photo by Zakara Photography
Connecting Through Creativity: Art in Our Community
by jessica renstrom
When you hear the word “art,” does your mind conjure images of paintings, sketches, and sculptures? Or perhaps your favorite melody begins to drift softly through your thoughts? Art exists in so many forms, each impactful in its own unique way. However, all art forms have the power to create meaningful connections within communities like ours.
The vibrant Billings arts culture is flourishing. Art galleries and museums, live performances, and public art installations (like the murals found around North Park) add beauty to our community and spark conversations.
The Billings ArtWalk, a free event hosted in Downtown Billings every other month, is a fantastic way for residents to experience the wide variety of visual arts created by local artists. Oil painter Tyler Murphy, whose beautifully lit studio is situated above the Art House Cinema and Pub, believes in the importance of sharing art in our community. “I think that having galleries and concert halls and public spaces where everyone can get a sense of the idiosyncratic expressions of their neighbors is vital to the health and soul of any community.” Tyler Murphy
“Over the years, the sense of personal meaning and pleasure I've gotten from painting and capturing our particular state has changed many times,” tells Tyler. “But what doesn't change is that there is something very satisfying when I see a painting that just really captures the feeling of Montana.”
Capturing the feeling of Montana is precisely the aim of another form of visual art frequently seen in ArtWalk: photography.
Billings is a wonderful city with beautiful, natural scenery. That is something that should be celebrated, and capturing it through imagery allows that beauty to be shared and enjoyed by everyone, even those not from here,” states Seth Kroft, a photographer whose stunning work often highlights Montana wildlife, landscapes, and community happenings.
Our local community is tightly knit, and it's always fun documenting the many activities and events that bring everyone together.”Seth Kroft
photo by Zakara Photography
Bringing the community together to share a common experience is also a theme of performance art. Billings is fortunate to have multiple venues showcasing this powerful art form, including Alberta Bair Theater, Billings Studio Theatre and NOVA Center for the Performing Arts.
The Alberta Bair Theater (originally named Fox Theater) has housed performance art in Billings for over 80 years. According to Rachelle Lacy, ABT Office Manager, “The ABT provides the opportunity for people to experience performances they won’t find anywhere else in the area. ABT is the largest fully equipped performing arts venue between Denver and Spokane, drawing more than 120,000 people annually.” The completion of ABT’s stunning 2019-’20 renovation, combined with its continued support of art education, demonstrates ABT’s unwavering commitment to the local arts community.
Likewise, the NOVA Center for Performing Arts is supporting and creating community through education and performance, as Janie Sutton, NOVA Director, performer, and Board Member, describes: “I have seen many articles aimed particularly at my millennial cohort asking again and again how do you make friends as an adult? or where can I meet people? And the answer for me is in the arts. With no experience or performing skills, anyone can come to NOVA and audition for a show. We are always looking for new people to share the stage with, and we also have many off-stage roles to be filled. Not everyone enjoys the spotlight, but if you show up and want to play, there is a place for you here.” Janie continues, “Art is transformative, and one transformation that I see production after production is transforming strangers into friends. What could be better for a community?”
photo by Skoog Photography
Music, an impactful performance art form, continually creates cherished memories for many locals. Although one individual can create music, there’s something almost magical about making music in tandem.
Dr. Steven Hart, Billings Symphony Chorale Director and Professor of Music at Rocky Mountain College, describes the remarkable phenomenon of group singing: “The real magic of group singing is that you can take a collection of people who alone may be fair musicians, but aren't necessarily singing superstars, put them all together and you can create fantastic artistic moments of great power, beauty, and joy. The phenomenon is the very definition of synergy; their combined effect is much greater than the sum of their separate parts.” To witness this synergy in a group as large as the Billings Symphony Chorale or RMC Choir can be breathtaking; however, the magic of music is not limited to large groups.
“The Billings live music scene is so full of opportunities for both listeners and musicians alike,” comments Mark Moak, Professor Emeritus of Art at Rocky Mountain College (RMC), who has played in three different local cover bands during his time in Billings: The MidLife Chryslers, Sober Dave, and Ellen and the Old School. His most recent band, Ellen and the Old School, has played at an extensive list of venues, including Yellowstone Cellars and Winery, Yellowstone Art Museum, Alive After Five, Sky Point, and Billings Clinic Classic. For Mark, music has created not only community connection but also more family time, as his daughter prompted the creation of the group. “It is great fun to be able to play in a band with her.”
Ellen Buer, nurse and lead vocalist of Ellen and the Old School, believes strongly in the positive impact of music: “I believe music is one of the most effective catalysts for bringing people together. Music has this amazing ability to unite a community; it allows us to be deeply introspective and profoundly connected to those around us. You may disagree with everything the person next to you believes, but you can absolutely find common ground in a great song. Some of the highlights of my life include singing in this community, and just about nothing compares to sharing my love of music and performing with my Dad.”
Makers & Public Art Installations
photo by Skoog Photography
Michelle Hawkins, Executive Director of the Billings Industrial Revitalization District (BIRD), is spearheading a movement to bring new life to the East Billings Urban Renewal District (EBURD), located between Downtown Billings and the Heights. The BIRD has been casting a vision for this industrial area of town, and Michelle explains that art plays a large role in both its present and future.
“We are a community of makers, people who use their hands to create things: fixing cars, making luggage, saddles, boots, hats, pottery, florists. We have art in all different forms. For instance, with our asphalt art project, you can see art on the street coming to life. It’s not just something beautiful to look at – it’s creating safety and life in the EBURD, drawing people in.”
Michelle’s passion for our community is inspiring as she describes her ideas and aspirations for even more ways to unite the BIRD: “I would love to get artists from Billings and the surrounding areas to be a part of a MuralFest. Paint and beautify our alleys, year after year, until we fill up the EBURD. Let’s make it stunningly beautiful.”
The arts culture in Billings is thriving. Whether you prefer to get on stage or sit in the audience, there’s no better time to immerse yourself in the wonders of art created in, by, and for our community. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to put down this pen and pick up my paintbrush.