What is art?
Just kidding, we’re not going to start there. That’s a never-ending art school debate. The question for our valley is perhaps not what is art, but is art important? And why? Let’s discuss.
MAGGIE NEAL DOHERTY
WHY THERE’S AN OLD WOMAN ON MY BREWERY
You might not know who she is or what she accomplished, but in downtown Kalispell she’s hard to miss.
Since the fall of 2018, the mural of Jeanette Rankin on the brick wall of the Kalispell Brewing Company has sparked conversation about the woman wearing cat-eye glasses and strands of pearls, cajoling us to, “Go! Go! Go! It makes no difference where, just so you go! go! go!”
As the co-owner of the brewery, I spent several years staring at that brick wall, wanting it to be more than a wall. I wanted it to be art. I wanted a mural, something to accompany the old painted signs from the building’s tenure as Henricksen Motor Company decades ago. Like my belief that every town needs a craft brewery, I also believe that communities thrive where public art abounds.
In the summer of 2018, I was telling Marshall Noice, an accomplished painter and the co-owner of Montana Modern Fine Art, about my desire to have a mural at Kalispell Brewing. I knew I wanted the mural to be a vision of Montana different from the usual subjects, such as all manner of Glacier National Park or trophy paintings of grizzlies, much of which feels very solitary, masculine, and domineering. It’s not that I don’t love Glacier or bears, but I saw the mural as an opportunity to go beyond the typical, to generate art that represented the lesser-explored sides of my adopted home. Public art creates an alternate experience with a physical space, one that allows for conversation and inquiry. You don’t have to buy a beer from me to appreciate the mural.
“Like my belief that every town needs a craft brewery, I also believe that communities thrive where public art abounds.”
Intrigued by this unique commission, Heck researched different notable Montana figures and emailed me a list with Jeanette Rankin at the top. I had heard her name before but I didn’t know that she was from Montana, born in Missoula in 1880, or that she was the first woman in the United States to be elected to the House of Representatives, three years before women even had the right to vote. After reading a few articles about Rankin’s legacy as an unwavering pacifist and advocate for social and racial justice, I remember thinking, “Yes, this is it!”
Once we had a subject, Heck found inspiration in a lesser-known photograph of Rankin in her later years. The most popular photographs show a young woman from the early 1900s, often wearing a large black hat. Yet the Rankin that Heck chose is an older woman, smiling radiantly.
Tessa Heck’s mural of Jenette Rankin at the Kalispell Brewing Company
“Why can’t she be older and on a mural?” Tessa said, explaining that she chose the picture partially to make a statement about age, calling attention to the fact that women are most commonly depicted in their youth. “You don’t just disappear when you’re older. You have more to offer.”
Heck took the photograph and transformed different elements to create a simplified palate and a muted color scheme. The quote, “Go! Go! Go! It makes no difference where, just so you go! go! go!” is another subtle way of toying with age and wisdom, as the words came from Rankin’s college journal.
Although Rankin accomplished the unthinkable in 1917 as the first woman to serve in Congress, her legacy, especially in the state she represented for two terms, isn’t widely known.
“We can always celebrate people who aren’t always heard or recognized,” Heck explains, adding that she just became more fascinated with Rankin as she learned more about her. “She was just so interesting, especially what she did 100 years ago—to think about it now.”
When Tessa and I met recently to reflect on the mural and its impact, she remembered how its highly visible location, with lots of downtown foot traffic, made the week she spent painting it such a great experience. Passerbys would stop to chat and offer their encouragement.
“Art is a new lens to view something through”
– Tessa Heck
“Funnest mural, ever!” she exclaimed.
The mural’s creation also marked a particularly poignant time in Heck’s own life. She was six months pregnant when she painted it, and she hopes that once her daughter is older, she’ll understand the part she has in the mural as well.
When Rankin was born, Montana was not yet even a state. She lived until the age of 93, seeing an incredible amount of change under the Big Sky. Despite all of our growth and forward progress, though, Montana has yet to elect another woman to national office.
Perhaps Heck’s inventive vision, which challenges our preconceived ideas about gender, age, and achievement, will play a part in carrying Jeanette Rankin’s legacy forward. Go! Go! Go!
Tessa Heck’s mural of Jenette Rankin at the Kalispell Brewing Company
ART IS AN OPEN-ENDED QUESTION
Limnal Lacrimosa is a very different kind of art than we usually see in the Flathead Valley. Currently on display in the brick shell of the former Kalispell Malting and Brewing Company, the building, pottery, stones, and dripping water combine to form what the artist Mary Mattingly describes as “an immersive experience.”
She explains that art installations are meant to be a different encounter than, say, an exhibit of paintings or sculptures, where visitors focus on one piece at a time. In Limnal Lacrimosa, the entire experience—
everything from the smells, sound, arranged objects, the building itself, and even the occasional mouse or pigeon—is the point. If visitors want help with where to start, Mattingly might tell them she created the piece with water cycles in mind–“limnal” means related to lakes; “lacrimosa” is Latin for weeping–so they can think of the water like an actor in a play, but that the installation at its core is a way to be able to imagine other ways of being.
“I think about this in terms of art and science,” says Mattingly. “Science is looking for a hypothesis, a question that leads to a hypothesis that has a concrete answer, and I think art is similar, starting from a question that might lead to another question. It doesn’t usually matter where it leads, but it’s starting–usually–from a big question. I think if we lost that, then it’s sort of like losing philosophy. We would lose something that’s another way of seeing that’s really integral to how we view the world.”
Limnal Lacrimosa by Mary Mattingly
ART IS A CONCRETE ANSWER
Standing in front of the enormous mural in progress in the pedestrian tunnel near Glacier High School, 4,000 square feet of Glacier National Park ferns rendered in a striking contemporary interpretation, it’s easy to think, “How long is this going to last before someone ruins it with graffiti?”
However, combating graffiti is actually one of the reasons behind Tunnel Vision, the mural project that is brightening the Rails to Trails underpasses around Kalispell.
“Putting a mural in an area that’s getting hit actually curbs the graffiti,” explains Griffin Foster. He’s both the professional on this project and a former street artist himself, so he’s not just speaking from wishful thinking. He goes on to explain that the graffiti world has a strict hierarchy; it’s only acceptable to paint over someone else’s work if what you’re doing is better. “You have to make a more concerted choice to wreck someone else’s art.”
The experiences of other cities with a history of public art support this–for example, only 5 percent of Philadelphia’s 3,600 murals have been tagged or defaced. Public art also signals that a place is welcoming, safe, and cared for, unlike a concrete tunnel covered in tags and patchwork gray paint.
ART MAKES A PLACE UNIQUE
Murals help people walk around and explore and come together,” says local graphic designer and artist Madison Apple, who has contributed to both Chicago’s extensive mural scene and Oddfellows coffee shop in Columbia Falls. He painted the brightly-colored huckleberry mural, inspired by the specimen illustrations of Audubon and Lewis and Clark, on a pedestrian underpass this past July. “I wanted to choose something really bright and disruptive, something different than what you’d normally see around here, but at the same time something that would relate to the valley and honor the valley.”
ART IS GOING TO OFFEND
Kristy “Krusty” Overman has experienced negative reactions to her work, edgy, punk-inspired drawings that she transforms into T-shirts, patches, and stickers. She’s had people at makers markets and craft fairs flip over her stacks of T-shirts in disgust.”
“I’m not bothering them; well, I guess I did, but I’m not trying to,” she says. “Living in a very beautiful place, we have this idea that art has to be about landscape or be beautiful to look at, but whoever came up with that idea? I don’t really do it to shock anybody, to push buttons. I don’t like to do that anyway. I just draw what I draw.”
“Not everyone is your audience,” says artist Tessa Heck, explaining that she feels free to make the art she wants to make, even if it doesn’t always get a warm reception. She remembers being heckled while working on her mural at the Kalispell Brewing Company, a random guy berating her for painting Jeanette Rankin because “Rankin was a liberal.” She also recalls a city meeting about public art, where one of the committee members felt that Kalispell shouldn’t have murals downtown because they might offend someone.
“Art can get someone out of bed, encourage them to create something.”
“I think there are a lot of people who want to keep things as white bread as possible,” she says. “But it really limits our scope of view, and we already have such a narrow viewpoint up here. We don’t have a ton of diversity, so I think anytime we can share another viewpoint or culture, that’s really important.”
Mural artist Griffin Foster with Alisha Shilling and Michell Wang from Kalico Art Center.
ART IS ECONOMIC
Arts and culture, including music and theater, are an often overlooked economic driver, contributing about $1.8 billion per year and almost 16,000 jobs to Montana’s economy. More Montanans work in the arts than in mining. Visual art is only one piece of the arts and culture picture, but it still plays a role.
The Kalispell Contemporary Art Center, better known as KALICO, intentionally chose to be downtown in part because healthy cities need things for people to do, in addition to places to shop and places to eat. “We want to be part of the solution of change in downtown,” KALICO founder and board chair Alisha Shilling says. “You can walk in and paint pottery. We call that the art gateway—okay, you don’t want to put yourself in art classes yet? You can come in and paint a mug. Anyone can do that!”
Art indirectly influences the economy as well.
“Boise, Akron, and Spokane all started community art years ago. It becomes another tourist attraction,” says Kip Smith, a retired hospital administrator and the originating force behind the Tunnel Vision project. “There’s a variety of things taking place now [in Kalispell] that really add to having a vibrant community, and public art is part of that. It’s going to bring more bikers and walkers into downtown, and then there will be an opportunity to build off of that in economic development.”
ART IS EXTRAVAGANT
Well, the only things that are not extravagant are food, shelter, and clothing,” says Marshall Noice, a local artist and co-owner of Montana Modern Fine Art. “Is a $400 painting by a living artist more extravagant than a $400 pair of used skis? I’m sure there are a lot of people who see the Tunnel Vision project as a pointless extravagance. I would venture to guess that a lot more people will see it as a wonderful and worthwhile addition to our community.”
Maybe extravagant is the wrong word, especially when you’re talking to an artist. But it’s worth considering: why do many of us buy into the idea that art is a luxury, not a necessity?
“Our first recorded paintings are in caves,” Shilling says. “For the longest time, we’ve been trying to communicate in some visual way who we are. Why do we do it? I don’t know, but we have this desire in us to create, and to ultimately either tell people about ourselves or discover something about ourselves, or process something that we’re going through.”
“Art does have intrinsic value,” Noice says. “It can change people’s lives. It can change the way they think. It can change the way they look at the world.”
Close-up of Bias Brewing Mural
ART IDENTIFIES PROBLEMS
A strong, faceless woman in a vibrant traditional ribbon dress stands above the river. Her right hand holds a sign bearing the hashtag #MMIWG. Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women and Girls.
“We believe in spreading the word about the epidemic that has been ravaging this area,” explains Gabe Mariman, who owns Bias Brewing with his wife, Jinnifer. When they lived in Oregon, Jinnifer was a tribal attorney; here in Kalispell, they missed that connection. They wanted to use their big brick wall to collaborate with the local Indigenous community and create a mural about the valley that wasn’t “Conrad or some dead white dude,” as Gabe says, emphasizing that they wanted Indigenous artists to drive the project because “it’s not our story to tell.”
“Art allows for uncomfortable conversations to happen.”
– Marita Growing Thunder, mural artist and Indigenous activist
Marita Growing Thunder, a 22-year-old Indigenous artist and activist, painted the woman in 2019. When she had first researched the MMIWG issue for a previous art project, she realized that she had five missing or murdered women in her extended family. But the epidemic gets very little attention.
“Art allows for uncomfortable conversations to happen,” she says, explaining that the mural is a way to bring awareness to a new audience, who might range from unaware to outright dismissive. “Being in a place where mostly white people would go—I don’t think I’ve ever been to a brewery in my life, besides this brewery—I think it lets people think and talk to a wall, essentially, without hurting anybody. It can leave them with the understanding that the situation is happening in their own communities. Or it could straight up get them mad. As long as it sparks an emotion, I think that’s art.”
Kalico Art Center in Downtown Kalispell
ART CAN BE A SOLUTION
When 122 people of all ages and from all walks of life signed up to help paint the Tunnel Vision community mural, Alisha Shilling was excited. And also a little nervous.
“It’s a politically charged climate right now, what’s going to happen?” she remembers thinking. “I found it interesting, the conversations I heard. ‘Where are you from?’ ‘Oh, that’s so cool!’ People were talking just like we used to, connecting over art. It’s almost like people need something to do, to focus on, to even have those conversations.”
Shilling expected most of the mural volunteers to be people who used the hike and bike trail, and there were plenty of those. But a surprising number of painters were new to the valley, individuals simply looking for a way to meet other people. Many of them had come from places with vibrant arts and culture scenes and were missing those opportunities here. Especially with the pandemic, people were feeling isolated and unsure about how to find friends and build a community in their new home.
When Shilling was first pitching the idea for KALICO around town in 2019, she envisioned the art center as a way for locals to foster connections with each other, maintaining and strengthening our community as the valley grew and expanded. She had no idea of the magnitude of change that would come just a few months later, or how valuable art would become to some during the uncertainty and isolation of 2020. One story in particular of a man who had always wanted to learn about pottery sticks with her.
“Art does have intrinsic value. It can change people’s lives. It can change the way they think. It can change the way they look at the world.”
– Marshall Noice
“He said, ‘I ended up finding a community in that clay studio downstairs, and it got me through the pandemic. It got me through a very low time,’” Shilling says, explaining that to feel healthy and whole, people need their creativity cup filled just as much as their food, shelter, and income cups. “It just perfectly highlighted how art can build community and how it can get us through patches—whether it’s the pandemic or a personal crisis or growing as a community, with the changes that we’re going through.”
Connection. Community. Awareness. Healing. Growing. Economy. Luxury. Necessity. Offending. Welcoming. Art Matters.
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