Drawn to Basin 

Artists from around the world—including many from Missoula—are escaping to the Montana Artists Refuge for peace, quiet and inspiration. One visit proves why.

“That’s it?”

“That’s it.”

“But there’s no there there.”

“I think that’s the point.”

A typical conversation on the ride into the small town of Basin starts this way. Perched off Interstate 15 between Butte and Helena—about two hours southeast of Missoula—the old silver mining town boasts a population of approximately 250. The main drag, Basin Street, includes two restaurants, one bar and a post office. Down the way, maybe 100 yards, sits a pottery gallery and a shuttered café. Broken cars and a few homes, some weathered more than others, dot the road from the highway and the hillside above. And that’s it. There really isn’t a there there.

Nonetheless, this is where, for the past 15 years, artists from around the world have come to escape. They travel from Seattle and Salt Lake, Portland and Poland, Manhattan and Missoula, to seek a safe haven at the Montana Artists Refuge (MAR), in two renovated historic buildings nestled next to one another right on Basin Street. Writers, poets, painters, sculptors, composers, musicians, dancers, filmmakers—you name it—apply for residency, carve out months of personal time, and pay a nominal monthly rental fee to come here to create new work, tweak existing work or experiment. And they do it mostly in seclusion.

The appeal of the refuge, like Basin itself, has as much to do with what’s there as what’s not. The founders—a group of alternative artists and their friends—first arrived in the early 1970s looking for an affordable place to live and work. They expanded on the simple conceit 20 years later by opening MAR, keeping the frills to a minimum and the personal touches at a premium.

The accommodations are grandly rustic—spacious, basic and warm. They are fashioned, Montana style, for producing. The Dyott Building, an old dry goods store, has been converted into two small studios furnished with sensible second-hand everything, from couches to cooking ware. Each includes a private bathroom and full kitchen. Next door, the Hewitt Building, which once served as a bank and Masonic Hall, features two more choice studios. The downstairs offers a full kitchen, living room and loft area to complement 400 square feet of storefront gallery/workspace. The old bank vault is also accessible from the kitchen. Upstairs, a 500-square-foot performance/workspace with two floor-to-ceiling windows overlooks the town. A modest bedroom and kitchen are tucked in the back. With each studio, there are views of the Elkhorn range, charming architectural details, rich history and vintage character, but no distractions. Don’t even think about a television.

This remote, forgotten town and the eclectic MAR have been attracting Missoula artists for years, but the refuge—home to no more than four refugees, on average—has garnered more local attention of late. It’s crept into bios at recent exhibits, mentioned by artists like beadworker Molly Murphy, who was part of MAR’s American Indian Artists Program and is currently showcasing her work at the Missoula Art Museum, and Melissa Bangs, whose show at Zoë for March’s First Friday Art Walk featured paintings from a recent one-month residency. University of Montana Department of English chair Casey Charles worked on an unfinished novel and book of poetry during a month at the refuge last summer with his partner, oil painter R. David Wilson. One of the poems Charles revised there, “Stay,” was honored with the Comstock Review’s prestigious Muriel Craft Bailey Memorial Award earlier this year.

And there’s more: The AM String Band, which frequently plays Missoula bars and contra dances, formed during a winter residency at MAR; Missoula author Mark Matthews (Smoke Jumping on the Western Fire Line: Conscientious Objectors During World War II) finished his thesis for UM’s creative writing program at the refuge; and UM professor and author Debra Magpie Earling currently sits on MAR’s National Advisory Board.

None of those recent connections scratch the surface of past local visitors, including Missoula Art Museum Executive Director Laura Millin, a long-time MAR board member, and the extensive list of UM alums who served residencies, such as author/artist/dog musher Karen Land (yes, as in Iditarod sled dog racer), painter Nancy Glover, and artist Carson Ellis. The latter is best known for her partnership with Colin Meloy and for her illustrations for his band, the Decemberists; she still uses a painting of Basin—a line of beat-up cars and a barn—as the front page of her web site.

And this established Missoula-to-MAR pipeline is set to expand in the coming months.

“Absolutely my goal is to get more Missoula artists to the refuge,” says Bangs, who recently joined the nonprofit’s board of directors. “I heard about it by word-of-mouth from Casey [Charles], and he heard about it the same way. It shouldn’t be a secret, especially to a thriving artistic town like Missoula. I want to introduce it to local artists so they can have the same experience as I did—a truly amazing experience. You have no idea what you’re missing until you go there.”

Bangs’ initiative comes at an important time for MAR. The founders are looking to infuse the organization with new leadership and reevaluate its mission within a changing arts world. It could be challenging to update a bootstrap operation rooted in rich history. But whatever the future holds, MAR is looking for Missoula artists to play a more prominent role in ensuring that the idyllic enclave thrives.

Basin was born as a 19th century mining camp that boomed at the turn of the century and more or less died in the mid-1920s when Jib Consolidated Mining Company abandoned the area. Today, it’s best known for its radon mines, which, some profess, will cure anything from cataracts to multiple sclerosis if a visitor breathes the radioactive gas and drinks the radioactive water for 10 days. Published medical journals strongly disagree.

M.J. Williams and Nan Parsons didn’t come to Basin for mining or radon water. In 1973, the two best friends—they’ve known each other since attending the seventh grade together in Helena—were looking to get out of San Francisco and find a place to settle down and create art.

“It wasn’t like we stumbled upon it,” says Williams, 62, an accomplished jazz trombonist and vocalist. “My great-grandmother owned land here, so I’ve always heard tales of this funny little town. The other thing was that Nan Parsons’ father, who worked as a surveyor and an engineer for the highway, owned a plot of land here. So we knew a little about it, and we looked around and realized that this place had potential.”

Potential meant abandoned, affordable buildings—and lots of work. For years, the two women toiled at renovating or rebuilding homes and workspaces, literally just trying to put a roof over their heads. They were joined by about a half-dozen other likeminded artists who also invested hard labor into fixing the buildings and poured creative energy into new art projects.
Dorothee Kocks can’t wait to soak. Aside from work, there’s not much to do in Basin besides hiking, fishing or visiting with other refugees, and there’s only one other refugee on hand this week. But nearby Boulder offers commercial hot springs. And Kocks, an author and accordion player from Salt Lake City in her third week at MAR, spent the night writing and needs a mid-afternoon break. She’s not used to this loose routine at all, but she’s embracing it fully.

“I’m a magazine editor who has a busy life—like everybody does,” says Kocks, who works for Wasatch Journal. “Yesterday, I was working all day and fell asleep at 9 o’clock at night. At three in the morning I woke up with this idea and I knew what I wanted to do, and I got up and did it, and then I went back to bed at five. It’s the sort of thing where in your ordinary work life, where you’ve got your family or your sweetheart or whatever on top of your job, you just can’t work like that—and you just don’t want to.”

Kocks has done this sort of thing before, having spent time at the Vermont Studio Center, Byrdcliffe Colony in Woodstock, N.Y., and at an international residency program in Spain. MAR, however, is completely different, she says. In other programs, artists are expected to commingle and collaborate, feeding off the collective creative energy. In Basin, things are more low-key and secluded, which suits Kocks fine. She came to MAR to finish her latest novel, The Glass Harmonica, and while she’s struck up a friendship with the other current refugee, she relishes the opportunity to immerse herself in her work. After all, she gave up a raise at the Wasatch Journal in exchange for the time off to come here.

“In the movies when they show writers it’s always one scene with the writer writing,” she says. “It’s never scene after scene after scene after scene, which is the reality of it. I came here with the first draft of a novel done and I needed to see the whole thing and see what I had, and do a global revision. The setup here is perfect for that.”

When Melissa Bangs came to Basin last December, she knew she was walking into a vast opportunity to do nothing but paint—and was scared out of her mind. The Missoula native had spent nearly three years focusing entirely on building her consulting business before she applied for a residency to help reinvigorate her painting pursuits. Bangs was accepted for a one-month stay—Williams says a review board evaluates an artist’s compatibility with the space, as well as their proficiency and dedication, on a case-by-case basis—at the Hewitt Building’s upstairs studio, MAR’s largest space.

“I’ve never had such an enormous art space that, by itself, felt like its own blank canvas. It changed my entire creative process,” she says. “And I’ve never even had three and a half days to focus on my work, yet alone three and a half weeks. I was more than a little bit nervous that I would run out of ideas or energy. It felt like a lot.”

Bangs responded by setting up stations throughout the studio—one area for watercolor, one for gouache, one for an experiment with house paint and charcoal, and one for what she called “The Canvasorous,” a six-by-six-foot canvas tacked to the wall. She bounced from one to the other and never once ran dry of inspiration.

“I made lots of good friends, but I mostly worked,” says Bangs, who would share new work with fellow refugees in the evenings. “Even when I wasn’t working, I was indulging in cooking a really fine meal with great wine. It was a chance to just get lost in what I was doing, which, for once, was just making art.”

While MAR may best fit self-motivated artists willing to work alone, some of its greatest successes involve those who are willing to involve the surrounding—and often skeptical—community. In 2004, contemporary performance artists Bently Spang (Northern Cheyenne) and Bert Benally (Navajo) collaborated with what seemed like half of Jefferson County to create one of their signature “Tekcno Powwows.” The event included hip-hop dancers, belly dancers, Irish step dancers, ballerinas, tap dancers and traditional American Indian dancers, all of them drawn from the community.

“It was one of the most outlandish and all-encompassing things we’ve ever had,” says Williams. “People still talk about it. It’s one of the more poignant things that’s ever happened here, as far as bringing people together, and it’s an example, I think, of what could happen here in the future.”

The future view is a little muddy. While Williams stresses that MAR is on solid footing, she also acknowledges that changes may be coming. Overhead costs and, in particular, rising energy prices have made money tight; MAR operates on an annual budget of approximately $100,000 and relies on private fundraising and grant money to survive. There is no current executive director and the board of directors is in transition. There have also been cutbacks, such as the suspension of this year’s Indian Artists Residency program. And outside economic signs don’t help: Basin’s venerated High Note Espresso and Gallery, run by staunch MAR supporter Bryher Herak and decorated with art work from past refugees, was forced to close last fall.

“It’s critical to point out that in the life of every organization there comes a point where you look at what you’re doing well, what you’d like to be doing better, and what new things you’d like to try,” says Williams. “And then you give yourself a little play time to throw some other ideas around. We’re at a point now where we want new leadership to help us evaluate where we are before we make any changes.”

There’s another reason for MAR circling the wagons: The founding mothers are looking to step aside and hand control to a new generation of artists. While MAR employs a full-time residency coordinator and office manager, Debbie Sheehan, a lot of work still falls to volunteers. Williams, for instance, is the resident handywoman—“and I’m not that handy,” she says. On a recent tour of the refuge, she stops to inspect almost every sink in every studio to check a recent plumbing repair. It’s not nearly as fun as her travels to Paris playing jazz in a small club, which she’s done for four straight years and wants to pursue even more.

As for the other founders, Owens is less involved with the day-to-day operations and Lewis has recently moved to Helena to start a new business. Parsons still lives in Basin—although she recently spent six months painting on the Oregon coast—but left an official leadership position at MAR years ago. She lends a hand when she’s in town, but doesn’t mince words when talking about why she left.

“I wimped out,” Parsons says. “I just got burned out and had to do my own thing. It takes a lot of time and energy to make this happen, and it’s practically all with volunteer help…I put in my time. At some point, us old farts will have to step aside.”

Maureen Sullivan listens intently as Parsons talks. Sullivan—better known as Mo—is a recent refugee and another new board member helping Parsons set up an exhibit of her Oregon paintings in the downstairs Hewitt gallery. Sullivan sees her role on the board as bridging the old with the new.

“The people who have been working on it for a long time are looking for a different perspective, and [looking for] some younger people to take a more active role in the administration,” she says. “I don’t think we want to make any drastic changes, but maybe offer some new ideas suited to the times.”

For Bangs’ part, that means a deeper connection with Missoula.

“They’ve had long-term strategic relationships—shows, workshops, articles, you name it—with organizations in Butte and Helena because it’s closer,” says Bangs. “There have been Missoula artists who have gone there, but there’s not that level of involvement and ownership. The thing is that, now, there’s a whole group of board members and founding members who are pleased to hand this unique space to a new generation of Montana artists. That’s something I think Missoula should be a part of.”

Nothing’s happening on a Saturday night in Basin. By 9 p.m., the streets are empty, most lights are off, and in the lone bar, the Silver Saddle, four people occupy stools. Both MAR studios are dark. An enormous husky sits on the sidewalk leashed to a railing and doesn’t even sniff at a passerby.

“You saw everything in five minutes that was there,” remembers Mark Matthews about Basin. “It was a great place to concentrate, a great place to work. There wasn’t much else to it.”

Casey Charles echoes a similar sentiment.

“It can be a little bit isolating if you’re not the self-motivated type,” he says. “But for the right person, it can be perfect.”

In fact, according to an old local legend, Basin is actually Heaven. As the story goes, a sign just beyond the one-exit town once read “Basin—Heaven,” and anyone who stopped would decide to make the town home. That was the only way locals could explain why people continued to live there once the mines closed.

But a logbook in the upstairs Hewitt studio offers some different takes on why people are drawn to Basin. Artists from 1997 to 2002 filled the sketchbook’s pages with testimonials, journal entries, illustrations and grocery lists. One unsigned entry from December 31, 1999, reads in part: “You can walk away. You can be alone. You can burrow into some places in yourself and there are wonderful, wonderful clever people who will encourage you to do your thing.”

Another undated entry gets even more to the crux of what the Montana Artist Refuge is about: “Thank you for your kindness, generosity, your vision, all your hard work to make this place a reality…My work got started.”

Now MAR is hoping the next phase of work gets started, as well.

For more information about the Montana Artists Refuge, including application deadlines and scholarship options, visit montanaartistsrefuge.org.
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