Photo and Article by L. Abigail Jones
Driving to Lewistown is a deliberate act to satisfy curiosity; it isn’t a town where people often “just pass through” unless they have a specific reason. Tourists usually head for Glacier or Yellowstone, bypassing this small city of roughly 12,000 in the midst of an area still characterized by the U.S. Census Bureau as “Frontier.” Though remote, Lewistown has the flavor of a European town set in the American West. But the real treasure in this island community isn’t just the scenery – it’s the people. And the evidence of their rich culture is expressed through their art.
Poets and philosophers through the centuries have opined that the development of civilization can be seen through the merits of artistic expression in any given culture. Most “tourist” towns sport cheap relics of what history has plowed under in a cellophane package. But the art here isn’t a conglomeration of kitschy replicas; it’s true craft, produced by real artisans with patience and a profound respect for history and method. While the rest of the world is into fast and easy, artists in Lewistown know how to take their time.
The obvious focal point of the artist/artisan culture is along the main street, which has not changed much since Croatian stone masons laid their handiwork alongside structures of brick and wood. These buildings currently house unique shops and galleries run by local residents. There is art everywhere, and if you stick around, you might meet a few of the people who make it.
On Main Street, the Art Center offers pieces from over 150 local artists, while showcasing Montana artists in 12 gallery shows a year and providing a space for artists to gather and work. When asked why such a small town has such a high number of artists, Linda Tullis, Executive Director of the Art Center, pointed out that the community is rooted in deep tradition. “One of the unusual aspects of Central Montana is that so many families have generations of history here. They either have stayed here or have moved back; there is a magnetism about this place. Many of the ways the arts reveal themselves might be through traditional trades and heritage, such as fiber arts, welding, blacksmithing, or ceramics. But through those traditions, something so lovely and unique to this area is revealed to others who are passing through.”
Other examples of such work can be found in Carol Woolsey’s fine jewelry shop and gallery, or in Clint Loomis’ watercolor studio. Unique pieces abound at the Mountain Man Gallery, run by Frank Hanzel, a talented and humble artist who works in relative solitude. He’s a prolific worker who seeks to produce something every day, and his art – which includes beadwork, antler carving, and Native heritage pieces – enjoys an international following that attracts visitors from all over the world. And yet he doesn’t advertise. These galleries are an example of what travelers miss when they follow habitual itineraries.
While the scenery could be a factor, it’s much more possible that the town is closer to what civilization has been for millennia without succumbing to the distraction of technology: a group of people living, working, and teaching together. The Art Center hosts after-school art programs and sponsors productions of Shakespeare in the Parks and the Montana Repertory Theater. In the same vein, several artists in town, including noted painters Jim Borgreen, Gordon Russell, and Clint Loomis, passed their skills on to generations of schoolchildren as public school teachers. Theater groups produce pieces by local authors, and several coffee shops host open-mic nights and foster the talent of aspiring singers, poets, and (occasionally) comedians of all ages.
For a small town in geographic isolation, this “city of stone” is an oasis for the arts community. Maybe it’s the scenery. Or perhaps Lewistown, delicately preserving the old while courting the new, is one of the last truly normal places left in the United States when taken in the context of human history. The ability of the community to form such a unique gem from so many varying opinions, histories, and personalities comes from a deep sense of community, family, and yes – love. And those are the things that make the best art.