Political maps may insist that Helena is the capital of Montana, but Missoula has always harbored folks who believe that, when it comes to art, literature and music, the Garden City is where it's at in the land of Oro y Plata.
And while we'd hate to sound arrogant, there is some evidence this cultural chauvinism has some basis. The most recent clue comes from the Montana Arts Council, which passed out its annual Individual Artist Fellowships on November 16. Ten $2000 awards were doled out; five went to Missoula-area artists, with the rest scattered from Manhattan to Billings.
Two grand isn't exactly a king's ransom, but Missoula's winners describe the money as something like a godsend. The honor of making the state's aesthetic all-star squad, most also suggest, is even better than the timely infusion of capital.
"It's nice to know I'm not just messing around in the back yard," says Jonathan Qualben, a sculptor who works with concrete. "I'm doing something a little different, working with a different material than most.
"I hate to use the word-well, maybe I don't-but this sort of legitimizes it in the eyes of the aesthetic powers that be."
Along with Qualben, writers Caroline Patterson, Andrew Smith and Sheryl Noethe and sax player Brooke Ferris survived the arts council's application and interview process. Not all have specific plans for the state's money, but all say the awards offer rare breathing room in their battles to keep working, eating and paying rent-especially in fields where labor does not always transform into lucre.
"It's just enough to get you from here to there, sort of, but it's really a nice affirmation," says Patterson. "It's a nice shot in the arm, for sure."
Patterson's in the midst of a leave of absence from her job as editor of Montanan, the University of Montana's quarterly alumni magazine. She's trying to finish a novel titled The Egg Room, and says the money from the council will help with some fairly concrete needs.
Patterson's novel-in-progress, she says, chronicles a pair of women who head north to work in Alaska's fish canneries. "It's about the sort of weird, multicultural environment those places are," she says.
"When they asked me what I was going to do with the money, I said, well, baby-sitting, of course," says Patterson, mother of two small children. "And then, my computer just crapped out, so I might have to use it for that. These are kind of earthy concerns, but I'm trying to get a novel finished, so they're really the things I need taken care of."
Smith, a poet and screenwriter, has temporarily abandoned Bonner in favor of New York City, where he's trying to scare up script-writing work. "My other life," he explains. "The one that pays."
Smith is also at work on a book, a collection of poetry tentatively titled Blood Love. While his verse has been published in toney lit journals such as Gulf Coast and Triquarterly-not to mention the University of Montana's own Cutbank-he says the grant makes a nice change from poetry's usual compensation. "It's really great to get some money for poetry. I never have before. It's usually just a few complementary copies, that's it."
Noethe, a past recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts grant, also touches on the financial obstacles of poetry. "God, this is better than nothing, which is the norm," she says.
Noethe's latest project explores the recent death of "the best friend of her life."
"This was a woman who gave me my self identity, my strength, everything," she says. "She died two days before her 95th birthday. She had a bad end, like most people in America do. She was in a nursing home and her kids sold her stuff while she was there. She didn't know. This was in Minnesota, and I flew back as often as I could to visit her. The only way I could figure out how I was feeling was poetry, of course."
Scribbling notes in airports and in the nursing home where her friend spent her final days, Noethe documented the closing chapter of a long life, and has since written of the deceased's starring role in her subconscious.
"I started writing about what she would say to me in the nursing home, when the veil between her world and the world of the dead was very thin," she says. "Then, after she died, she started appearing to me in dreams and presenting me with maps, trying to show me the difference between where she was and where I was. She said there was only a body of water between us, and of course the human body is 98 percent water."
Noethe now plans to work over that cycle of poems, which she says she revised very little as they came pouring out.
Qualben and Ferris have less specific plans for their award money, but each say the cash will subsidize pursuits a little less insular than those of the chosen writers. Qualben talks of funding an exhibition of other artists' work; Ferris, a member of the Tango Nouveau quartet, has some immediate needs that parallel Patterson's.
"For now, I'm going to get some new music and have some work done on my saxophone," she says. "It's hard to say what I'm going to do. You know, when you're a musician, this kind of money isn't usually just lying around."