GREAT FALLS — Former Great Falls CMR and Montana wide receiver Ryan Bagley was a quiet, productive and workmanlike figure on the Grizzly football team.
In three full seasons with Montana from 2005-07, Bagley caught 153 passes, which ranks 14th all time at UM, and accounted for 1,940 yards, which is 21st on the career list.
While Bagley was in the program when UM went to the title game in 2004 in Chattanooga, Tenn., he never got the chance to play for a championship. Still, the Griz won a conference title in each season he spent in Missoula. He’s been keenly watching the 2023 Montana team march to the FCS title game and even felt confident enough to buy tickets to Frisco, Texas, before the team's semifinal win over North Dakota State.
“I remember the losses more than the wins,” Bagley said. “But it’s so good to see the Griz win and get back to where they belong this year."
The work ethic Bagley displayed in his football career isn’t a surprise. Bagley grew up a farm kid in Dutton, and was all-state everything at CMR High School.
But what might surprise you is the career path he took after his time at Montana. Bagley is a professional artist, specializing in western style oil paintings.
His website, ryanbagleyart.com, included the following quote in the ‘about me’ section.
“I used to do art because I loved it and that’s all I knew. Then I started doing it because it was the easiest way to get a degree,” it reads. “Then I started doing it because I was hungry. Then I continued to doing art because I wanted to make money. No I do art because it’s all I know."
These days Bagley spends the majority of his time in his home and studio on the banks of the Missouri River just outside of Great Falls, painting and making works of art alongside his french bulldog puppy, Lilo.
“Every painting I do, I try to make it the best painting I’ve ever done,” Bagley tells MTN Sports.
His interest in art started at a young age, learning from his mother on the family farm in Dutton. For most of his life, drawing was just a hobby.
“The kids used to stand around my desk and watch me draw,” Bagley said. “You kind of realize you have something. But for me it was always football or sports. I never thought my career would include art, you know?"
Following his time at Montana, Bagley moved to Seattle where he continued to draw as a hobby while working for Nike designing shoes.
On a whim he started creating paintings and when a bank teller saw offered him $300 for an original portait of Muhammed Ali, Bagley realized he could make some money on the side.
He started with mainly sports pieces, featuring popular athletes. He even created a painting he titled “Griz Greats” featuring members of the 1995 FCS National Championship team.
Bagley decided about five years ago to pursue art full time, and he approaches his career the same way he approached preparation for a big game at Washington-Grizzly stadium.
"I think I compare painting a picture to playing a game. Like there's all this preparation that goes into the game, but all the fans see the touchdowns on Saturday or Sunday, they don't see the practice, what goes on behind it,” Bagley said. “I think I spend a fraction of the time actually painting as I do prepping to paint. But the hardest part is figuring out where you're going to paint.”
Growing up around Western Art Week and going to CMR — named for renowned Montana artist Charles M. Russell — had a profound influence on Bagley and eventually his art shifted from sports to wildlife to Native American and western-themed art.
“The way you try to define yourself as an artist changes, but I feel like I've created this style that this is who I am,” Bagley said. "When you think of Ryan Bagley, I want you to think of Native American and western art.”
Pursuing a career in art has it’s challenges. Breaking into the western art scene can be an uphill battle and Bagley is still refining his process. But he is motivated by the work, and the response from his friends and supporters.
“The thing that keeps me going is when I walk into my friend’s house and I see a piece that I did and think that’s with you forever,” Bagley said. “I’ll finish a painting and will likely never see it again. But whoever buys the painting will have it for life. My friends tell me don’t stop. And I know I’ll be painting the rest of my life.”
Bagley is 38 years old and his art career is just getting started. There’s lot of work ahead, but he hopes to leave a legacy to where he will be remembered more for his art than his football career.
“I’m not there yet, but these are the steps to get there,” Bagley said. "The hardest part is learning the playbook, now I just have to execute.”
And if Montana wins a national championship on Jan. 7, you bet you’ll see a Ryan Bagley original sometime in the aftermath.
“A lot of people have asked me,” he said. "So I’ve had some ideas of what I’m going to do.”