A hot time in Hot Springs 

Homegrown culture makes its own medicine

The small brown house, with dried snakes collected from the road adorning the doorframe, sits directly across from the old Camas Bathhouse and the public hot springs. As the smell of sulfur pervades the entire town of Hot Springs, the scent is just a little stronger near this house which artist Susan Faye Roberts calls home. Inside and out, it's instantly apparent that an artist is in residence. The walls, marbled in vivid maroons and blues, were done by Roberts herself.

Oil paintings of birds and lilies hang from the walls, bottles in the windows create patterns of colored light on the floor, and the largest room in the small home is given over to a dance studio.

With her background in dance and acting cemented with three and a half years at the University of Montana-pressures of work and family forced her to drop her program 25 credits short of a degree-the 46-year-old Roberts has a deep commitment to art in all its guises. She's carried that commitment to Hot Springs in the form of the Hot Springs Artists Society, a collective of seven musicians, artists and business owners she brought together in April of '97.

Her goal, she says, is to "sponsor cultural, artistic and educational events for our extended community." With the $20,000 grant from the Montana Arts Council she received this June, Roberts has found a helping hand in her project. For a little more than a year the society has brought musicians to town, engaged the Rocky Mountain String Orchestra to play at the school, and placed a mural on the side of a Main Street business on what Roberts describes as a "shoestring budget."

The "Arts Are Central to Our Communities" grant, a newly found source of money for the society, was also established in April 1997 by the National Endowment for Arts and the Montana Legislature. The program aims to foster partnerships between businesses and artists to promote cultural tourism. Of the 23 applications submitted for the grant, 16 were funded on June 13. Out of the 16 successful petitioners, the Hot Springs Artist's Society earned the highest number of points on the seven criteria laid out in the grant application review. Other groups which received such grants include the Alberta Bair Theatre and Art Museum of Missoula.

In the society's case, the grant money goes to pay two consecutive half-year salaries for Roberts, who up to this point has been working for free. Although she originally located to Hot Springs in December '95 to concentrate more fully on her painting and writing, the demands of the society have taken over the time she would like to devote to her own creative endeavors.

While the work is draining and time-consuming, Roberts says, she's looking forward to the future. Her eventual plans for the society include establishing an endowment to provide a small fee for performers, stabilizing the operating budget, and putting together a photographic retrospective of the town's history. "I certainly plan to give the society two more years. It's like a baby, you give birth to it and you can't just walk away," says Roberts.

The town of Hot Springs has been around since 1929, and the medicinal waters for which it is named even longer. On a sunny Saturday afternoon the dusty streets lined with old, peeling houses and pickup trucks are empty, everything closed down on Main Street except for the bars and a small grocery store. The town seems abandoned, except for those bathing in the public hot springs or the pool at the Symes Hotel.

The people who live here seek a solitude and isolation that not everyone can understand. What remains clear is that they have chosen the smell of sulfur over the stink of industry. The hot springs have created the town; as Roberts points out, without them the area would just be part of a ranch. Some, it seems, however, are less than pleased at the perceived move to gentrify this town with a population numbering 511.

At bottom, the conflict lies with a question over who will enjoy the benefits-the last wave of residents, some of whom have been around for more than a generation, or the next, drawn by the twinned tourist attractions of water and art.

The signature event of the Hot Springs Artist Society has been its weekend performing arts series, which pulls musicians from around Western Montana and from as far away as New York to perform in the lobby of the Symes Hotel. In the beginning, without any money to offer musicians, Roberts despaired that she would never attract groups.

But she found that with the offer of a free room at the Symes and proceeds from passing the hat at the performance, most artists didn't mind foregoing a promised amount. "It's a mini-vacation for the artists. We don't ask very much, just two sets of 45 minutes and then they can soak and hike and relax," says Roberts.

Another attraction for the artists is the intimacy and the ambiance of the performing space. The setting convinced Jenn Adams, an acoustic guitarist from Stevensville, to play three times, and she says she hopes to go back for a fourth. "A lot of it has to do with the environment-it's an attentive, interested audience. I like to play for mellow crowds. It lets me change my play list, play more original music," explains Adams.

Roberts also notes that while the lobby of the Symes provides an attractive atmosphere in general, the space can become a problem due to its limitations of size and the normal distractions of a hotel lobby. "There's the sweetness of it, with the dogs in front and cats climbing into people's laps, the kids dancing in back. It makes for the ambiance. But sometime you just want to concentrate on the music, and those things become annoying," says Roberts.

With that in mind, the society has begun to discuss raising money to build a small theater to accommodate classical music and the most popular performers. However, Roberts insists that the space will remain small to retain the intimacy that makes performing at the Symes such a unique experience.

The pass the hat policy meanwhile fits the purpose of the society: to provide culture for everyone. Without pressure to pay, people who might not normally come may be compelled to check out the acts, and experiencing the music often loosens the purse strings. "Joy creates generosity," Roberts points out.

Given the current financial status of the society, Roberts-to the chagrin of some of her neighbors-also hopes joy generates tourist dollars. Her project is on a parallel track with the Artrain, which recently visited Missoula.

The Artrain, which passed through Western Montana at the end of June, brought a national touring exhibit from the Smithsonian Institute in Washington D.C., using a converted passenger train to bring a different sort of culture to remote communities. For Missoula, the visit generated an exhibition of local art that the Missoula Cultural Council, the sponsor of the Artrain, hopes to continue in the form of an annual arts festival.

While the visit celebrated art, another purpose was to generate economic gain through the relatively new concept of cultural tourism, which relies on attracting those who have in interest in local art, music and history. Crowds of people stood in line for up to two hours to tour the gallery cars. Mark Martin, executive director of the Missoula Cultural Council, says that such interest in the "lively arts," which include nature as well as the fine arts, can draw those tourists with disposable income and a respect for the environment.

While the idea has been around for a long time-think of the crowds visiting the museums of New York or Paris-looking to develop a similar system in more rural areas first emerged as a money maker a few years ago. Part of this development involves attracting tourists with an interest in discovering the history and the current mode of life in the area.

Alexandra Swaney, a member of the Montana Arts Council, explains that in Montana, local attractions entice a broader range of visitors. "[The cultural tourist] wants to know about us as Montanans, and know about our heritage," she say. "We have an association with nature and cowboys and Indians, which cultures are still around. Beyond that there are artists and musicians. We don't all ride horseback, and some of us do contemporary paintings."

The idea of showcasing regional talents is part of the attraction to the Artists Society for Leslee Smith, owner of the Symes Hotel and an Artists Society board member. "It's more important to have the arts for the natives," says Smith, "but it's a plus for the tourists. It shows the culture that Montana has. We have our own artists and crafts, and that's important for outside people to know."

And as Swaney points out, if the visitors come for the heritage, they'll tend to be more careful with it. Tourism, she adds, stimulates the economy not only through the outsiders, but among the local residents. "It behooves you as a Montanan to put money in the infrastructure, to support museums and put up good road signs," says Swaney.

It's this kind of economic boost that Roberts wants to cultivate with the Artists Society. She remembers meeting people from all over at the hot springs in town, but that the visitors would hit the pools and then get out without contributing at all to the economy. Providing art as a reason to stay longer gives Hot Springs the potential to become a "destination resort."

For Roberts, tourism is the only way to revitalize the community. "There's nothing here. People come for the water, but there's no industry. Nike's not going to build a factory here, it's too hard to get stuff out. In that respect it's the end of the road," she says.

In this scenario, offering entertainment, shelter and good food will attract people to the area for a relaxing weekend. The scheme seems to be working thus far, with nearly 200 people on the mailing list and a steady stream of inquiries coming in daily. "They used to call about the hot springs, and now they call about the events. I get calls from Plains, Kalispell, even Spokane. People just come for a weekend, to relax," says Smith.

Lee Zimmerman, an Artists Society board member and cellist agrees. "This is an amazingly silent place. It's almost eerily quiet. It's a commodity that's scarce. We come here for the village life and the silence, but we also have this great social life," he says.

Some residents, dedicated to preserving Hot Springs' historic, pristine qualities, criticize Roberts and the society for ignoring their concerns.

Fear that the arts will attract the well-to-do to the area and drive out the original residents with a rising cost of living motivated Lisa Peters to write a letter of complaint to the Missoulian about the society. Peters-who lived in New York and Colorado before coming to Montana-emphasizes that she has no problem with art or culture, and that the performances at the Symes Hotel are fine.

She pinpoints her dissatisfaction to the methods of change and the consequences that she's experienced before. A community with members who support each other in crisis is more important than a few extra bucks in the economy, insists Peters-and if that's not what you want, don't move to Hot Springs.

"My angle on it is that I grew up in New York City, and I've seen neighborhoods gentrified. It's when artists move into slums because that's all they can afford and then they fix it all up and the yuppies decide they want to move in, and pretty soon the original residents can't afford to live there anymore," says Peters, who points to Bigfork as another example of a small town being dressed up and forcing out the original residents.

"[The Artists Society] has a lack of respect for anything that already exists. There's a really strong community here. We have beauty, we have trees, we have grass and that's what we want. We don't want that to disappear, and I know that about 90 percent of the people who live here feel the same way," says Peters.

Dave Oxford, the mayor of Hot Springs, believes that the society has been a plus for the community. While he admits that the members "might be a little headstrong," he adds that "change is an inevitable factor of life."

"I think it's important to emphasize the variety the group offers. It may not appeal to everybody all the time, but it appeals to the majority part time," says Oxford.

The support of about 20 members of the community, the Symes and the other board members are enough for Roberts-and she's perfectly satisfied to cater to visitors rather than residents.

"The intent was not to provide entertainment for Hot Springs. I'm not surprised that not many people from town come. Our intent is to entertain people who come here, to get people to visit for entertainment. And not move here, although I don't think there's much danger of that, since you have to have a way to support yourself," says Roberts.

Members of the society also tend to dismiss these concerns as merely a fear of change. Pointing out that the remoteness of the town virtually eliminates the possibility of commuting, they insist that it's merely provincialism that breeds opposition. "There's a certain kind of people who are not going to support anything, especially if it involves change," says Zimmerman.

The Symes has the exterior of a New Mexico resort and the interior of a set from The Shining, the 1980 Jack Nicholson film about a rural inkeeper who loses his mind during the off-season. Pink stucco with turquoise trim gives way inside to long narrow hallways lined with red carpet.

It's a bit creepy, but the living rooms with big comfy chairs, old games, weird little knick knacks and grunged-out twentysomethings wandering around transform the vibe into more of a big house that's haven to lots of oddball relatives and kooky neighbors-more like a rural sitcom than a horror movie. In truth, as sofas and chairs are rearranged to provide seats for the evening's concert the place almost seems more of a hang-out than a hotel .

A few couches are provided, but most of the space is filled with a ragtag collection of folding chairs that Symes owner Smith has gleaned from rummage sales. The informality of the event becomes apparent in the late start. People drift in and find seats well past when the performance is listed to begin. Without fanfare, just before 8 p.m., Missoula guitarist John Floridis launches into a solo to kick off the first set.

While the audience is small, it contains a wide variety of people. There's a family in back, with two little boys getting the groove on. A middle-aged couple in front engages in conversation with Floridis throughout the performance. An elderly couple and a variety of 30-ish men and women fill out the rest of the audience, sitting quietly in total concentration.

The audience is attentive, though wine, soft chairs and folky music don't always mix, as evidenced by the two or three nodding heads. Still, the level of concentration on the audience's part deserves commendation, with a palpable focus on the music despite the waiters traveling through from the kitchen on one side of the lobby to the restaurant on the other, the espresso machine gurgling in the background and people traipsing from their rooms to the mineral bath.

It's a quiet concert, with the intimacy of the venue slowly building a surprising energy equal to the sweatiest, noisiest club. Later in the set, Floridis is joined by Janet Haarvig on cello and his wife Beth Bramhall-Floridis, who alternates accordion, harpsichord and piano. The acoustics of the lobby work well-no echoes or distortion. At the end of the night, the purple and silver glitter cowboy hat is filled with five and one dollar bills, and the musicians have spoken briefly with possibly half the audience.

There's a solid sense that this evening was an event, something special. People thank the performers as they walk out the door or go back to their rooms. It may not have been momentous or particularly edifying as some musical performances can be, but was enhanced by the combination of informality and attentiveness, the smell of sulfur and the anticipation of a late night soak under the stars.

It's an impression that gains by the silence and stillness of the rest of the town, the tiny streets and emptiness of Hot Springs that surround the Symes Hotel.

Andrea Thompson
Susan Faye Roberts founded the Hot Springs Artists Society, a collective of seven musicians, artists and business owners, in April 1997. "It's like a baby, you give birth to it and you can't just walk away,” she says.

Andrea Thompson
Leo Harties, a boardmember of the Artisits Society, organized high school students to create the mural from which this detail was taken.

Sarah Schmid
The Symes Hotel marks the home of the Artists Society's weekly concerts, and benefits from the cultural tourism they bring to town.


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