In an effort to create opportunities and room for emerging artists in Missoula, a group of recent University of Montana graduates and local artists is opening a new work space and gallery on the city’s Westside. Wildfire Ceramic Studio will be the home base of five local clay makers who plan to host First Friday openings, juried shows and offer a location for people at the outset of their career to get their art on display.
Stephanie Dishno, Bruce Kitts, Ryan Caldwell, Sarah Conti and Krissy Ramirez locked down their building on Murphy Street off West Broadway in May and have been transforming the space into a clay studio and gallery they hope to open to the public this fall.
“We just really decided that we wanted something to kind of help expand upon the growing art community in Missoula and we wanted to provide a really dedicated space for all of us to work professionally and expand our own bodies of work and to help future emerging artists too, because the art world is so dang competitive,” Dishno said.
The team has been ripping up carpet, painting walls, installing lighting and building their work spaces, revamping what was once just a large, open unit into a ceramics haven.
The group itself is made up of young artists looking to expand their careers who came together with a common need for a place to work and a desire to form a creative community. Dishno and Caldwell graduated from UM’s MFA program this past spring, while Conti and Ramirez are recent post-baccalaureates. Kitts has been living and creating his artistically functional teapots, cups and mugs in Montana since 2017.
“I had a home studio before this and it’s great to have a home studio and just have it right there … but it can get a little lonesome and it’s just nice to have that energy and feedback from a community,” Kitts said about his reasoning for getting on board. Not to mention, purchasing something like a kiln is much easier when five people pool together.
But there are benefits beyond shared equipment and a place to fire your work.
“There’s a lot of dialogue that I think we miss out on when we work at home,” Dishno said. “I think we all have such great conversations to add to each other’s work, we can bounce ideas off each other. It just provides so much energy to kind of help you flourish as an artist yourself.”
The members all have vastly different styles and vision when it comes to their work.
Caldwell also makes functional plates, cups and bowls, using cuts to create clean designs and paying particular attention to how his pieces will look in the home.
Dishno creates larger-than-life sculptures that would be hard to find space for in a house, so having a studio to work in is key to being productive. Her thesis exhibition, “Coalescent,” featured massive human figures and explored aging, death and societal roles of women.
Conti’s work is inspired by her passion for ecology and conservation and her wildlife sculptures often contain messages related to human impacts on specific species.
Ramirez also threads social commentary into her work, which incorporates brick and cinder block patterns and utilizes materials outside the clay world like chain link fencing and metals.
While Dishno, Caldwell and Kitts plan to be permanent members of the studio, Conti and Ramirez will leave after a year, allowing new artists to take their space in the studio.
“We would ideally be bringing in new artists every year, so those spots would be kind of rotating to help bring in new people and provide opportunities,” Dishno said.
The members will show their own work in the gallery, but they also plan to bring in outside artists, with an emphasis on up-and-coming potters.
“The gallery is something we’re really trying to push,” Dishno said. “It will allow us to not only provide a space for artists working in Missoula, but also bring outside voices into the Missoula art community.”
While they don’t plan to offer a community space like the Clay Studio of Missoula, they’re looking into hosting one-day workshops with visiting artists and possibly setting up small classes for one to three people at a time. They’re also hoping to become a clay distributor.
For First Fridays, they can open a large garage door that will allow art-viewers to spill out into the parking lot, which may come in handy if social distancing guidelines continue.
The studio’s first juried show is already in the works, with Molly Rivera set to be their first juror, and a September opening on the books. With fellow recent UM grads and young Missoula artists on tap for display, they’re already breathing life into their collective vision for the future.
“Our whole mission statement is to create a space and create opportunities to support emerging artists and people who need a space that aren’t solidified in their careers yet,” Caldwell said.
For more information on the studio and to see updates on its official opening date, visit wildfireceramicstudio.com.
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