Leslie Van Stavern Millar is pretty sure she could be a detective.
The owner and manager of the Brunswick building, a historic hotel on Railroad Street that has housed artists' studios for 40 years, is putting on a 40th anniversary retrospective show this summer, involving all the artists who have worked in the building.
Tracking down the 100 or so artists involved sifting through “funky” rent records, relying on memory and using the internet.
“And some of the people have disappeared,” Millar said.
One sculptor just left one day several decades ago, Millar remembered. He abandoned a giant wooden sculpture in his studio that wouldn’t fit through the door. They had to take it apart to get it out, and she never heard from him again.
A few of the artists are dead, and others no longer make art at all.
Tracking down everyone who’s ever come through the Brunswick has been an affirmation for Millar, whether the artists went on to international fame or let their passion fade.
“The whole thing has been really uplifting,” she said. “It’s also a reminder to people of their origins or their background or their talents.”
The show features around 90 pieces (Millar had lost count) that, earlier this week, were half-hung, half-lying on the floor, ready to be placed on the walls of the Brunswick’s tiny gallery.
There were paintings, sculptures, sketches, woodcuts, prints, mixed-media, dioramas, photographs, ceramics, videos, pieces of writing and music.
“It’s diverse,” Millar said of the show, “but I think the unifying thread is there’s integrity to the work.”
She asked artists to keep their pieces within 12-by-12 inches to fit everything in. Some people stretched the rules, “but the only people who got a free pass were the dead artists.”
That includes the Brunswick’s most famous resident, Jay Rummel, who occupied the huge main floor saloon studio for years until his death in 1998.
The 10 studios are mostly small, individual rooms (the old hotel or brothel rooms), and have hosted many Missoula artists over the years, such as Andrew Avakian, Kate Hunt, Stephanie Frostad, Courtney Blazon, Beth Lo and Dale Sherrard.
Artist media have included anything and everything except large-scale, industrial-style art, like bronze casting or welding.
Stuart Weber started at the Brunswick as a cartoonist, Millar said, but switched to composing for classical guitar later in his tenure.
“We had a rock band downstairs for like two months, but they were too noisy,” Millar said. “At one point everybody in the building was a jeweler.”
Some artists came back two or three times to rent studios, which Millar has purposefully kept affordable, as part of her conviction every place should have art as accessible as possible.
Kristi Hager, who was at the gallery Tuesday dropping off her piece, rented several studios throughout the building before eventually building a studio at her home.
“You get your toehold in a small room,” Hager said. “Then you graduate.”
For several decades, the Brunswick was essentially the only art gallery in town showing young, hip art. Millar proudly pointed out a framed poster advertising an October 1983 Brunswick show by famed artist Edward Kienholz and his wife Nancy.
Hosting the two in Missoula was a huge get for Millar at the time, and she remembered the night in detail.
“The room is packed with all the hipsters in Missoula,” she said. “Everyone was wearing black and they sat over there" — she pointed toward the bay window — "holding court.
“I thought they were so old.”
The gallery received coverage from Art Week, a leading magazine through the '70s and '80s out of San Francisco. That was a long way from the start for the Brunswick studios.
Missoula’s downtown in the late 1970s was nothing worth checking out. It was empty, seedy, and primarily revolved around the railyards.
Linda Wachtmeister, a Virginian who moved to Missoula to study art under Rudy Autio at the University of Montana, thought she should buy a building downtown. So she bought the Brunswick building and moved in with her husband.
“We lived upstairs and turned the other rooms into studio space,” Wachtmeister said. The train noises, clanging and booming, drove them to live somewhere else. But the studios stayed, and artists kept coming to rent them out.
Eventually, Wachtmeister moved away from Montana, and, not wanting to manage the building from afar, asked Millar — one of the first artists to rent a studio — to take it over.
That was a bit awkward, because the two weren’t on speaking terms. In fact, Millar distinctly remembers Wachtmeister trying to kick her out of the Brunswick building, after a falling out had sent their friendship into disrepair.
But Millar’s management forced the two to make up, and they’re now fast friends across the country, easily reminiscing of having lunch outside the Brunswick, eating on TV trays and avoiding “walkers.”
“On a day like today, Leslie and I would agree to meet for lunch on the sidewalk,” Wachtmeister said. “You had this sense of community.”
In the early 1990s, Wachtmeister decided to sell, and Millar convinced her to sell it to her, for a reasonable price, to keep the studios open.
“It’s not like a luxury palace or anything,” she said. “But some things are more important than money.”