Small Towns, Big Art: Idaho Artists

idahoMost Idahoans know that if you want art, Boise is the place to go. But, what about those charming little small towns all across Idaho and the artists that live? Isn’t their art worth the trip to view? Here are some Idaho artists that prove small towns can have big art.

Most Idahoans know that if you want art, Boise is the place to go. But, what about those charming little small towns all across Idaho and the artists that live? Isn’t their art worth the trip to view?

Well, these artists will make you want to hop in the car this weekend and make a trip to their little towns to view their super-sized art.

“Sheding” Light on a Unique Art Form

For Jan and Jim Adams of Harpster art is all in the sheding. For more than ten years, the Adams have been making usual art from deer antler sheds, the antlers of deers and elk that are cast off once a year.

“Our family has always loved to hunt  for antler sheds, and maybe that is why we eventually got so interested in using them as a product,” says Jan Adams.

The husband and wife team craft belt buckles, bolos, salt and pepper shakers, earrings and more by carefully cutting the antlers, then sanding, and hand painting them with original artwork. Their business started in 1983 when the couple decided to turn their family pastime of hunting for antler sheds into an art form.

“My husband saw a sterling silver eagle, inlaid on a deer antler burr and wanted me to try painting something for him on a belt buckle,” recalls Jan. “It was an elk profile, and I remember how difficult it was for me, beings I had always painted on large pieces of paper or canvas. I had to teach myself to paint in a very small space, and that took a long time to get used to the process. Other people saw this buckle, which led to orders for more buckles.”

Business boomed, leaving Jan to work her business five days a week, painting what inspires her most: “Animals! I love animals, and it’s like I have to paint them . . . They are what I do most of the time, although I paint many other things,” gushes Jan. “One inspiring moment (was when) I went bow hunting with Jim, and he called in a bull elk. The elk came in really close to us, and put his head back and bugled . . . you could see the steam of his breath. I came home from that trip, wanting to paint what I saw, and painted an elk picture called ‘Bull Elk Ridge,’ which is on a large piece of agate.”

They display their work at the Harpster Store in their hometown, and at art shows across the northwest. The couple have won awards at the Central Idaho Art Association’s Spring Art Show, and also at the Idaho County Fair. “We do a number of art shows,” says Jan, “all during the year, where we have a large display of everything from painted antler bolo ties to antler key chains.”

The couple have enjoyed  the continuity, security, and quiet of Harpster for the past 42 years. When asked if living in the small town helps her creativity Jan says, “Well, I am so prejudiced! I live in a great little quiet town, with the sound of the Southfork River in the background . . . I see deer and wild turkey, and many other animals from my windows . . . it has a calming effect, I’m sure.”

Flying High in Eagle, Idaho

No one would dare accuse Susan Kirsch of being a small time artist in a small town. Kirsch has won more than ten awards for her artwork, including Best of Show at the 2003 Nampa Art Guild Membership Show, and one of her collectors is State Representative Bill Deal. Her art is currently being displayed at the Art Source Gallery in Boise,
The Second Street Deli, and will be at the 2004 City of Nampa Arts Festival August 14 and 15. In 2003 Kirsch became the president of the Nampa Art Guild, adding another achievement to her long list.

Kirsch started painting seven years ago after returning to the United States from Taiwan. “My husband (and furniture) was still there wrapping up business,” she explains. “Without someone to talk to, and furniture to dust, I found myself with free time. I decided to do something I had always wanted to do — take a watercolor class. I joined an adult education class at the high school and have been hooked on painting ever since.”

Her passion has resulted in a full time occupation, including displaying at art shows all over Texas, and then Idaho, when she moved here three years ago. “I try to paint as often as I can. Sometimes this means every day,” Kirsch says. “I am inspired by the beauty of things around me. The way the light reveals things. The changes of the seasons. The cyclical nature of life. Life experiences. Shapes, colors. I am also inspired by words. Sometimes when I hear snippets of conversations, I visualize colors and patterns that I later put into a painting. ”

Many people think of big cities when they think of fine art, but Kirsch believes that small towns can be a boost to the artist’s spirit. “I feel I could be creative anywhere I live, but I find Eagle, Idaho a very conducive environment. We have a pond behind our house where I can see wildlife. There is the wonderful Idaho sunshine and change of seasons (much appreciated after living in places where there weren’t four distinctive seasons) I love hearing the red-winged blackbirds and the frogs. It has a very calming effect. Like all is well in my little corner of the world.”

Wildlife Dynamo

There isn’t a better example of a big time small town painter than Mary Roberson of Hailey. There is no place she’d rather be than Hailey, unless she can find an even smaller town. “Yes, small towns and country life inspire me to paint, in fact I’m in the process of looking to move out of this small town and into the boonies,” Roberson confesses. Though, she admits that she really does love where she lives at the present.“What I like best about Hailey is that I know hundreds of people and I’m close to some of the finest galleries in the US. In the Ketchum area (there is) also fine music, plays, benefits, outdoor concerts, gallery walks and in general a high quality of sophistication in the arts, along with a great percentage of people who have a high regard for our environment. This community is more ‘awake’ than your average Anytown, USA.”

Roberson loves to paint the wildlife and water-scapes that Northen Idaho provides and is passionate about her craft. She devotes all of her time to studying and painting wildlife and landscapes so much so that she camps in Yellowstone two or three months of the year, in the winter and fall months, to observe, photograph, and sketch the wildlife. “As far as big cities go, when I visit my sister or go to a museum, I keep my eyes closed, not really, but I’m pretty much turned off by traffic and noise. I recently declined an all-expenses-paid trip to Disney World, but I’ll take off in two seconds to drive 600 miles to see a bison in Montana.”

Roberson started painting as a young child, but, as a teen, inner turmoil soon brought her art to a standstill. “Recognition put me into the limelight, and I found this very uncomfortable,” she says of that time in her life. “In truth, I was defending a fictitious, negative opinion about myself and it is with some sadness that I must confess that this took precedence over art, my gift, and even my happiness. I was locked into a pattern of sabotage, and, in fact, I abandoned art all together, but not deep down in my heart.”

As Roberson likes to say, our lives include a long road of history, a mixture of the negative and the positive, and soon once again the urge to pick up the brush and paint again appeared again when she divorced her husband in 1991. “Once again, art came to my rescue to remind me that creativity was, perhaps, the purpose for life itself,” Roberson remembers. “Try as hard as I might, I could not resist the lure of my gift, and little by little it became the path I followed. I always loved animals, and they became the focus for my art. They became my inspiration. I loved two things, in addition to my family; animals and art, and by putting the two together, I discovered that I could love me, too.”

Today, Roberson enjoys her art and the fruits of her labor. Her art is being shown in fine art galleries across the West, including the Kneeland Gallery in Ketchum, Id. Though, when asked about any awards she’s won, Roberson makes it clear that she doesn’t feel awards make the artist. “I don’t enter contests or compete for awards. It’s too time consuming and I don’t have a need to ‘win’ anything, although I have to say that of the 20 or so competitions I’ve entered, I’ve won 20 times, from Judges Choice to Best of Show. Every time a collector buys one of my paintings, I’ve won an award and I don’t have to do a bunch of paper work to go with it.”

An Artist for the Kids

Will Leaton of Kamiah knows all about how “big” art can affect a small town.

“Communities Creating Connections asked me if I would be interested in doing a mural about the local ecosystem with the Clearwater Valley Jr. High,” says Leaton. “Sounded like a good opportunity to me.” In no time, he worked up some studies and the team of sixty-five Jr. High students went to work. “The mural just exploded on the wall,” quips Leaton. “Those kids were so enthusiastic. I was really amazed.”

When mural was done, the Idaho Commission on the Arts invited Leaton to apply for the Artist in Education Roster. He has been on the Roster ever since, completing two murals for the Kooskia schools, one at the Nezperce school, one at the Elk City school, and two in Kamiah with the High School students.

And Leaton isn’t done yet. “I am slated to do one with the Northwest Children’s Home in Lewiston over the summer,” Leaton says. “It is not only a learning experience for the students but for me as well.”

In addition to painting murals, Leaton also carves wood, paints on canvas, and carves Lewis and Clark Bicentennial canoes, with collectors in Idaho as well as Germany, Holland, and Brazil.

Leaton seemed to always know that he wanted to be an artist. “When I was a kid my mom and I took this course on T.V. called ‘Learn to Draw with John Naggy.’ She was the one that always said I was an artist. In 1976, I enrolled at University of Idaho after being in Electronics in Phoenix Ariz. I told my brother I was going to learn to paint. He said, ‘What are you going to paint? Barns?’ I probably should have, it would have been more money.”

“A lady I knew once told me that if I wanted to live in Kamiah and be an artist I should use that as a calling card,” Leaton says about his choice to stay in a small town. “It is also said that an artist shouldn’t do anything he doesn’t know about. Since I don’t know much about anything else but Kamiah and my life here, that’s what my art reflects. I figure if I like it, somebody else will maybe like it too. It is beautiful in our valley. It’s still the place I want to be.”