Women, wine and neo-hacksaws 

Crawling Missoula's art galleries on First Friday in search of the whimsy

Too many galleries to do justice in one night. Still, my intrepid ArdtFarts agree to try. And on this fateful First Friday of this month, they trust their fates to the Fates, who lead those who will, and drag those who won’t. It’s all drag, isn’t it? And those who the fates can’t even drag, they must crawl. Read on dear reader, to learn the truth behind the First Friday Gallery Walk, Missoula, USA.

Mary Beth Percival, whose bright, impressionistic depictions of Montana life share the walls of the Monte Dollack Gallery with her husband’s whimsical work, is the first to greet us. I ask Mary Beth what First Friday means to her.

“It really works” she says. “The more art, the more galleries, the stronger it is for everyone.” Perhaps conscious of sounding too much like a Republican model for economic expansion, she adds, “For Monte and me, we have our own gallery, and so it can be a challenge to come up with something new every month. But for a lot of people, this is the night. So it really helps build a strong community of artists.”

Fortunately for the Dolack gallery, their art is so aesthetically kaleidoscopic and laden with subtle message that I never tire of looking at the ones I already know. As for this month’s offerings: “Moonlight Leaping” is a new series of magical fish lithographs that cast new life into a standard Dolack flavor. And a series on the Lewis and Clark Corps of Discovery puts a different spin on their adventure, from the perspective of wildlife. Moving into the third dimension, some beautiful burnished pit-fired ceramics by Melora Neaves are also on display.

While Mary Beth talks, I have ample opportunity to maneuver crackers topped with blue cheese and spinach artichoke dip into my mouth, and wash them down with white wine. Between mouthfuls, I ask the seasoned First Friday hostess about people who just use the First Friday event as an opportunity to fill their bellies and wet their whistles and don’t give a whimsical trout’s watertight ass about art.

“It goes with the territory” she says. “As long as they enjoy themselves... At some point you run out of wine and then you have to decide to get more or not.”

Mary Beth also gives us a great tip: Laughing Boy Gallery, located in at 259 W. Front Street in the heart of Missoula’s once thriving red light district. Experiencing Laughing Boy is like being shot out of a cannon into a three dimensional tactile sensorama. Owned by Kent Epler and Rick Milburn, the eclectic mix of folksy kitsch includes work by other artists as well, such as Barbara Compton, who shows me around the store. A lot of the work at Laughing Boy is a seamless blend of form and function, including some really nice furniture —some refinished and some built from scratch—such as the “Hobo Chairs,” based on Shaker designs with woven leather belts for seats. One of them is built like a corner—it’s hard to describe—but it’s possibly the most ergonomic chair I’ve ever sat in. And, it looks like a work of art.

Compton also shows us a crow she made out of silk and a special fabric made from potato dextrin. And her quilted watercolor wall hangings depict colorful scenes from the Farmer’s Market. Ah, summer. Laughing Boy also has Muppet-esque “soft-sculpture” figurines that caricature various historical figures, mostly females, such as Missoula Red Light queen Mary Gleim, who used to own the Laughing Boy building—as well as the rest of the block! As cool as this stuff is, the prices are surprisingly affordable. Indy photographer Chad Harder buys a set of heatable steak plates with wrap-around reed coasters for only $10.

After dragging ourselves away from our high-spirited romp through Laughing Boy Gallery, we push onward, toting plates and cups procured at the Dollack Gallery that were not to be discarded until the bitter, blurry end, after many servings of the fat and oaky offerings of Missoula’s finest galleries.

Sutton West Gallery features art made from neon and argon tubes that carry whimsy beyond the third dimension. Dig the neon hacksaw cutting through an art-deco toaster, with moving neon bubbles in the saw blade. Or so it seems. Artist Ken Yuhasz explains how normal neon tube transformers work on a 60-cycle frequency, which produces the characteristic buzz of neon fixtures. Yuhasz uses radio frequency transformers, which give the appearance of movement in the glowing tubes. And when you touch the tube, the “bubbles” switch directions. Very pretty stuff.

There are also some really cool pieces of fused glass by Richard Parrish: plates and picture frames and whatnot. But sadly, there is not a drop of wine to be had in the whole gallery. Hostess Tara Screener notes, “Sutton stopped serving wine because of the college kids who come and clear it out.” Come to think of it, I wouldn’t trust a mob of intoxicated youth around my neon hacksaw either.

Deep into the evening, and we have yet to encounter a drop of red wine. But when we walk through the doors of the Catalyst, we know that our ship has finally come in. Bottles of red. Bottles of white. Even bottles of champagne. And walls adorned with the oil paintings of Marvie Redmond. Her series of winter landscapes packed the strongest dose of pure aesthetic pow-pow all night, which I find surprising given the stark quality of her subject matter. Redmond’s paintings are scenes of utter stripped-down winter nakedness, such as bare trees in snow. The paintings are composed and balanced in such a way that they produced a vibrant resonance that is very pleasing and promising to my inner vibration.

We finally find ourselves in Miss Zulas, a place so disorientingly flavorful that you never really know for sure what’s a joke and who it’s on. Miss Zulas pushes the limits of aesthetic merchandise presentation, such that it is hard to tell where the presentation ends and the goods begin. I am intrigued by the Trivial Pursuit-esque board game called Cowgirls, a combination of The Book of Questions and a pillow fight at a grown-up girl’s slumber party. Featured artist Jill Bergman’s cheerful paintings contain glamorous and poetic bits of prose that generally reflect the universal spectrum as seen through a plaid prism. Plaid, says Bergman, is the “most beautiful color in the world.” Bergman believes so strongly in plaid that she lets it be known to insiders that those who wear plaid garments to her show would be awarded a kiss from the artist.

A Miss Zulas representative overhears Bergman telling us this, and coyly volunteers the fact that her plaid underwear was worthy of note. Unfortunately, she back-pedaled when Chad whipped his camera into position faster than Jesse James could draw his six-shooter. But no sooner had this one hostess vanished behind a rack of jewelry than another woman approaches us, tugging her plaid bra strap from her V-neck shirt, only to decline Chad’s offer to expose the fullness of her art.

Taking a hint, we make our way home, pausing to look inside the Raven Cafe at a piece of haunting text-art composed of the words “You are inside of me.” Might be another chick thing, I don’t know. All I know for sure is that the buzzword on the streets of the Missoula art scene these days is a word that rings with resounding consistency from nearly every dark corner into which these humble ArdtFarts shone their scrutinizing light: Whimsical. How appropriate that the sequence of our evening seems to pour like a bottle of neon pink champagne from its inception at the Dolack Gallery, wellspring of Missoulian whimsy.

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