It’s fitting that Brian Elling’s upcoming exhibit at the Ceretana Studios and Gallery is about perspective. Specifically, Elling’s large-scale oil paintings depict swimmers submerged under water, the ripples of the surface and the distortion of light portrayed naturally in a manner that looks realistic from a distance and surreal close to the canvas. Elling’s work provides an alternate view of a basic movement, a perspective he says makes viewers sometimes feel like they’re under water themselves.
“I have people that say it disorients them sometimes to look at my work,” he says. “It puts them in a different frame of mind.”
That description of Elling’s work could be applied to the Ceretana itself, an artists’ community that provides an alternative working environment for a variety of local artists. From the outside, the Ceretana is just another industrial building backed up to the railroad track, but inside it’s a place for painters, sculptors, wood workers, photographers and jewelry makers to create new work in a funky, collaborative, still-evolving atmosphere.
“I applaud the work of the artists here because it really has come a long way,” says Elling, the Ceretana’s longest-standing resident, having leased space there since 1999. “The group is really dedicated to the space, making it bigger and making it more popular. It’s turned into a destination for people and not just a work space. It’s always been off the beaten track, but now the public seems more aware of this little community. It wasn’t always this organized.”
The Ceretana Feeds grain elevator was built in 1912, and for its first half-century the building was a vital part of Missoula’s industrial and commercial endeavors. In 1950 a common roof was placed atop the grain elevator and several surrounding warehouses, turning what was actually a block of buildings into what now looks like one structure. The result is a maze of doorways, dead-end hallways and remnants of old industrial operations—now with the occasional art studio carved out inside.
Elling was a part of Ceretana’s original open-house art show in August 2000. At the time, only part of the old structure had been converted into approximately eight studio spaces. Today, 18 artists rent space inside the building for an average of $170 a month, depending on size—most studios are the size of small bedrooms, but one, rented by Tom Robinson, is as big as a three-bedroom apartment with a large workroom split into a private gallery area and a personal office. Robinson’s space has its own entrance on the building’s back side, one of the many distinct sections of the building loosely attached to the whole when the roof was put on in 1950.
“A good place to work out of is more important than a place to live,” says Robinson, who owns a trailer as his residence and started a three-year lease on his Ceretana space in February. “I’m usually working every night from at least 6 p.m. until, sometimes, maybe 4 or 5 in the morning. There’s just no other space like this.”
Despite the building’s appeal, Mitch Young, an artist and the building’s manager, says the Ceretana turns over resident artists on a relatively frequent basis.
“It’s a never-ending thing,” Young says. “Every few months a space becomes available and then there always seems to be a new part of the building that artists want to develop.”
Two years ago a group of six artists who work within the newer section of the Ceretana banded together to build—with their own time, money and materials—a modest gallery space to showcase their work. The gallery is located in a common area surrounded by studios, and both it and the workspaces are open to the public on First Fridays.
“It was a perfect opportunity,” says Steven “Gus” Gustuson, who’s worked in the Ceretana for three years and was instrumental in helping to construct the new studio spaces and the gallery. “It’s been growing, and it will keep growing just because of the spirit of the place. For a lot of us, it’s just about the opportunity to be around other artists who have their own visions. Sometimes I like to just be here to listen to other artists talk about their work.”
Elling’s upcoming solo show in the gallery is something of a marker of just how far the Ceretana has come in the six years since it was recast as an artists’ haven. While the space has been expanded and updated, Elling says the original creative inspiration is still there.
“I like coming here,” says Elling, who works in an average-sized studio inside part of the old grain elevator. The ceiling is vaulted, one wall is exposed brick and, fortunately, he’s protected from the sometimes drafty environment by the huge heating vent situated just above his work area. “This room, specifically, has a lot of appeal for me. I think all the artists feel that way about their space, but I’ve been here for so long I feel like it’s mine.”
For Elling, the advantages of working in the Ceretana are similar to those of having a gym membership. The University of Montana arts graduate works in both a ski shop and a bike shop for his income, and art is something that doesn’t always fit into his regular schedule. But paying for a studio forces him to be disciplined, to keep the money from going to waste.
“It’s like you have an outside force pulling you in,” he says.
To prepare for his show, Elling has taken time off from one of his jobs and gone to the studio every day for the last month to refine and finish his paintings. The result showcases his study of light and movement through liquid, something he’s been interested in since growing up in Scottsdale, Ariz.
“I think it’s a neat visual, dynamic image to see how things change under water,” he says. “I’ve always tried to have an aesthetic appeal to my work—it’s not so much about an intellectual idea or a political statement, but more of an experience…I’m looking with most of my work, I think, just to give people a different perspective.”
Brian Elling’s oil paintings and figure drawings will be on display at the Ceretana Studios and Gallery for a First Friday reception Nov. 4, from 5 to 9 PM. Other resident artists will also have their studios open to the public. The Ceretana is located at 801 Sherwood Road.