Tara Reistad Bowman
Tara Reistad Bowman

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One year after an explosion ripped a hole in the heart of downtown Bozeman, workers have started to reconstruct missing buildings.

But the hole left in the hearts of people who loved Tara Reistad Bowman, the young woman killed in the explosion, may never completely heal.

One year later, it's still too hard for many friends and family members to talk publicly about her tragic death and their grief, hard to accept that Tara is really gone, hard to acknowledge that no one can stop time and erase March 5.

Those who knew her, including the artists who worked with her in her capacity as gallery director at Montana Trails Gallery, remember Tara as a beautiful, graceful 36-year-old woman. She had great integrity, worked hard, cared deeply about people and had a smile that could light up a room. She loved the mountains, wildflowers, animals and her family.

She was beautiful, inside and out.

"It's been hard. It is hard," said Larry Bowman, owner of Owenhouse Ace Hardware, whose son, Christopher Bowman, was married to Tara for nearly four years.

The March 5 anniversary of the explosion, Larry Bowman said, "brings it all back into sharp focus again."

"It's hard to believe it has been a year," he said. "It seems like it was yesterday. You live with it every single day. I don't think there's a day that goes by that I don't think of her in some context.

"She was so young, such a special person," he said. "She was such a giving person, always upbeat, always interested in everybody else. A very caring person."

Christmas was hard, he said. Tara loved Christmas.

"This Friday's going to be hard," he said. Tara and his son had no children, and so, "They were very, very close. It is really, really hard for him.

"He has made the comment that he tries to keep busy to make the time go by. It doesn't get any better, but it makes the time go by."

Having lost a parent, Larry Bowman said he knows what it's like to suffer a loss.

"It's the passage of time that eventually heals," he said. But it's quite different when someone has lived a long, full life. This is much harder.

Only people who have lost a loved one suddenly and unexpectedly, he said, can truly understand.

Amazing smile

Tara Reistad Bowman was born in Bozeman to Chet and Skip Reistad, who raised her and her four older brothers -- Chett, Will, Garth and Cory -- on a small farm east of Bozeman.

Tara grew up with dogs, cats, pigs, chickens, cattle and horses, her family wrote in her obituary, published in the Chronicle last year. Among her favorites were Ears the pet cow, Fester the bull, Mama Kitty and Mudwell, her pig.

After graduating from Bozeman High School in 1990, Tara studied dance and psychology at Montana State University and the University of Montana. She traveled as far as Africa, and lived for a time in Hawaii, San Francisco and New York City.

In 1997 she met Chris Bowman, "the love of her life," her family wrote. They were married in 2005.

"She will forever be remembered," her family wrote, "for her brave capacity to love, her willingness to be accountable for her actions, her true inner and outer beauty, her laugh and her amazing smile."

Shattered

Tara was at work in the Montana Trails Gallery at 8:12 a.m. on March 5, 2009. She was talking on the phone with her best friend, Erika Hoggatt-Brunner, laughing and discussing an upcoming trip to Hawaii for Tara's birthday, just a few days away. The phone went dead, Hoggatt-Brunner told reporters at the time, and when she tried to call back, there was no answer.

A natural gas leak had exploded, destroying the art gallery and neighboring buildings in the 200 block of East Main Street, sending bricks, broken glass and shattered wood flying, and setting off a fire that raged for hours and sent smoke billowing over Bozeman.

It was days before officials recovered her body and identified the person who died in the explosion as Tara Reistad Bowman.

Friends placed flowers and lit candles at the scene in her honor.

"There are no words," one painter wrote in her online journal, "to describe the loss and sadness so many of us feel."

A heart for artists

"We loved her so much," said Susan Blackwood, a longtime Bozeman artist.

Blackwood and her husband, painter Howard Friedland, had known Tara first personally, when they were included in family holiday gatherings at Christmas and Easter. Later they worked with her professionally, placing their paintings in the gallery.

Blackwood said artists bring in their art works, "our blood, sweat and tears," and place their trust in a gallery.

"She had such a heart for the artists and would always take care of us," Friedland said. "We knew our work was in good hands when Tara was taking care of it. She was such a good person, so ethical, such a giving person, very dedicated to her artists. We could trust her 100 percent."

Blackwood said if she brought in a new painting and Tara liked it, she'd say "Nice!" and her smile would light up the room.

"You knew it was a killer painting," Blackwood said. "If she saw something she loved, she was so excited.

"I would call her an old soul," Blackwood said. "We met her in her 20s. She already had wisdom about her, and grace. And then we started working with her. She had wisdom beyond her years."

They remembered her as tall, stately, graceful and gorgeous. Her summer wedding was beautiful, Blackwood said. Tara, who loved horses, came riding in on a horse. It was so lovely, Blackwood remembered she cried.

Blackwood said she lost nine paintings in the explosion. Friedland lost 22, more than half a year's work.

"We were wounded," Blackwood said, "in a lot of ways."

Blessing

Aaron Schuerr, a Livingston artist, said Montana Trails Gallery started carrying his oil and pastel landscape paintings about two years before the explosion.

His career was in a crisis the day he walked in to see Tara. He was too broke to even take photos of his works and had just lost two galleries.

"She just smiled and said, ‘Aaron, I've always wanted to show your works,'" he recalled.

Tara went to work, getting his paintings photographed and sold to clients she knew would appreciate his style.

"She literally saved my career," Schuerr said.

He asked her if the gallery sold mainly to customers who walked in off the streets, and she replied if that was how things worked, they would have closed long ago.

"Most of the work I sold was because of Tara -- sending e-mails, making phone calls, taking work out to (clients') homes.

"A good gallery director is a rare and wonderful thing," he said. "She was amazing.

"She was the best person I've ever worked with in the art world, and I've been at it since 1995."

He lost 28 works in the explosion, about six months effort. Losing both his works and Tara at the same time made him realize that what matters "are the relationships, and not the stuff we put on canvas."

"I wish this wasn't the way I had to learn this," Schuerr said. Today when he sets up in his studio or goes outdoors to paint, "I'm much more thankful.

"Tara left her mark," he said. "That's part of the blessing she did leave us."

Memorial

After the explosion, her family established a Tara Reistad Bowman Memorial Fund at First Security Bank.

Her husband, Chris, wrote Tuesday that they were "humbled" by the generosity of the community, which has donated more than $12,000.

That will go toward their goal of raising $25,000 for a permanent endowment, which will provide an annual grant of $1,000 for the Bozeman Help Center, medical research for a cure for multiple sclerosis and other nonprofits that reflect Tara's values.

"The family would like to thank all of their friends in the community," Chris Bowman wrote, "for the outpouring of emotional and spiritual support received over the past year."

Gail Schontzler can be reached at gails@dailychronicle.com or 582-2633.

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EDITOR'S NOTE

This story is part of a series of stories leading up to Friday's one-year anniversary of the March 5, 2009, natural gas explosion in downtown Bozeman.

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