He met Nina at a Zen Buddhist retreat.
“She’s a great story in and of herself,” Alex Alviar said last week of his wife, a makeup artist for films and commercials.
He’s a poet interested more in teaching the craft for the Missoula Writing Collaborative than seeing his own work in print.
“I got published right out of grad school but found that I don’t actually care about publishing my own poetry,” Alviar said. “I care about what poetry opens up for the kids I work with.”
The son of Filipino immigrant parents, Alviar has taught for more than a decade at Salish Kootenai College on the Flathead Indian Reservation.
“Typically one of the first questions that comes up is, ‘Alex, what are you?’” he joked. “I say my tribe is over across the ocean in the Philippines.
“It’s really important for me to be straightforward about it, because Native identity is such a big deal. That took me years to understand.”
Alviar wore one of his other hats this summer, that of something called a graphics facilitator.
With Peter Walker-Keleher, a senior planner for the Missoula engineering firm DJ&A, he led a group of people interested in helping brand the endcap logos on new interstate bridges at the mouth of the Blackfoot River.
Together they came up with three designs that are now open for online voting. All incorporate the Salish word for the confluence area, Naayccstm, the Place of the Big Bull Trout. (The Salish name for Missoula, and specifically the mouth of Rattlesnake Creek, means Place of the Small Bull Trout.)
Those bull trout, as well as the river, mountains and timber industry also are represented in the designs.
Alviar got into graphics facilitating almost by accident. He was at an economic development summit in Butte in 2013 that was hosted by then-U.S. Sen. Max Baucus.
“He had big names there like Elon Musk and people from Google, real big tech folks,” Alviar remembered.
The auditorium was packed, and to stage right he noticed “these guys drawing exactly what the speakers were saying.”
Matt Sullivan of Bozeman, creative director of a national consulting company called The Difference, used foam core white boards and colorful markers to capture the discussions in pictures.
As each speaker finished, a colleague photographed the board Sullivan had created and printed the image on postcards. Some 3,200 postcards were handed out to audience members over the two-day summit.
“I still have those, and just at a quick glance I remember everything that Elon Musk talked about,” said Alviar. “It’s all right there. You’re not reading through bulleted lists. It’s not this dead document. It’s alive, it’s visual, and it brings you back to, like, 'Oh, right, he talked about this, this, this and this.'
“What I thought was really interesting was I’d always done that. I had my notebook out in front of me too, doing the exact same thing,” said Alviar, who said he got so excited he “ran up” to Sullivan afterward to show him his own drawings.
Even more exciting to Alviar was that he’d been doing the same sort of thing at SKC for most of a decade when developing essay topics with his students.
“It’s called an idea map or a mind map or an idea web,” he said. “I didn’t realize that it had a larger application. I thought it was just a classroom thing. That’s when the light bulb went on.”
With Sullivan’s help, Alviar launched his part-time career as a graphics facilitator.
He started by showing up at meetings of small groups and nonprofits around Missoula, asking if he could do the visual recording “just to get comfortable with listening as all the verbal stuff is being said,” Alviar said. “The key is the deep listening first and then thinking about processing it, distilling it and then drawing.”
That’s where his Zen training came in.
On his 25th birthday in 2000, during a two-year hiatus between undergraduate school in his home state of Michigan and grad school at the University of Montana, Alviar entered a Zen Buddhist seminary.
“Different guy then — shaved head, gray robes, all that stuff,” he said.
He lived at a temple in Michigan, where he ran children’s and Sunday services, a practice he continued in Missoula.
“It’s by far the best education I’ve ever received,” Alviar said.
And ever so applicable in his graphics facilitating gigs, where “lots of things are moving and it’s going very fast,” he said.
“What I learned is the ability to calm down and just listen.”
In Buddhism, a measure of emotional and spiritual growth is impromptu speaking — “how well you can give a talk on the spot,” said Alviar. “It’s just an indicator, like, yeah, you’re on the hot seat and who are you in that moment? Do you fold? Are you a nervous wreck, or are you able to be at ease and improvise right at that moment?”
Alviar pursued graphics facilitating hard in 2015 and 2016 but has since scaled it back. Nina has her own budding freelance career with a list of credits that include makeup artist for the Montana film “The Ballad of Lefty Brown” and for the video game “Far Cry 5: Inside Eden’s Gate.” She was the sole makeup artist on set for the NBC Nightly News interview of congressional candidate Denise Juneau in November 2016 and for an episode of NBC/Universal’s crime show “Final Appeal,” released in January.
Between that and home-schooling their sons Marquez, 12, and Lucero, 10, “we’re all over the place with the kinds of projects we launch and the things we try,” Alex said. “It’s been the nature of living in Missoula for us.”
That said, “we made the decision that there can only be one entrepreneur in the family at a time,” he added.
His stable job is as a college instructor. He’s been teaching poetry in weekly three-hour blocks to classrooms in Missoula and on the Flathead Reservation since 2004 for the Missoula Writing Collaborative.
And, Alviar said, he gets random calls every once in a while to do some graphics facilitating. In answer to one, he was drawing at the Innovate UM symposium in April when Walker-Keleher spotted his work and enlisted him for the Bonner Bridges work.
He estimated there were 30 people at Bonner School on June 27, from the Bonner and Missoula communities, architect Morrison-Maierle, the department of transportation and the family of Shandin Pete, a fellow instructor at SKC in the Division of Natural Resources.
Alviar and Walker-Keleher encouraged the mixed assemblage to draw images and elements that would evoke the natural history and culture of the confluence area.
“Basically my job was to just visually capture the conversation,” Alviar said, rolling out the “big picture” poster on a table. “It looks a little messy, because it was fast and informal. But almost all of us who were there could kind of look at this and go, 'Oh, right. That’s when we talked about that, and that’s where that came in.' It’s better than meeting minutes. It’s a quick visual scan and recall.”
His job also was to consult afterward with culture councils of the Salish-Pend d’Oreille and Kootenai culture committees and also run it by the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribal Council.
Voting on the three final design options began last Monday night at an open house in Bonner. The Montana Department of Transportation will continue inviting input during the construction season. By Friday, Option 2 summarized as “three tepees” led the race with 110 votes, followed by Option 3 (fish) with 68 and Option 1 (confluence) with 39.
You can view the options at https://mdt.mt.gov/pubinvolve/bonner/logo-options.shtml and vote by emailing Sarah@BigSkyPublicRelations.com or calling the MDT hotline at 406-207-4484.