"Monster Christmas," as the staff calls it, starts in August at the Zootown Arts Community Center.
Artists begin stopping by the Northside nonprofit to drop off their "Missoula Monster Project" drawings, sculptures, paintings and illustrations of bug-eyed, many-armed creatures.
By early September, they'll be hanged in the gallery next to the original — a drawing by a Missoula kindergartner — that the artist adapted in their own style as a way of encouraging students to see what they could make if they pursue art.
The monsters were dreamed up by kindergartners at three Missoula County Public Schools — Chief Charlo, Hawthorne and Franklin — for a total of roughly 350 pieces. Each year, the ZACC rotates which schools take part.
The show, now in its third year, started with local artist Andy Smetanka and his son Asa. The first go-round, ZACC Executive Director Kia Liszak worried that not enough artists would sign up. This year, they ran out of monsters in two weeks, she said. One person asked if they could sign up for 2018.
The adult artists range in experience from well-known to people less familiar from their artist pursuits, such as Missoula City Council President Marilyn Marler.
"The variety of adult artists is pretty amazing," Liszak said. "This is a show that really serves the ZACC's mission so well, and one of those levels is getting adult artists who've never submitted to a show before."
The career artists include Shalene Valenzuela. The director of the Clay Studio of Missoula adapted a bulbous, one-eyed monster with an extra set of arms jutting from its spindly legs, using the child's description. It likes candy, so Valenzuela added some old-school candy raining from the sky. It likes rotten potatoes, so she created a potato-head person with a pat of butter on their mashed-potato brain. It's sad sometimes, so she added a line-drawing of a woman with a tear, in a style familiar from her personal work. Kids being kids, this monster likes to lick toilets, so Valenzuela fit one in the corner.
Parker Beckley, who graduated with a Bachelor of Arts from the University of Montana a few years ago, said it's one of his favorite shows of the year. For one, he admires the volume and quality of the artists involved.
Secondly, producing a monster is fun and has little pressure compared to his freelance design gigs, which involves working with clients on numerous revisions.
Beckley, who studied painting and photography, used a little bit of both mediums on his monster.
In the child's original drawing, the whimsical critter has one eye and a welcoming, jagged-toothed smile, a polka-dot dress, red arms and big blue paws. Taking a cue from the child's description that the monster likes chasing butterflies, Beckley set his painted version skyward in this very act, against a lush J.W. Turner-esque cloudscape assembled from digitally altered classic paintings.
It looks like a children's book cover, which seems in keeping with Beckley's philosophy for the show. "If I was a kid, I would want a cool version of something I made," he said. "It's a good show to get younger kids excited about art and what they can do."
The opening day of the show is the largest of the year for the ZACC. It has ranged from 800 to 1,000 people, by their count. (They use people counters.)
This year, they're holding a special opening for parents on Thursday, before the public exhibition on Friday. The early event will allow them the chance to see the art, and importantly, give them chance to buy their kids' art. In previous years, some pieces got snapped up before they had the opportunity.
At least half of the sales from the show will be go toward bringing MCPS students to the ZACC art classes.