after school, I walked to work,” she said. She found rides home with friends or family before she bought a car.

After mixing the paint, she sets a metal ladder against the billboard and goes up. She balances herself and leans towards the billboard with a paintbrush in her hand. As she paints, she can hear traffic going by.

“I know they are looking at what I’m doing,” she said. “I feel like I’m giving a speech with a paintbrush.”

She says it’s difficult to leave her work unfinished each day, but she sees no other way to get the project done.

“It’s not like a sketchbook that you can put away when you are finished,” she said. “People can see everything I’m doing, but I think it will turn out well.”

She plans to be finished by August, which is the contest deadline. 


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