It All Comes Together 

Students, sex and the universe between cups of tea at Eating Cake

Here I am, plying the unpredictable waters of the Missoula art scene, looking for scoop. I hear whispers of a burlesque show, where performers bare their work-related perversions in the window of Eating Cake Gallery, in a building that used to house a whorehouse, a drugstore, and a Chinese laundry.

It turns out that the burlesque I’d heard about, Think Pink: Occupational Erotica, was merely the kickoff act for the opening of Eat Your Words, a display of work produced in ART 341, a student atelier on the University of Montana campus. The walls were hung with a set of paintings that approach emotional or cosmic truth through powerful symbols and archetypes. e.g. A look at the Middle East through the lens of electromagnetic wave theory and atomic bonding; the emotional truth of dancing; the entire universe between two spilled cups of tea; the disturbing side of clowns; the absurdity of trespassing; a universe composed of shades of gray.

I wanted to interview the professor, Mary Ann Bonjorni, and learn how she coaxed such quality and deep work from her students. I caught up with her in the window of Eating Cake, where, dressed in cap and gown, she was flagellating Holly Andres—a student—with a drafting square. Andres, meanwhile, was painting flowers with a paintbrush that she somehow held in her gagged mouth. Andres looked like she had just gone costume shopping at Midnight Pleasures.

Bonjorni commented, “The course is called ‘Finding Language,’ and the assignment I gave the class at the beginning of the semester was to produce work that balances three things: their experience, what they know of culture, and the history of art.”

To do this assignment, it seems, requires asking some important questions, such as “What is art? Who am I? Where do I come from?” Asking these questions will inevitably propel their work beyond mountains, figures, and fruitbaskets, and into the realm of “art as voice” (rather than just “art as pretty picture.”) What impressed me the most was the fact that not only were the students delivering fresh, profound artistic messages, but they’ve got serious skills, man. Dig. I know art. I also liked all the free cake. As I stood there eating cake, studying a rendition of the entire universe between two spilled cups of tea, I saw my own life flap by like a slowly beating dark wing. You’re born, maybe you make some art, you die.

The evening continued with another round of performance art, a series of skits that dealt with various aspects of obsession. At first, I was thinking, “Jeez, the floor is clean enough, you guys, let’s start the show.” Then he realized that the obsessive-compulsive floor cleaners were the show. Act One, anyway. Soon came the 1950s sex-ed film, projected onto the back of a Catholic girl, delivering the unforgettable quote: “In creating a family, man and woman follow the laws of nature.”

It turns out that the laws of nature played a big role in the history of the Kiem Building, at 314 N. 1st Street, where Eating Cake is located. The floor above the gallery consists of many small rooms with interior windows to a central hallway. Built in 1890 by a Missoula police officer who made a fortune mining gold in California, legend has it that he wanted his own whorehouse. The building had fallen into serious disrepair before it was purchased by Mark Kersting in 1999, who began intense renovation, cannibalizing and refinishing as much of the original materials as possible, including the trim. The upstairs looks positively cherry (pardon the expression), and will soon be leased to the Native Forest Network. And the downstairs, of course is Eating Cake, the nouveau-hip off-campus annex for the UM art scene. Next big event: A May 18 semester’s-end Zoo Tribe Vibe blowout party. See next week’s calendar for details.

As I left the building, I couldn’t help notice that there was a crowd assembled outside, staring at me with open grins. Some of the people were pointing camcorders. As I prepared to address the people, I glanced over my shoulder and realized that that the people weren’t looking at me. They were watching Nate Schweber, topless in tight red leather pants, giving a girl named Goldiloxxx a lapdance while she sat eating chocolate cake with her fingers in the gallery window. Little Amsterdam right here in Missoula. Nate Schweber in the window of Eating Cake, giving Goldiloxxx a lap-dance while she eats cake. Too cosmic, man. It is all coming together.

Eating Cake Gallery is located at 314 N. 1st W. in Missoula. For information on upcoming events, call 721-1416.

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