The back wall of the Hewitt Downstairs studio at the Montana Artists Refuge is about 15 feet by 20 feet. It was that wall that became the repository for a series of oil-painted panels called The Refuge. The Artists Refuge is in Basin, Montana; The Refuge is oil on canvas, a product of my two-month residency in Basin.
The Refuge is a visual rendition of a psychogeography of Basin, Montana — paintings that recall scenes and feelings arising from that particular place in that particular time and space of my life.
The Refuge, oil on canvas, Approximately 6′ x 10′.
I use the term “psychogeography” to speak of the process, but a better term to describe the artist/writer might be “flâneur.” Baudelaire speaks of the flâneur as a “botanist of the sidewalk.” (Another writer, Raymond Lucas quotes Walter Benjamin as an expositor of the form.) The flâneur is one who discovers meaning through actively engaging a place, generally a city, but here a village. The Refuge is not Basin, Montana, or even “Basin”, Montana. Rather it is a set of jeweled puzzles about a person, a time, a place; in short, an incomplete set of visual notions.
Early on in my Basin meanderings and with full knowledge that I was just one of many artists passing through the studio, I wanted to emboss my presence on the experience. So, I built obos. I painted obos. And then I put obos onto the Back Wall.
Rock pile on table, Studio
Obos, watercolor, 18″ x 24″
Obos with vines, middle right, The Refuge
Obos with vine, middle left, The Refuge
Cairns in Basin Creek, bottom middle, The Refuge
Obos — rock cairns — signify in multiple ways. One is the Japanese tradition of perching rocks one on another to say “I’ve Been Here”. Another is to identify the Boulder batholith, the humongous pile of upswollen granite and quartz that contains the metals that brought Basin into being. The other thing about rocks is that people in Basin collect them and place them, willy-nilly, everywhere. I simply continued the tradition, albeit in the back wall of the studio on the canvas that filled it.
Robert Genn, artist and blogger, says of obos: “Obos is a destination, a sanctuary, a shrine and a focal point that reminds us that we work with our hands…. Approach obos with a relaxed, curious mind. It can help with answers to questions not consciously asked. Obos gives pause, a contemplative thought or a new direction…. Obos is the carrier of a golden secret. Obos is like art itself. ”
The other element that had to be included in The Refuge is the studio. It was my living space for most of my working hours. It was spaciously empty when I started, filled while I was there, and empty again when I departed.
The bottom two panels of The Refuge show two versions of the building that houses the studio. The one on the right is relatively “straight,” the one on the left is filled with the eccentricities of my adventure. The studio is housed in what originated as the Hewitt Bank Building.
The Hewitt Bank Building, bottom right panel of The Refuge
The Hewitt Bank Building was built during the heyday of Basin, when there were 1,500 inhabitants, at least five whorehouses, one church, an elegant school, grocery and drygoods stores, and this bank. At least five buildings on Basin’s Main Street, including the Hewitt Bank Building, are constructed from brick. Another dominate feature of local scenery is the brick flume and stack, built by the Glass Brothers around 1900, that still dominate the entire village. I can attest to the stoutness and beauty of the brickwork in the flume and stack because one frigid day I scrambled up a snowy hillside to examine it. The flume is an extended arch of clean bricks, plummeting down hill through the woods toward the main street of Basin. The stack, also pristine, rises high into the sky at the top of the flume. Neither structure has ever been used. Bricklayers were undoubtedly much in demand during Basin’s boom times.
The bottom left panel makes more demands on the imagination.
The tropical flower that is part of the Artists Refuge motto is blooming in a snow-covered barrel planter. A tree and a bunch of vines twine inside as well as outside the building. The batholith, threatening passers-by, perches above the front door, which is on the wrong side of the building, a side that in reality has no windows. A bit of the church, a cartoon of the school, some tree-covered hills, and a Buddha — all are depicted as inside the studio. The artist has taken her license and gone a bit wild. The Buddha actually did inhabit the studio (in the form of a 4 x 8 foot panel drawing) when I arrived but was banished to the back bathroom because An Artist was in residence. I wanted him to reappear so I decided he should join me in watching the town. Perhaps bless it, too.
The top panels tend to draw back a bit from the Refuge building, depicting again the eccentricities of the personal view. Rat Foot Lodge and a mine opening are on the far left of the left-hand panel. Basin Street (as it crosses Placer Avenue and goes by Basin Creek Pottery) and Quartz Avenue take up the larger central part of that panel.
Beside that panel, on the top right-hand side, is a panel featuring the Basin Street “downtown” area, showing the Hewitt Building with its tropical flower, more wheeled vehicles, and the Leaning Tower of Pizza (the best pizza in town) overlooked by the Stack. The mountains rise above the street scenes.
The surround of both panels is the large north-facing studio window casings, the windows out of which I watched the townspeople go by, sometimes on foot, but more often in cars and trucks. They went by me to get pizza, to get a beer, to go home, to go to the Post Office. They often waved as they passed. And so those are the windows out of which I looked at the people of Basin looking into. Of such is the participatory nature of the roaming artist, both inside and out, looking in all directions. The flâneur , says Lucas, “walks to be observed as well as to observe others.”
The top far left and far right panels depict “important” buildings in Basin: in small towns, large and/or beautiful structures have a psychological importance disproportionate, perhaps, to what their impact would be in larger communities. On the left is Public School #5, the Basin Elementary School, built in 1895. The value of the school, with its 14 students, is captured by the beauty of the building, which stands out in a community in which cottages and trailer houses are the norms. I imagine a rather 19th century-ish conceit — that on the rock of the batholith was built the school; on the rock that is the school is built the community. It felt good to be both silly, and, I hope, somehow true.
The other buildings that resonated with me were two older structures, now residential and commercial, but still rife with rumors of long-departed, shady pasts. The Stone House has been renovated and can be rented for the night or weekend, and the High Note, closed at the present, recently had been an espresso bar and “music hall.” The two buildings are a bit ungainly and not necessarily well proportioned, but they are prominent on Basin street and in the minds of the community. They seem to go together, to act in concert, if you will, joined at the hip.
And the dogs? Well, Basin has many dogs. Many pampered dogs. I saw a truck owner who kept the window open on the dog’s side of the passenger seat so the dog could stick his head out and bark to his friends. In 10 degrees Fahrenheit weather. This is a Basin version of pampering a pet.
Painting the dogs became a kind of stand-in for portraying the Basin people. The dogs often gathered in the empty street outside the studio window and had their morning conclave and wrestling matches. The St. Bernard, Boozer, true politician as he is, in this panel joins and dominates the other Basin dogs outside the High Note. They are all waiting for the High Note to open up, so they can join the sing-along.
It’s Boozer who is the puppy in the bottom “straight” vision of the Artist’s Refuge — I think he’s been conning artists for some time and won’t stop when I leave.
Finally, the central large panel, the map of Basin (which because of its size, shows disproportionately small on the screen.)
Lucas speaks of the flâneur as “inscribing upon the city; writing rather than reading the city. This is an important distinction,” says Lucas, “as his (sic) spectatorship is an active one, which imposes his will upon the city streets, creating a narrative as he goes along.”
The map began with my hand-drawn copy of a Google street map. It quickly was personalized by my own vision and lack of cartographic experience. I needed to embed personal icons into the map. So I added the head frame and the mining cart on the right and the dogs and the Shiva on the left . The Shiva reflects some of the magic — destructive, instructive, generative — of the area. The head frame was a part of Basin until a few years ago, when it collapsed; the ruins are still extant. The mining cart now heads the Merry Widow (Radon) Health Mine just east of town. The streets and roads and streams run through the icons, and the whole is appropriately surrounded by natural features — hills, leafless shrubs, cloud-like connectors.
The map is both distorted and incomplete and that’s essential to what I wanted to express. It reflects what information I could garner by sliding around on the ice, counting houses and trying to remember the forms of buildings. What strikes me again is how complex this tiny place is and how little I could cover in the two frigid months I lived there. There are whole sections of housing that have been left out. I made one large error of street layout, siting some of the most imposing buildings on Basin street incorrectly. I left the error in place because it says something about the very narrow view, even of my most immediate surrounds, that I had of this place.
The map is central to The Refuge because while it began as a representational satellite image, it quickly became personal. The flaws come from my experience of the place, as do the icons, the color codings, the blank spaces, the sense of being held in the cupped hands of that basin in the mountains of Montana.
So I don’t believe I know Basin, Montana; I only know the narrative that I created. But it was full enough and complete enough that I could create The Refuge. For that, I shall always be grateful.
I apologize for the nature of this essay, for it is an essay and not a post. This “report” to Art and Perception is an attempt to say something of what Basin, Montana, meant to me and why the art called The Refuge is the encapsulation of that meaning. If it reminds you of art that you think somehow pulls together a moment of your existence, holding it visually, please tell us what and how and where…..