Editor's Note: This story was changed on July 23, 2010, to note that Hunter Wesen and Mariquita Harris are soon-to-be-eighth-grade students at Chief Joseph Middle School.

Patrons and passersby may have noticed a slightly incongruous addition to the Scoop Bar's façade this week: a 4-by-8 painting of a woman who appears to be suspended peacefully in a pale blue sky.

A closer look at the painting, however, reveals a less settling image. A sense of purpose is evident in the enchanting redhead's pose, as if she is trying to escape the black chains and tree roots trying to tether her to the earth.

"She's reaching for life," said the artist, 15-year-old Bozeman High School student Brianna Moylan, referring to the painted flowers and insects hovering in the top right corner of the canvas. "It shows also there still could be hope if she stopped" using meth.

Brianna's painting is one of a dozen entries by Gallatin County teens in the Montana Meth Project's second Paint the State contest, which began Sunday.

The artists were required to create a visual piece in any medium that could be displayed and that conveyed the Meth Project's anti-meth message.

Brianna's painting, just below the watering hole's signature yellow sign at Seventh Avenue and West Main Street, also bears this inscription:

"Meth: Not even once. It steals dreams, it steals relationships, it steals life.

"There is nothing pretty about it."

Bill Slaughter, the Montana Meth Project's executive director, said the group's research indicates that the way to successfully reach kids about the dangers of methamphetamine, the highly addictive narcotic, is to get them directly involved in the process.

According to Montana Meth Project figures, Montana ranked fifth in the nation for meth use per capita in 2005, the year the group formed.

By 2009, the state had dropped to 39th.

"When kids go out and paint their artwork, they need to think, ‘What is it about this drug that is so horrible?'" Slaughter said. "They own the message. This message is so uniquely theirs because they're actually going out and thinking it out and painting it."

The first Paint the State contest in 2006 drew more than 600 works of art from teens in all 56 Montana counties. This year, about 400 individuals or groups have submitted artwork, which is being judged this week by officials in each county, Slaughter said.

The finalists will then go on to the state competition. The winner will be decided in Helena on Aug. 20.

Hunter Wesen, 13, said she and friend Mariquita Harris spent quite a while brainstorming for the most appropriate and effective way to demonstrate the costs of using meth.

The soon-to-be Chief Joseph Middle School eighth-grade students settled on a photograph of Hunter's legs, heavily made up to look "battered and beaten," "as if I had sold my body for meth," she said.

The photograph also shows a pair of tattered Converse sneakers.

"The shoes represent youth and connect youth to the artwork," Hunter said.

As a student of art, Hunter said she embraced the challenge of the project and a chance to do something productive in her summer spare time.

"I'm really into art at school, and I talked to my art teacher at school about it and thought it would be a good thing to do as an exercise," she said. "It's a really good message we're trying to get out."

The 12 local pieces are on display at public locations throughout the county and can also be viewed online www.paintthestatemontana.org.

All the teens participating across the state compete for first, second and third-place cash awards within their respective counties, as well as the $5,000 award for first place statewide.

The grand prize will be decided by a panel of three judges: Pearl Jam bass player and Havre native Jeff Ament, artist Monte Dolack and Darrell G. Beauchamp, director of the C.M. Russell Museum.

Lauren Russell can be reached at lrussell@dailychronicle.com or 582-2635.

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