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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.’”
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.
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.
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."
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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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
“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.