Drag queens

From left, iLana Jaxxx'n, also known as Lane Pascall, Summer Smalls, also known as Ethan Smith, and Regina Jaxxx'n, also known as Rick Hibbs, were featured in Enjoy in March for a profile on the increase of local drag performances in Montana. The Countship, a Bozeman-based nonprofit run by drag queens is part of the larger Missoula-based nonprofit The Imperial Sovereign Court of the State of Montana, or ISCSM. 

In 2019, The Billings Gazette celebrated the arts and music community of the region, with a dash of food news and a whole lot of fun. 

This year has seen a rise in the amount of arts journalism in our community, and I'm proud to work with my fellow journalists every day on stories that impact and enhance our lives. We welcomed U.S. Poet Laureate Joy Harjo to Billings, explored the increase of local drag performances, landed an interview with Weird Al, and helped shed light on the "other" Mozart

We featured a Montana-based psychic and subject of a new documentary that was awarded $50,000 from the Montana Governor’s office, and shared the story of a music therapist who uses lullabies to send families in the NICU home sooner.

Music Therapy in NICU

Brooke Wagner, left, a music therapist with St. Vincent Healthcare, coaxes Cybil Raine to accept the pacifier from the pacifier-activated lullaby music player as Raine's mother Candace looks on in the NICU at St. Vincent Healthcare on Thursday, April 18. The machine encourages infants to practice sucking to enable them to nurse more efficiently.

And, there were local artists and musicians featured every single week. This year hasn’t been easy, and changes were made to the format of the print section of Enjoy, moving it from a 16-page stand-alone tabloid into the regular paper on Fridays.

With the changes, we have less space for some of the smaller arts briefs and calendar listings, and we heard from many readers and the arts community about this shift. The goal of coverage remains to engage and inform people about Billings, the state of Montana and surrounding areas by providing reliable and fact-based reporting, context and diverse viewpoints.

The silver lining is, these changes allow us to focus more on news stories and features where our journalists can explain and illuminate trends and relevant community issues and share stories you won't get anywhere else. It also pushes more arts and cultural coverage in the daily paper.

"Weird Al" Yankovic

"Weird Al" Yankovic is seen in August during the Billings stop of his "Strings Attached" tour at MetraPark featuring the Billings Symphony Orchestra. Best known for his parodies of popular songs, Yankovic played with a different orchestra every night on this tour. “It does make these ridiculous songs sound majestic in a way that you couldn’t possibly anticipate,” Yankovic said.

Quality journalism takes time. It takes access. It takes thought and gut and heart and tenacity. And it doesn’t happen for free.

Arts on A1

We had a record number of arts stories on the front page of The Gazette. We were the first to break the news about the Billings Symphony’s largest single donation: the Sukin Building at 2820 Second Ave. N. in downtown Billings.

We also brought you news of new businesses in town, including the the exclusive story on By All Means, which opened on the West End in November, and were the first to report on Freefall Brewery, which is set to open in Rimrock Mall before the end of the year.

U.S. Poet Laureate Joy Harjo

U.S. Poet Laureate Joy Harjo, right, talks with Montana poets laureate Melissa Kwasny, left, and Mandy Smoker Broaddus during a gathering at Corby Skinner's home Friday, November 8, 2019.

Cameron Records opened in April, and we’ve been reporting on this new shop as it evolves into one of Billings hippest new venues for local music.

Speaking of hip venues, Kirks' Grocery — an all-ages art gallery and music venue at 2920 Minnesota Ave. — had its one-year anniversary in September. The inclusive space features plenty of outsider art on its walls and has featured works by some of the region’s edgier artists as well as performances by national acts and local up-and-comers.

Kirk’s Grocery celebrates one year

Trainride Meatsweats, who formed at Kirk’s Grocery, performs during the venue’s first anniversary party in September. 

Pub Station also celebrated a milestone in 2019, and has been bringing live music to Billings for five years. Earlier this year, it was announced that Sean Lynch, talent buyer for The Pub Station, would also take over live music bookings at Yellowstone Valley Brewing following a renovation and new ownership

We celebrated many different artists across the year, including Chico’s executive chef Dave Wells, who was a semifinalist for the 2019 James Beard Foundation Awards (basically the Oscars of the food world), and chef Jason Corbridge, who left Last Chance Cider Mill to pursue his dream of opening his own restaurant, Parasol.

We lost some great artistic people in 2019, and recalled fondly Livingston writer Richard Wheeler’s legacy of prolific writing and generosity, the Billings jazz legend Brad Edwards, and also honored the legacy of Montana painter Russell Chatham.

And, we reflected on some major arts movers and shakers of the past, including one of the first modernist painters in Montana, Bill Stockton, whose paintings were works of abstraction of the land around him. Rarely did he paint the iconic panoramas of Big Sky Country. 

Another legend of the region, Will James, became a source of intense scrutiny that started as a news tip. The more we dug, the more fascinating the story became as to why the Yellowstone Art Museum has the world’s largest body of work and ephemera from the cowboy artist, whose life is indelibly connected to Billings, the Snook family and a contract signed by the YAM two decades ago, locking the art in Billings without a lasting financial gift to support it.

All in the artistic family

Donna Forbes, who celebrated her 90th birthday on March 19, is connected to both the Will James archives and the Bill Stockton collection. The arts community celebrated her contributions to Montana's artists and her role in shaping and building the state's largest contemporary art museum here in Billings.

Donna Forbes

Just before her 90th birthday in March, Donna Forbes is seen with her painting by Bill Stockton. Forbes, longtime director of the Yellowstone Art Museum and art booster across Montana and Wyoming, considered the Grass Range artist to be a great friend and a "very brilliant man."

When I visited with Forbes, she was temporarily staying in an assisted living facility following a nasty fall where she broke her arm. She had few possessions that she brought with her, but she was sure to have her favorite artists' works hung on the walls, including a painting by Stockton.

“I’ve had the most fortunate life," Forbes said. "Montana was just ready to move. It’s a huge, isolated state. I used to say, we’re out there behind the sagebrush curtain. You’re trying to raise money for contemporary work. They’d say, ‘How can you show that work out there?’ And I’d say, ‘It’s education. That’s just what you do.’”

Kostas at home in Belgrade

Kostas, who lives in a three-story historic building in downtown Belgrade, is seen with his vast collection of objects and artwork, including this painting of his grandparents, brought over from Greece, where the family originated. The Montana-based songwriter was inducted into Nashville's Songwriters Hall of Fame in October. 

In November, I sat down with another of Montana’s great artists, known simply as Kostas. He was fresh off his trip to Nashville where he was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame. From his handshakes with John F. and Jacqueline Kennedy to his battles with disco culture and his start in the music world at age 9 singing in Billings bars, I feel I only scratched at the greater story of Kostas and his love of songwriting.

Notorious nightclubs

One of my most read stories of the year was on the failed nightclubs of Billings, and I was able to slip in a description of clubbing in town ... aka “grinding in a meat market with sticky floors in a club descending into debauchery.”

The playbook of what-not-to-do in Billings nightclubs is thick. “There’s a lot of money involved. There’s public safety involved. There’s all kinds of things that go into the equation to have a successful nightclub,” said Nate Benfit, aka DJ Benefit.

Dj night at the Petroleum Club

DJ Nate Benefit spins for a crowd at the Petroleum Club on the 22nd floor of the DoubleTree Hotel in March. The social club has been hosting a monthly “Club Night” and events like yoga since January to increase membership and attract younger patrons.

Benfit called it quits in the Billings nightclub scene in 2017 after witnessing a man shoot another man while he was DJing at Bones Arcade.

“My family shouldn’t be worried about me going to work every night,” he said. “That was a big eye-opener for me.”

Even though there are more failed nightclubs in Billings than successful ones, The Billings Petroleum Club launched a new spot for nightlife earlier this year.

Let’s talk about talking

My editor, Chris Jorgensen, and I decided to dive into a series of stories about the excessive chatter we were noticing in area venues. He published a piece titled, “Hey music fans, can we talk about talking during live shows?,” which isn’t a judgment but an investigation with voices from the musical community locally and from players he’s gotten to know in the national scene.

I began to take notice of smaller venues opening up, including plenty of house shows in response to jabbering audiences at clubs around town.

"No music is independent of its place and context," said Jalan Crossland, a singer/songwriter based in Tensleep, Wyo., whose solo music is a good fit in the home, though such shows account for less than 10 percent of his live performances, he estimates. The rest of the time, he's on the road with a full band. "You have to go to venues that suit what you do."

Jalan Crossland performs house show

Wyoming musician Jalan Crossland performs during a house show in May 2018, hosted by Ed and Lisa Kemmick at their downtown loft. 

An alternative is to attend or perform a house show.

"People are looking for an event that can be kind of special or an experience more than just music," said Seattle musician Chris Staples, who in March played house shows in Helena and Bozeman and then a small art gallery in Billings.

Billings-based guitarist Shane De Leon has been on both sides, as a fan and musician. Volume is one of the ways he learned to get audiences to pay attention. Playing softer songs can get a room to quiet down, he said, and turning up his amp can shock audiences into attention.

Jackson Blue at Kirks' Grocery

Jackson Blue performs at Kirks' Grocery in Billings in May. The Billings guitarist and poet is a frequent performer at the small venue on Minnesota Avenue, started in 2018 by musician Shane De Leon. 

But these parlor tricks don’t last long, especially if the crowd is drinking. “Once you introduce a bar into the mix, it just changes everything,” said De Leon, who runs Kirks’ Grocery, where every seat is front and center. At 625 square feet and a 25-person capacity, the venue is the smallest in town.

Better together

Supaman and Gabriel Royal

Apsáalooke rapper Supaman drums with Brooklyn-based cellist Gabriel Royal during a performance at the Alberta Bair Theater in March. The two artists, who had never met prior to the rehearsals for this concert, collaborated on a couple songs and presented their original works to the audience. 

Collaborations were some of our favorite features, including the coming together of Brooklyn cellist Gabriel Royal and Apsáalooke rapper Supaman. In so many stories, like that of the “Move the Needle” project at Stapleton Gallery, we found music to be our common language, creativity our connector.

Collaborations with paint, as well, caught our eye. Carlin Bear Don't Walk’s nearly 80-foot-long mural at ZooMontana, which he completed in late October, was painted in collaboration with children in the community and indigenous activist Goldstein Little Eagle with a goal to prevent and address opioid abuse in Yellowstone County.

Bear Don’t Walk’s painting stretches across time, from the migration of indigenous people and the bison herds of the West to a hopeful, urban future. 

“In order to fulfill your dreams, you’ve got to remember where you started at and remember those who came before you and what they’ve been through,” said Bear Don’t Walk.

Dream Chasers of Montana mural

Carlin Bear Don't Walk finishes his nearly 80-foot long mural at the entrance to ZooMontana in late October. The project was funded by a Tribal Opioid Response Grant through SAMHSA (Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration).

This story challenged me to tie art and healing together. Anecdotally, it's easy, but directly is more difficult. Bear Don't Walk, member of both the Northern Cheyenne and Crow tribes, heals with paint and invites his community to participate, working to change lives and perspectives of youth through art.

Art and healing

Henny Scott's artwork

A linoleum block cut and prints of a morning star design by Henny Scott, who died in December 2018, are seen at the Stapleton Gallery. With permission of Henny's mother, Paula Castro, artwork Henny created during her freshman year at Lame Deer High School, including pottery created at Helena's Archie Bray Foundation for the Ceramic Arts, was shown at the Stapleton Gallery on May 11 along with her fellow classmate's works. 

We found art to be an important component of healing communities, and in April I was invited to Lame Deer to see firsthand how art plays a role in students' lives on the Northern Cheyenne Reservation. Students were preparing for a gallery exhibition that furthered their artistic pursuits while honoring their fallen classmate, Henny Scott.

Grief, anger, and activism sprung from the death of Henny, a 14-year-old freshman at Lame Deer High School, whose body was found west of Lame Deer in December 2018 after she had been missing for several weeks. 

I was able to meet, and hug, Paula Castro during the exhibition of her daughter Henny's works at the Stapleton Gallery in May. Paula wore a bright red shirt — a color that has become synonymous with a movement to bring awareness to the disappearance, death and murder of indigenous women and girls across North America — and beaded earrings with Henny’s picture. Though she was mourning the loss of Henny, it seemed that being around artworks that Henny and her fellow students made during the school year helped soothe that ache.

In preparations for the gallery show, Ben Pease helped students incorporate the Morning Star from Henny’s block cut design onto a tepee canvas. The tribal symbol is seen throughout Northern Cheyenne culture and is the school’s mascot. 

Preparing for Promise Under The Morning Star

During art class at Lame Deer High School in April, artist Ben Pease works with Cedar Lone Bear to spray paint over a stencil on a tepee for that was displayed as part of an art exhibit at the Stapleton Gallery.

Transforming hate

Though I’ve always known it to be true, this year I felt much closer to understanding how art and beauty matter in this polarized world. Art heals and transforms, and it speaks for those who have suffered at the hands of others, as illustrated in the "Speaking Volumes: Transforming Hate" exhibition, which originated in Helena at the Holter Museum of Art more than a decade ago.

Artists across the nation were asked to transform books authored by Ben Klassen, a white supremacist and founder of the Church of the Creator. Some of those works are now touring the state with Art Mobile of Montana and being presented to rural elementary schools.

Art Mobile of Montana presents "Speaking Volumes: Transforming Hate"

In mid-December, Shannon Driscoll, instructor with Art Mobile of Montana, presented works of art from "Speaking Volumes: Transforming Hate" exhibition at Pioneer School. The exhibit, featuring works of art made from books containing anti-Semitic and racist ideologies obtained by the Montana Human Rights Network, is touring schools across Montana.

My web browser’s history for this story’s research might just get me on a FBI watch list. And this story hurt. Looking at images of lynchings, reading about hate, murder, atrocities, racist ideologies and the people who espouse such views ... these works of art have immense pain and suffering within them.

“People aren’t born hating other people. They have to learn that,” explained Jane Waggoner Deschner, an artist whose works appear in the show, during the Art Mobile's presentation at Pioneer Elementary School.

Katie Knight, the exhibit's curator, didn’t hesitate when I asked if this work was appropriate for younger students. “Kids have a really strong sense of something that is fair or not fair."

A connected world

Cellist Josephine Nsimba, Orchestre Symphonique Kimbanguiste

Cellist Josephine Nsimba plays in the street in front of the church where the Orchestre Symphonique Kimbanguist. In November 2017, Montana filmmaker Jessica Jane Hart and sound engineer and radio journalist Tarek Fouda spent five days filming in the Congo, documenting Kaori Fujii’s work with the only symphony in central Africa. The documentary made its debut at Art House Cinema in Billings in April. 

Incredible stories have inspired us, like that of the Orchestre Symphonique Kimbanguiste, the only symphony in central Africa. The story goes that the orchestra started with a single violin. The instrument was shared among 20 people, some traveling on foot for hours to get a chance to play it.

That violin launched a symphony in Kinshasa that now has more than 200 choir and orchestra members, many of whom are self-taught and continue to travel long distances to rehearse together.

This project has interesting connections to Montana through Kaori Fujii, a world-renowned flutist who first traveled to Kinshasa, the capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo, five years ago to see if she would be welcomed as a teacher. It took two years and six trips to convince the musicians that she was actually coming back, said Fujii.

“They are used to having promises broken, so they don’t expect a lot and see a lot of people coming and going, but it never sticks.”

Billings-based filmmaker Jessica Jane Hart was inspired to produce a film after meeting Fujii, and her documentary, filmed in Kinshasa, made its debut at Art House Cinema in Billings in April.

This year, I’ve tried to be everywhere, no small feat based on our limited resources, but I did have the most-read story of the year at billingsgazette.com. Our coverage of Kanye West’s “Sunday Service” in September in Cody was shared nationally. I also chased the story of Rob Zombie’s equipment bus overturning on I-90, a story I was only able to piece together from crash reports and Zombie’s account from stage of the incident.

Rob Zombie

Prior to a scheduled July concert by Rob Zombie and Marilyn Manson at First Interstate Arena at MetraPark in Billings, a semi hauling Rob Zombie's sound equipment lost control on a curve on Interstate 94 and overturned. The driver was taken by ambulance to Forsyth and then airlifted to a Billings hospital. The concert was delayed, but still went on.

“You made us feel better. It’s been a very dark day for us all. This show in no way would have happened without our excellent crew. … As they say, we are the guys that make it rock, but they’re the guys that make it f---ing roll,” Zombie said.

And yes, I've managed a few expletives into the paper. All in a day's work. 

Photos: Live in Billings in 2019

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