business feature


Accessible art for all – young and old.


 Katie Cantrell


he studio is quiet on this rainy morning. It’s a Wednesday, kids are in school, the tourists have gone home from their summer vacations or haven’t yet arrived to ski. Shelves of paintable pottery sit quietly beige. Strips of colored glass twinkle in their trays in the glass fusing station, anticipating their transformation. Stumptown Art Studio looks empty and still.

Until I make my way downstairs to the classroom, where the STEAM preschool (science, technology, engineering, art, and math) is in session. I ask the table of bright-eyed wigglers what they’ve been up to.

“We’re learning squishy human body parts!” one little girl exclaims, and indeed they are. They’ve affixed heart jewels and “squishy” clay organs—blue lungs, a green stomach and a red brain—to construction paper outlines of the human body. Art and anatomy are working together, and the kids are having a fabulous time.

Stumptown is never silent, even on those rare occasions when the main floor is unpopulated. Somewhere, somehow, the organization is always connecting people with art, whether it’s their silver Chevy “Van Gogh” taking their mobile outreach program to Kalispell’s Fourth Avenue Group Home, sculptors working on a potter’s wheel in the clay co-op room, or a busload of Smith Valley students streaming through the doors on a field trip. It’s also a great place to sit and decorate a mug, but that’s just the tip of Stumptown’s iceberg.

“A lot of people just know us as a paint-your-own pottery studio. But we’re so much more than that. So much more!” says Jessica Inez, the studio manager and event coordinator. Executive director Melanie Drowns chimes in, explaining that many people are surprised by the fact that the studio is actually a nonprofit. “You don’t walk in and think, ‘Wow, what a cool nonprofit organization.’ You think it’s a business.”

A business operates on its bottom line, but Stumptown exists to connect people to art. Though its influence now reaches from Browning to Olney, its beginnings were humble. In the early 1990s, a handful of local women felt the lack of art opportunities in Whitefish, especially for the young children they were raising. They incorporated the nonprofit in 1995 and began offering classes for kids and adults in a home on Obrien Avenue donated by founding board member Rosella Mosteller.

In 2002 Stumptown seized an opportunity to move downtown to their current location on Central Avenue. Their offerings increased with their square footage, allowing for more classes for all ages, an arts outreach program, and an ever-growing variety of community events.

Over the last few years, Stumptown has added a focus on public art. The most prominent installation is the touchable, frequently-photographed “Windows on Whitefish” mosaics on Second Street, which 600 community members helped create. A few blocks away, in the conference room of Whitefish High School, a huge metal tree spreads across an entire wall, its ceramic and glass leaves decorated and personalized by some of the 400 students that participated in its design and creation.

The tree turned out so well that Stumptown is working on a second initiative at the high school. Called the Gear Project, it’s another cross-disciplinary creation that will transform vintage farm gears into a turning, cranking work of art. The organization is also working with the city of Whitefish on an installation for the exterior of the new city hall, a 9-foot bronze sculpture of whitefish swimming upstream, created by local artist and Stumptown board member Charity Flowers.

Though they’re excited about these big projects, Stumptown values small, personal art just as much as large public pieces. Over the years, they’ve noticed that children will dive right into a project, but adults are often hesitant, unsure about even picking up a paintbrush. They’d like to change that.

“Just come in! Try it! Art isn’t scary,” Inez encourages. “You don’t have to have art experience. We have so many different ways [of creating art]; we’ll get you through it!”

My next trip to the studio is a celebration of all kinds of creative work and the polar opposite of that quiet Wednesday morning. It’s the opening night of the Día de los Muertos gallery exhibition, a month-long display of art inspired by the annual Mexican celebration of life and death. The studio pulses with energy—grade schoolers pull their parents to the rows of decorated miniature skeletons, pointing out their creations; toddlers bop in place to the live band; women in elaborate flower headdresses and full sugar skull makeup (think the Disney movie Coco come to life) twirl and mingle. Those who didn’t arrive in costume get into the spirit at the DIY sugar skull face painting table.

Art is on display everywhere I look, but it’s also alive, as people experience the theme with all of their senses: the taste of a tart margarita, the joyful noise of a live band, the smell of a nacho bar, the feel of a paint sponge on a cheek, and the saturation of color and movement from one corner of the studio to the other.

The evening is a perfect example of what keeps Stumptown going as it nears its silver anniversary. “We’re trying to provide something for everybody, whether they can come here or we can go to them,” Downs says. “It’s more than arts education; it’s bringing the community together, providing positive, creative, safe options for kids and a creative outlet for adults.”



Dive in with Stumptown Arts Studio at 145 Central Avenue in Whitefish. Open studio hours are Monday through Saturday from 10 AM to 6 PM, and Sundays from Noon to 5 PM. Visit to learn more about their art classes and events for all ages..



Photos: Mandy Mohler Field Guide Designs



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