Drawing Fire 

Montana artists get ready to turn up the heat

It’s as if there’s some unwritten rule that you can’t display a work of art around here—at least, not with the hopes of actually selling it—unless it has an animal in it, or a tree, or a Native brave mounted on his steed. Now surely, living in a part of the world that is as picturesque as western Montana certainly invites a certain kind of art to capture it: landscapes, wildlife scenes, images from the mythic Wild West. But there is more to every community than what you see on the surface, and there are other kinds of art, though they may be hard to spot. In preparing for our Winter Arts Issue, we found plenty of artists whose work is unexpected, contentious, even quite controversial, and all of them will be featured in local shows in the coming months. So open your mind along with your eyes, and see if you can’t find something you haven’t found before.

Art and Activism: Corwin Clairmont

Art depicting nature sometimes tends toward a facile kind of beauty. We have Bodmer’s and Catlin’s paintings of the Western plains, their Eastern and European notions of land and its relationship to people, where Indians practiced an exotic, incomprehensible culture in an immense land beyond any conceivable permanent alteration, much less domination. Fast forward a century to the sensuous textures and mysterious light patterns captured in the rock and water photos of Ansel Adams, carefully framed to exclude any sign of civilization or humanity. More recently and locally, if you are interested in art depicting the interplay of man and nature, the proliferation of prints portraying beavers in log homes, ducks in bath tubs, and bears and eagles watching football games seems to be filling a void on a lot of office and living room walls, though which spaces such work fills in viewers’ minds seems a somewhat more ambiguous matter.

For those interested in less ambiguity and some downright direct visual confrontation, seeking out the work of Corwin Clairmont would be a worthwhile undertaking. Clairmont, a teacher and administrator at Salish-Kootenai College, is the antithesis of the romantic, unpeopled, untrammeled and free world that is usually imagined to exist where art meets nature.

“Corky never shies away from controversy,” says Steve Glueckert, curator of the Art Museum of Missoula. “He wants to remind [viewers of his art] that we have a voice and a choice that goes along with that. He’s taken this very private process, the process of creating, and applied it to a very democratic and public subject.”

Clairmont’s most accessible and portable work is a postcard sized version of the Hellgate Treaty of 1855, which delineated lands and rights for local Indian tribes, Clairmont’s ancestors among them. The postcard can be tri-folded into a wallet-sized reminder of promises made and broken. “I like to call it our credit card,” Clairmont jokes.

In 1995, Clairmont took on the Yellowstone Pipe Line project, which among other environmental trespasses, sent squadrons of petroleum-toting tanker trucks up and down Highway 93. Clairmont’s inspiration was creating a series of murals that juxtaposed tribal culture and myth symbols—buffalo, bear, various masks—with photographic images of oil tanker trucks. The visual effect is stunning. The cultural artifacts placed in a collage create a tapestry ripped apart by the photos. In fact, the photos themselves initially seem to be haphazardly torn, but upon closer examination, they take the shape of animals.

“I like to deal with images that have a lot of content behind them,” Clairmont comments. “In the case of the oil tankers ripping things apart, I think the trucks represent an insensitivity to land and resources. Anytime you alter a landscape, you impact living things, animals, trees, in some cases sacred grounds where people are buried. It’s devastating—you can’t keep hacking away at part of something without affecting the whole.” It was this message presented collectively by tribal and environmental interests that stopped the tanker trucks, which once ran every 15 minutes down Highway 93, although the same oil is now transported by rail.

Clairmont’s latest projects bring into question the widening of Highway 93, which will co-opt some tribal land, and in the artist’s view, do little to address questions surrounding safety. “I belong to this thing called the Flathead Resource Organization, and our viewpoint is kind of centered on creating an improved two-lane, or super two, with turnouts and passing lanes,” he says. “There’s a lot of research to suggest that creating four lanes will do nothing except increase speed, and accidents are a function of speed and not congestion.”

Unlike some socially active artists, Clairmont has no difficulty juggling the dual life of activist and artist. “My job at the college here puts me in a nice position, which is that I don’t have to depend on art to pay the bills,” he says. “That allows me to take on different subjects.”

And unlike other controversial artists, Clairmont claims that his subject matter is simply that which interests him, not a deliberate choice to be contentious or divisive.

“I try to reflect what I like—the environment, and issue-oriented art,” Clarimont notes. “It’s more worthwhile to me than pretty art, just something you hang on a wall behind your couch,” Clairmont said.

Clairmont isn’t afraid of work that depicts dark or disturbing images either. A recent exhibit in Helena depicted two families at Mt. Rushmore, one “white and touristy,” as he puts it, the other Native, gazing at the four presidents’ heads. While each member of the respective families wears reflective sun-glasses, the white families’ lenses reflect the granite presidents, while the native families shades reflect the skulls of ancestors who died at the hands of whites. This piece, along with new work dealing with the new Highway 93, will be featured at Clairmont’s upcoming showing beginning March 17 at the Art Museum of Missoula.

As poignant as skulls reflected in Mt. Rushmore may be, when asked whether he considers his own art to be a source of controversy, Clairmont demurs. “I never thought of it that way,” he says. “People never tell you the bad things. My goal is enlightening others if I can, particularly native people. If I can turn on a few light bulbs now and then, that’s great.” — Steven Hawley Don’t Avert Your Eyes: Dirk Lee

It’s quarter to nine on a Sunday night. I’ve been sitting with Dirk Lee in his North Side studio for almost two hours and we’ve hardly talked about female genitalia at all.

This seems surprising somehow. We’ve talked a little about people we have in common and the time we spent at the Atlantis Arts Colloquium. We’ve discussed Geronimo, matrilineal Iroquoian society, the hazards of drawing universal humanistic conclusions by stripping myth and folklore from their cultural contexts, the many faces of censorship, the vandalism of public statuary in Prague and the scene in Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood where the forest attacks the castle. But for an artist best known in local circles for stoking the fires of controversy with explicit paintings of nude women, Dirk Lee certainly hasn’t been going on about vaginas and pubic hair.

Nor does Lee’s studio display the trappings of—as he has often been categorized in the past—a pornographer or a dirty old man. The winter-snug shed that doubles as his living quarters is strewn with brushes, papers, freshly stretched canvases, curled-up tubes of paint and all the odd visual kickshaws of the artist’s life in familiar heaps and jumbles. Bones and feathers obscure the titles on a shelf lined thick with books. Souvenir beer glasses from travels in Europe collect dust on another. A photographic print by Czech artist Alphonse Mucha hangs on the wall over a hotplate stacked on a toaster oven. Lee turns a blackened paving stone—another slightly guilty souvenir from Prague—over in his hand, hefting it for weight and mystery. He says he likes to think that Franz Kafka might have stepped on it, maybe even Albert Einstein. Tacked to one shelf is an admonition from Kurosawa himself, whom Lee cites as an early and strong influence: “To be an artist means never to avert one’s eyes.”

Tall, shy and soft-spoken, Lee hardly seems the type to go looking for controversy. Yet it always knows how to find him.

“I think it just comes out that way,” he says resignedly. “I never set out to be controversial. My original intent was just to paint things in a non-objective, non-exploitative way.”

He means the nudes, although he could just as easily be talking about a work that he painted in 1967—a microcosmic circular mural between the second and third floors of Billings Senior High School that seems to generate a new swell of controversy on a regular basis.

“I don’t think it was all that controversial at the time,” he recalls, “but since then it seems like every three or four years someone picks out something new to protest. Someone saw the interracial couple holding hands and heading off into the bushes and wanted to paint that out.” Most recently, Lee says, in 1997, students of color in the BSHS student body called for the removal of a section that portrayed a burning cross and a hooded Klansman, claiming that it encouraged racist behavior.

“That last one was the most heartbreaking because they missed the whole point of why I painted it,” he says. “The cross and the Klansman represented this thing that nobody wanted to talk about. It was supposed to bring this kind of injustice out in the open. I’m always amazed at how people get symbols confused with reality. But these symbols are so powerful that they can change the entire meaning. Thirty years later and the meaning has gone 180 degrees in the opposite direction.”

In the late ’70s and early ’80s, Lee again found himself in the hot seat over the explicit sexuality of his work in Missoula Comix, a short-lived comic/graphics publication that also featured contributions by the late Jay Rummel, S. Clay Wilson, a young Steve Albini, and even Monte Dolack (whose scatological “Big Bang Theory” failed to make it into his recent coffee-table retrospective, The Works).

“One thing that happened was an anonymous group of feminists wrote a letter to the Borrowed Times, the alternative newspaper at the time, telling people to steal the comic and burn it. Burning books? we asked ourselves! You’re advocating burning books?”

But the most commonly heard criticism of Dirk Lee stems from his unflinching but sympathetic treatment of the female form, and, more specifically, the gracile folds of the vulva that frequently appear as leitmotif even in his nonrepresentational work. Lee, for the most part, seems mystified that his work draws so much fire from people who haven’t even bothered to talk to him and peevish that, in the eyes of some, his gender will probably always disqualify him from painting women’s bodies with the proper sensitivity.

“I wanted to paint ordinary women who weren’t fashion models,” he says. “And I’ve always tried to approach my subject matter from a human perspective. We all come from sex.”

Although he likens himself to a beaten dog with regards to the critical reception of his work, Lee cautiously admits that more enlightened attitudes have finally started bringing him a small measure of success in Missoula. For the first time in 30 years, he’s managed to mostly support his modest lifestyle with his art, and he will be the subject of a one-man show at the Catlin Galleries this June. Younger women seem more open-minded about his work, he says, and he’s a little shocked to finally be selling paintings to women. He chuckles when I tell him that a women’s group distributed chocolate vaginas on campus last Valentine’s Day.

“I was always the wrong gender to do this,” he says. “Period. Somehow a man didn’t have the sensitivity to be able to see that women were human beings. That attitude still exists out there in some places, but not nearly as much. I tend to see it as having reversed itself.” — Andy Smetanka The Naked and the Nude: Alex Hilary Baker and Patricia Kane

Alex Hilary Baker is a local photographer who hails from Kalispell. The 11 black-and-white nude studies that comprise her latest show are on display at the New Crystal through the end of January, when it will travel to the former Dixon Country Store, now the Isis Studio and Fine Art Gallery. We caught up with her last week to discuss the bare truth about her work.

So first of all, why nudes? The human form is something that is very beautiful to my eye. … Technically it is challenging to deal with the shape and lines.

But, you could very well work with form and line and light and dark simply by photographing buildings or animals or clothed people. I mean, a nude body does have certain connotations that other subjects do not. Because there is often a fine line between art and pornography, how do you go about staying on the art side of that line? Well, the person I am photographing and I go into it [the photo shoot] with a mutual understanding about what our intentions are. And how it is perceived when it is up there on the wall is up to whoever the onlooker is. I think it is a very fine line, like the line between naked and nude, or eroticism and pornography, but my definition would be anything that disempowers you—either through the experience [of being photographed] or by looking at—it is not beneficial to our growth. And I think that something that makes you feel good or gives you a new way of looking at something is beneficial. Pornography lacks a lot of wholesomeness, if you will, and takes away your power because you are no longer a being but a sexual object and you are there to perform some kind of sexual gratuity.

Have reactions generated by your work caused any controversy? There was some, whatever you want to call it, when I was hanging my show in the New Crystal. Because it was First Night, and they were going to be showing old cartoons like Popeye and Betty Boop and that sort of thing, a few people expressed concern that the children going to see the cartoons would be exposed to photographs of nude bodies. Although I took the concerns seriously, I did go ahead and hang the photos because this is precisely what I am trying to do to have people become more comfortable with their bodies. … We are sexual beings and we have to recognize that and so my photos show it all—stretch marks, acne scars, cellulite. I am acquainted with most of my subjects and most all of them feel that the experience [of being photographed] is positive and empowering and then once they get the contact sheets back they look at themselves and their bodies in a way that they had never looked at before. They say things like, “You know, I never realized how strong my legs are.”

Patricia Kane is a self-taught artist whose influences include Edward Gorey, Saul Steinberg, Shel Silverstein and R. Crumb. Kane was born in Philipsburg, and although she spent years as a designer in the commercial art world of San Francisco, she has also owned a newspaper and worked as a tattoo artist in Butte. Her work will be on display at the New Crystal in February. On a Saturday afternoon in the old Dixon Store, Kane—whose art largely speaks for itself—held forth on the subjects of controversy, sexuality and art and society.

What are you trying to accomplish with your art? Art has been dumbed down. So much art is nice, safe art. Look around you. Do you see any art that is threatening? By that I mean something challenging.

How about an example? When I had [a] show two years ago, that’s exactly what happened. I was putting the show up and there were some guys from, New York who were there just wowing over my paintings; they bought three paintings before I could even hang them up. But one of the waiters started saying this stuff is obscene, that no one was going to come in here and that he was offended. It was very uncomfortable and I could just feel the tension. I went in and said, ‘OK, rather than having you be embarrassed and having you ask me to take these down, I’m going to take them down right now.’

And to me that’s good art—if it makes people react strongly. I feel that the power of the brush is more powerful than the sword. I don’t seem to have a boundary, I just paint from what’s within me.

What would you say to people who might take issue with some of the more graphic pictures in your show? I would say [look at what society does] when you give a baby girl a doll baby with no sex organs, I mean she can suck, she can wet, she has shoes and clothes, but have you ever seen any sex organs on a Barbie doll? I remember taking my first Barbie doll and looking up her dress and when I saw what was not up there, my immediate thought was something is wrong with me. And many, many women have that immediate reaction, and we immediately don’t like ourselves.

On her plans for the immediate future I am excited to find as medium to bring forth some wisdom for young women, because I think that they are totally without a clue. … Think about it. Women are driven biologically to reproduce, and society says no, no, no you can’t think about it, you can’t look at it or understand it, you have to just say no, which is just bizarre. … In other words, women need to take a stand about their breasts. Are we pornographic, or what? — Bill Fanning



Great Performances: Two months of arts events to see you through the winter

FEBRUARY Feb. 2: First Friday. Missoula’s galleries and studios stay open late for monthly, meet-the-artist receptions. All around town from 5 to 8 p.m. See “Gallery Guide” next week for details. Feb. 2: The Whitefish Theatre Company hosts Drum Drum and the Siale Dancers, whose music and dance is based on the traditions of their native Papua New Guinea and Polynesia. 8 p.m. Call 862-5371. Feb. 3: The Art Museum of Missoula’s 29th Annual Art Auction and Gala. 5 p.m. In UM’s University Center Ballroom. Call 728-0447. Feb. 4: UM Faculty recital—clarinetist Maxine Ramey, 3 p.m., Music Recital Hall. Tickets $5/general, $3/students and senior citizens. Feb. 6: UM Senior recital—violinist Megan Guenther, 7;30 p.m., Music Recital Hall. Free. Feb. 9: UM Faculty recital—Nancy Cooper playing the organ, 7:30 p.m., location TBA. Tickets $5/general, $3/students and senior citizens. Feb. 10: Missoula Symphony Orchestra, all-orchestral, 7:30 p.m., University Theatre. Call 721-3194. Feb. 11: Missoula Symphony Orchestra, all-orchestral, 3 p.m., University Theatre. Call 721-3194. Feb. 12: UM Senior recital—baritone Ryan Campbell, 7:30 p.m., Music Recital Hall. Free. Feb. 13: UM Faculty recital—pianist Steven Hesla, 7:30 p.m., Music Recital Hall. Tickets $5/general, $3/students and senior citizens. Feb. 15: UM Senior/junior recital—bass-baritone Howard Kingston and soprano Jennifer Jones, 7:30 p.m., Music Recital Hall. Free. Feb. 16: Altan, Celtic musicians, with opening act Willson and McKee, 8 p.m., University Theatre. Tickets $17/students, Missoula Folklore and Gaelic Society Members (advance); $19/general (advance); $19/students, Missoula Folklore and Gaelic Society Members (day of show); $21/general (day of show). Tickets available at all TIC-IT-E-Z locations, call 1-888-MONTANA or 243-4051. Feb. 17-18: MCT presents Red Riding Hood. Call 728-PLAY. Feb. 20: UM Senior recital—trumpeter Brendan McGlynn, 7:30 p.m., Music Recital Hall. Free. Feb. 22-24: The Hamilton Players present Brigadoon at 8 p.m. at the Hamilton Playhouse. Call 375-9050. Feb. 23: UM Senior recital—soprano Lynnette Badgley, 7:30 p.m., Music Recital Hall. Free. Feb. 23: Master drummer Obo Addy brings the complex rhythms of Ghana to the Myrna Loy Center in Helena. 8 p.m. Tickets $5, $10, $15. Call 443-0287. Feb. 24: UM Senior recital—baritone Brett Benge, 7:30 p.m., Music Recital Hall. Free. Feb. 25: The Hamilton Players present Brigadoon at 2 p.m. at the Hamilton Playhouse. Call 375-9050. Feb. 25: String Orchestra of the Rockies, “Our Turn! An Orchestra Showcase” featuring String Orchestra of the Rockies soloists, 7:30 p.m., Music Recital Hall. Tickets $12/general, $10/students and senior citizens. For season ticket prices call 728-8203. Feb. 26: UM Concert Band Festival, visiting high school bands play different times during the day, University Theater. Free. Feb. 26: Lecture-Concert—“Crossover: The Interaction Between the Folk Tradition and Classical Music From the Renaissance to the 21st Century,” 8 p.m., Music Recital Hall. Free. In conjunction with the Department of Music. Feb. 27: UM Concert Band Festival, visiting high school bands play different times during the day, University Theater. Free. Feb. 27-28: The Tempest, by William Shakespeare, Masquer Theatre. For more information call the UM Drama/Dance department at 243-4481.

MARCH March 1-3: The Tempest, by William Shakespeare, Masquer Theatre. For more information call the UM Drama/Dance department at 243-4481. March 1-3: The Hamilton Players present Brigadoon at 8 p.m. at the Hamilton Playhouse. Call 375-9050. March 2: UM Jazz Bands, 7:30 p.m., University Theatre. Tickets $4/general and $2/students and senior citizens. March 2: First Friday. Missoula’s galleries and studios stay open late for monthly, meet-the-artist receptions. All around town from 5 to 8 p.m. March 2: Roots of Brazil, Brazilian dance and drumming, 7:30 p.m., Wilma Theatre. Tickets $12/students, $14/general; call 1-888-666-8262 or (406) 243-4051. Call 243-6661. March 3: UM Guest artist recital—soprano Tonya Currier, 7:30 p.m., Music Recital Hall. Tickets $7/general, $5/ students and senior citizens. March 4: UM Junior recital—percussionists Blake Panting and Troy Bashor, 7:30 p.m., Music Recital Hall. Free. March 4: The Hamilton Players present Brigadoon at 2 p.m. at the Hamilton Playhouse. Call 375-9050. March 5: UM Graduate recital—by baritone Steven Aadland, 7:30 p.m., Music Recital Hall. Free. March 6: UM Senior recital—mezzo soprano Jennifer Cooper, 7:30 p.m., Music Recital Hall. Free. March 6-10: The Tempest, by William Shakespeare, Masquer Theatre. For more information call the UM Drama/Dance department at 243-4481. March 9-11: MCT presents Little Shop of Horrors. Call 728-PLAY. March 9: University Orchestra concert, 7:30 p.m., University Theatre. Free. March 10: Missoula Symphony Orchestra and Chorale, featuring soprano Mary Logan Hastings, tenor Thomas Poole and bass George Evelyn, 7:30 p.m., University Theatre. Call 721-3194. March 11: Missoula Symphony Orchestra and Chorale, featuring soprano Mary Logan Hastings, tenor Thomas Poole and bass George Evelyn, 3 p.m., University Theatre. Call 721-3194. March 15: UM Senior/junior recital—baritone Doug Andrews and soprano Janna Williams, 7:30 p.m., Music Recital Hall. Free. March 15-18: MCT performs Little Shop of Horrors. Call 728-PLAY. March 21: Chicago City Limits, comedy and improv theatre, 7:30 p.m., University Theatre. Tickets $12/students, $14/general; call 1-888-666-8262 or (406) 243-4051. For more information call 243-6661. March 24-25: MCT performs Cinderella. Call 728-PLAY. March 26: UM Senior/junior recital—composition/technology by Howard Kingston and soprano Carrie Wright, 7:30 p.m., Music Recital Hall. Free. March 27: UM Senior recital—soprano Delight Michelle Scheck, 7:30 p.m., Music Recital Hall. Free. March 29: UM Senior recital—composition/music technology by Matt Mischke, 7:30 p.m., Music Recital Hall. Free. March 29-31: The House of Bernarda Alba, by Federico Garcia Lorca, Masquer Theatre. For more information call the UM Drama/Dance department at 243-4481. March 30: Symphonic Wind Ensemble concert, 7:30 p.m., University Theatre. Free. March 31: UM Student Aria/Concerto Competition, all day, Music Recital Hall. Call 243-6880 for more information. Free.

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