Fifteen years ago, club owner Angie Cormier called her buddy Jim Baken and asked him to paint on her building.
The only rule she gave Baken was that the mural he designed in the alley behind Casey’s Golden Pheasant on North Broadway (now the Stampede) depict rock stars. Baken recruited some of his students from Rocky Mountain College where Baken teaches art and coerced them into the project.
“I told them they could have all the free beer they wanted,” Baken said.
Baken knew that Cormier was only offering soup, not beer. But the ruse got them downtown and the opportunity was so great, they stayed to paint.
That mural has remained intact over the years, to the amazement of many, including Cormier.
“It lasted all that time without a single piece of graffiti,” Cormier said.
Baken remembers a police officer warning him about putting too much effort into painting murals in alleys.
“When we were painting, this cop walked down the alley and said, ‘You better cover this up or vandals will destroy it.’ I jumped off the ladder and pointed my finger and said, ‘You’re wrong.’ And look at it now, it’s a little faded but it’s just fine,” Baken said.
There are more murals inside the Stampede, where Cormier had them replicated from those designed at a different location by Chris Kelly, a set designer for “Lonesome Dove.”
“The musicians loved it. They thought they were great. We’ve got everyone from Tina Turner to Blondie and from Ray Charles to Elvis,” Cormier said.
Baken remembers every student and artist who worked on his alley project. But one particularly stood out — Joanne Webb. She painted an Impressionistic portrait of Jimi Hendrix.
“I met Joanne in 1997 at the Royal Academy in London. She was this wild artist with purple hair, tattoos and piercings. I asked her what her art was about and she said, ‘Native Americans and the vast American West.’ One thing led to another and I got her a job teaching part-time at Rocky.”
Other students, including Michael Wisnowski and JB King, painted Dave Matthews, George Clinton, Eric Clapton, the Beatles, and Stevie Ray Vaughan. But one portrait was never finished.
“We marked the wall to show the height of Jim Morrison, but we never got that one painted,” Baken said.
Art versus vandalism
Public art makes a statement about the community it is showcased in, said Tyson Middle, owner of the Underground Kulture Crew, a business that sells spray paint to graffiti artists.
Middle is at the center of the debate over what is art and what is vandalism. He has painted several commissioned public murals in Billings in the past year, including his latest on the back side of Above Average Joe’s Gym on Grand Avenue and 12th Street West.
Tyson believes that Billings is behind other cities of its size in public art. The Downtown Billings Association is working with Middle and the arts advocacy group, Canvas, to designate a “legal wall,” allowing local graffiti artists a canvas to paint on.
“It would open people’s minds a little bit,” Middle said.
One of the largest and most prominently placed murals in Billings was painted by Parker Ford, a one-time employee at the Spoke Shop. His mural is on a Spoke Shop
warehouse located on 19th Street West at Broadwater Avenue.
“At the time the owner had traveled to Belgium and had seen all these murals there. He showed me some pictures and asked if I wanted to paint something,” Ford said.
The cinderblock wall, which measures 80 feet by 20 feet, presented a challenge for Ford, who had previously only painted murals inside houses. He painted the bike-themed mural in 2005 and 2006, working in two of his three children’s birth dates and incorporating two self-portraits, one in the clouds and another on the rims.
Something to smile about
“I wanted to have something fun that made people smile,” Ford said. “I wanted to show my love for biking and show how beautiful Billings is.”
Ford wishes there were more murals in Billings since a painting is more interesting to look at than a blank wall.
He came up with the idea of having a local fundraiser much like the Horse of Course or the ram project where area artists are recruited to design and paint murals around town with local businesses sponsoring them.
The Canvas group has a similar idea of increasing the amount of public art through mural projects. The group got a jump-start in 2012 when Pug Mahon’s and Guido’s on First Avenue let them paint murals on the back of the buildings in what is now known as “Canvas Alley.” The murals run the gamut from space creatures to explosive designs and from bubble letters and tags. They are available to view every day until 10 p.m.
Stevie Moe is one of the founders of Canvas and she helped organize local artists to paint the first murals.
“We wanted something different for Billings,” Moe said. “We’re trying to figure out a way for people to express themselves outside the art galleries.”
The idea is to paint over the murals periodically. For information on Canvas or painting murals, go to www.yourcanvas.org.
The time seems right for Billings to showcase more public art, perhaps starting with the completion of the Jim Morrison portrait.