The idea of an artist residency sounds straightforward at first. It's a place for an artist to create work without distractions.
In the case of the new Open AIR artist residency program, artists from around the U.S. were placed at sites around Missoula and western Montana during the spring and summer.
A showing of their work, titled "Translating Place," shows how directly their finished pieces come from the environment around them, whether it was the Historical Museum at Fort Missoula or the Flathead Lake Biological Station, in a variety of mediums.
Mary Beth Wilhelm's watercolor paintings of Fort Missoula share space with a large-scale sculpture by Jesse Blumenthal made at the Moon-Randolph Homestead and Anne Holub's poems written at the Flathead Lake Biological Station. Nearby, you can put on headphones and hear audio composed by Jessica Catron at the Rattlesnake Dam.
Even pieces that may have a more subtle connection do have that sense of place. Take the colorful abstract paintings by Anne Yoncha, a recent University of Montana MFA graduate who spent time this summer at the Flathead science station.
In an email from Finland, where she's on a Fulbright fellowship, she said the scientists gave them a crash course of the lake's ecosystem.
"It was a window into quite a few lifetimes of study and it was really helpful to have this kind of background while making work — thinking about how this one lake exists at the intersection of so many processes and bodies of knowledge. I think I learned enough in this eight-day residency to drive my studio research for a year," she wrote.
She learned how zooplankton flagellates move through water with appendages shaped like spikes instead of fins, more alike to "swimming through molasses," she said. That led to a different way of thinking about her paintings, which doesn't appear to have been applied in a conventional manner.
"I wanted to think about how to depict water in a denser and more unfamiliar way," she wrote.
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She layered red latex paint on non-absorbent yupo paper. "The paint rests on the surface until it dries — and in the meantime I scraped into it with a glaze pencil, thinking of the motion of these plankton. Some of the pencil dissolved into the latex paint and some traces remained."
The show's up at the Gallery of Visual Arts at the University of Montana. Gallery director Catherine Mallory said it's a good fit because of all the UM graduates involved, the quality of the art, and the chance to show undergraduates some potential steps they can take in their careers after finishing school.
The residency program was started by Hadley Ferguson and Stoney Sasser, both UM alums, under the banner of Western Montana Creative Initiatives. Through the program, they wanted to not only connect artists with sites around Missoula, but give the chance for the community to connect with artists through presentations and talks.
"Spring was a great opportunity to test sites out," Sasser said, "And summer really put everything to the test. And at the end of it we had wonderful feedback. The artists were very enthusiastic about the program, what it offered them for expanding their practice as well as having a lot of professional opportunities." The opportunity to work at the "dreamy" sites drew more than 100 applicants, and the sites themselves were enthusiastic at having fresh eyes on their operations, particularly the biological station, Sasser said.
Next year, they're planning on having artists at many of the same sites and potentially could add new ones.
The work doesn't necessarily stop when the residency is over, nor does it stay in Missoula, as artists continue to mine the experiences for future work.
In the case of Gaku Tsutaja, her investigations into World War II and the internment of Japanese prisoners at Fort Missoula grew on site, but are already spreading into the wider world. Her show, "A Trip to the Moon," is opening in Manhattan's Shirley Fiterman Art Center this month.