AN ARTIST IN THREE ACTS
Marshall Noice’s career has transitioned from music to photography to painting, but his love of art and of Kalispell are unchanging.
ike a lot of kids my age, my world suddenly and instantly changed when I saw the Beatles on Ed Sullivan,” Marshall Noice says, recounting how his twelve-year-old self was transfixed, and then transformed, by that famous night in 1964.
After the Fab Four rocked his world, he never went to bed without a transistor radio stashed under his pillow. Noice put his rock n’ roll dreams into action a few years later, forming The New Purple Electric Circus as a high school sophomore in Morehead, Minnesota. The Circus never made it big, but played plenty of college parties, also memorably getting kicked offstage at the YMCA in Fargo for playing Steppenwolf’s “The Pusher.”
In 1968, the Noice family moved to Kalispell when Marshall’s father, Frank, joined the faculty of the newly-formed Flathead Valley Community College. Marshall enrolled at Flathead High School for his senior year and started drumming with a new band, Oaken Lyon.
“There was a ton of live music going on in downtown Kalispell,” Noice says. “Every weekend there would be one and usually two bands that were traveling through and playing in a local music venue.”
Small-time traveling bands were a part of the American cultural scene in the late ‘60s. A decent band could support themselves fairly easily on the road: gas was 33 cents per gallon and a Motel 6 room was literally that, six dollars a night. The drinking age was between 18 and 19 in most states, which greatly widened the potential audience for a show. When a band came through Kalispell, they might play at the Blue Hare, the Down Under, or the Old Grey John Deere Dance Hall, long-gone venues now occupied by Thai Palace, the Sassafras basement, and Pizza Hut.
Marion Gerrish, Marshall’s mother, opened a record and gift shop called Sound Etc. when the family moved to town. Its aisles were often full of students hanging out and listening to the latest releases on the store’s turntable.
“The college was downtown, and that was fun because the shop was always full of vital young people,” Gerrish, now 92, remembers.
It’s almost impossible today to imagine hundreds of college students roaming central Kalispell, but FVCC was downtown from 1967 until its move north in 1990. The college found a variety of odd but available spaces, including an old three-story brick Elks lodge across Main Street from Western Outdoor, the Central School building, and a former Chevrolet dealership on First Avenue East for its growing catalog of courses and extracurricular activities.
Noice was in and out of both FVCC and Kalispell’s music venues over the next few years. He followed up Oaken Lyon with a blues rock band, Applejack, playing gigs around the west and opening for big names like Cheap Trick and the Allman Brothers Band, before moving onto Collins, a Chicago-based band. After several years of touring, though, Noice started to tire of life on the road.
He came back to Kalispell, spending his free time poking through books in the Flathead County Library. The works of master black-and-white photographers caught his eye, filling him with the same inspiration and sense of artistic yearning as the Beatles a decade before. He’d played around with a camera while traveling between gigs, but now got serious about it, enrolling in photography classes first at FVCC and then the Banff School of Fine Arts. He honed his technique in black-and-white landscapes while supporting himself with construction work, two very different skills that came together for a serendipitous turn in his career. Through several layers of relationships, he landed a job building a darkroom for a photography school in Colorado that in turn led to a position as a workshop assistant for Ansel Adams.
“When he goes into something, he goes into it one thousand percent.”
“I still use stuff I learned from him every day,” Noice says. “I honestly think that my way of seeing the landscape was forever influenced by Ansel Adams.”
Despite the stellar apprenticeship, though, artistic photography wasn’t quite paying the bills. In 1976, Noice opened a commercial photography studio south of the Flathead County courthouse.
“I started doing pretty much any kind of photography that anyone wanted me to do if I felt like I could do it,” he explains, a list that included babies, high school seniors, weddings, commercial products, artists’ works, and buildings. He came to specialize in both architectural and sculpture photography, developing the highly technical skills needed to effectively shoot bronzes. As his reputation grew, sculptors from around the country shipped their work to Noice’s studio, or sent them directly from one of Kalispell’s two bronze foundries.
Through this commercial work, Noice developed a relationship with renowned Browning-born sculptor Bob Scriver, eventually photographing his work for a book. Noice then went on to photograph Scriver’s extensive collection of Blackfeet artifacts for another book, a project that would factor significantly into his future as an artist.
To recap, at this point in his life Noice was working as a commercial and artistic photographer, as well as painting regularly, mostly for personal satisfaction, and playing gigs in a variety of local bands. In his spare time, he joined the board of the Hockaday Center for the Arts.
“Well, I kind of owed them,” Noice says jokingly, explaining that he had talked his way into a key to the museum when he was first getting started in photography, spending dozens of hours a week in the museum’s basement. “I learned to be a photographer in their darkroom.”
Noice served the Hockaday in the ‘80s and ‘90s, working to introduce different types of art and performance to a valley which had focused almost exclusively on traditional western art.
“He was just great, a real leader on the board level,” says Magee Poler, formerly Magee Nelson, director of the Hockaday from 1982 to 1996. “He’s fun to work with, he’s bright, he’s action-oriented. He was great to work with, I think everybody would agree with that.”
She remembers one specific instance of his leadership, when the board was considering a west side expansion to comply with ADA accessibility and add needed square footage to the museum. “We were all sitting around hemming and hawing about how we were going to fundraise. He said, ‘Well, let’s start right here,’ and put a check down on the table.”
While his commercial work made philanthropy possible, his artistic photography was also receiving acclaim, earning awards and exhibitions. In 1996, a collection of his Glacier Park landscapes was on display at the National Museum of Wildlife Art in Jackson, Wyoming. While in town for the opening, he went to a gallery to see an exhibition of paintings by Theodore Waddell, a fellow Montana artist.
Noice stood in front of the Waddell paintings, taking in the bright colors and big strokes depicting an impressionistic version of the west, and saw his next creative evolution.
“I thought, ‘What if I painted some paintings of the Blackfeet artifacts with that approach to paint handling?’” Noice remembers. “And so I came back and I started to do that. Many of them were highly abstracted due to scale—I’d take a piece of a war shirt that was in fact just a couple inches across and make it several feet across. And I did a lot of them, maybe 100.”
After filling his studio to the tripping point, he stuffed the family minivan with canvases and headed to Santa Fe, where a gallery quickly offered to sell his work. A second trip to Jackson was similarly successful, and Noice quickly found his problem of having too many paintings transformed into a better one: galleries across the country were calling and asking for more art.
He began scaling back his photography business to give himself more time to paint. When he was down to one commercial job, he decided it was time to put the camera down for good and commit to the paintbrush.
As he worked, his paintings of abstract war shirts and bonnets evolved into bright, abstracted landscapes, circling back to the subject matter he loved to capture on film, although he says that often, “the landscape is just a mechanism to allow me to experiment with color. The beginning of a painting can be because I’m curious to see what dioxazine purple looks like next to quinacridone magenta. And I’ve got that color idea, and that becomes the horizon line.”
He and his wife Jackie bought 127 Main Street and opened Montana Modern Fine Art in 1997 to sell other artists’ work along with his own. Marshall is quick to point out that the business end is entirely Jackie; he paints five days a week in the backroom studio and helps out as needed, but Jackie runs the gallery.
The Kalispell of the late ‘90s was very different from the one that first greeted Marshall in 1968. The college had moved north of town, bowing both to pressure from Whitefish and Columbia Falls to make it more accessible to the northern end of the valley and to the practical concerns of occupying ancient buildings that needed expensive updates. Where a cherry packing shed had sat for decades alongside the downtown train tracks, the Kalispell Center Mall opened in 1986. It drew shoppers and businesses just a little bit north of historic downtown, a trend that would explode fifteen years later when Home Depot, followed by Target and Lowe’s, opened as anchors in the insatiable Hutton Ranch development.
Within a few years of the gallery opening, Noice was in conversations with other downtown property and business owners about how to revitalize the historic core. The result was a business improvement district (BID), which, in simplified terms, is fees the property owners within the district have agreed to assess on themselves, then spend as the BID board sees fit, with some oversight by the city council. Noice is currently in a second term on the board, which has implemented projects including facade improvement grants, planting and maintaining flowers and trees, and providing seed money for the Kalispell Downtown Association to start ThursdayFest. They’re also currently working to ensure that the Parkline Trail, which will replace the downtown railroad tracks, is engineered to encourage walkers and bikers to detour for a little shopping or a bite to eat on Main Street.
“Marshall has an absolutely amazing love of downtown,” says Pam Carbonari, executive coordinator of the BID and also a former Kalispell city councilwoman and mayor. “He’s often the first one to go out there and visit with his neighbors and see how they can all work together.”
Noice, now 68, still paints five days a week and has no plans to slow down, a lifelong tenacity his mother can attest to.
“Marshall surely has been an artist all his life,” she says “As a little kid, I had to take him to the doctor because his hands looked funny, the palms of his hands. We figured out that he was modeling in clay and had his hands in the clay so much that it had dried out his palms! And that epitomizes the way Marshall does everything. When he goes into something, he goes into it one thousand percent.”
He’s just as passionate about making downtown Kalispell shine as continuing his studio work. He’s excited about the brewpubs reviving the music scene, the Parkline Trail, the strong beginnings of the Kalico Art Center, and any and every piece of public art, from the murals popping up around town to three sculptural bike racks that the BID and the college are collaborating to produce.
Not surprisingly, Noice sees art as essential to life, and public art as an important component of the city’s growth and evolution, “because people who don’t walk into the Hockaday will still see it. And people who don’t walk into our gallery will see it. Art,” he continues, “can change your perception of things for an instant, or it might change your life forever.”
And one artist might also change a town forever.”
Photographer: Field Guide Designs, Mandy Mohler
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