Missoula’s Cultural Treasures: The Clay Studio of Missoula

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Tucked away on a quiet street in Missoula’s historic West Side neighborhood sits the Clay Studio of Missoula (CSoM) – arguably one of our community’s greatest cultural resources. While today their facility boasts an impressive amount of classroom and community studio space; space for five artists in residence; a sales gallery as well as a dedicated space for monthly exhibitions; electric kilns, gas and soda kilns, and the impressive 720 cubic foot anagama wood fire kiln (offsite) this organization began as a handful of college kids in someone’s garage.

The founders of the Clay Studio recognized the need for a community of ceramic artists and began building one in a garage. These emerging artists found the support, inspiration, and new techniques needed to find their voice and build a body of work to start their career with. They found it from each other and as word spread their community grew, and the ceramic artists began teaching workshops, and hosting classes for kids, and with it came the need for a permanent facility.

Their first facility allowed them to expand their classes and made room for the beginning of their residency program, taking one artist at a time for a 7 month residency. In their current space the Clay Studio is able to host up to 5 residents for 1 to 2 years.

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The reason this is important to our community, is that it fights the notion that an artist has to leave Missoula in order to be successful. In fact artists from all over the country apply to the ever more competitive residency program, and given the option between one and two years, almost all of them choose two. A number of these artists have even made their home here after the residency. These resident artists do more than develop their own career, however, they also teach classes and lead workshops, sharing their knowledge and experience with our community.

The residency program insures that community artists are able to learn new techniques and find inspiration from the diversity of artists who cycle through, and the amount of residents is kept at a minimum so that community artists will have access to space and resources needed to develop their craft. While so many artists may feel the need to chase success in bigger cities, a Missoula artist can stay put and let the wealth of a nation of ceramic artists cycle through and share their ideas and inspirations.

In addition to this their gallery plays host to nationally recognized artists as well as group exhibitions that bring art in from across the globe. Their current exhibiting artist, Sarah Jaeger, has the distinction of being the only ceramic artist in the nation to be awarded the Target Fellowship from United States Artists in the year she applied. On the same short list of ceramic artists awarded this prestiguous honor is Missoula’s own Beth Lo. World class art is available in Missoula, meaning that world class artists have the opportunity to make a name for themselves right here in our community.

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While so many small towns similar to ours are experiencing “brain drain”, our creative community – and particularly institutions like the Clay Studio of Missoula – are proving that you don’t need to leave to make a name for yourself. Which is very good for us – because we want artists to stay here. Not only do they make our town fun, beautiful, and interesting – they are helping our economy grow.

Recent surveys conducted by the Americans for the Arts have shown that roughly 39 million dollars a year flow into our local economy from non-profit arts events. To put that into context, it’s the same amount of economic activity that cities five times our size can produce from their arts and culture. It’s the key to how we as a community can remain strong as we grow. And the support we show organizations like the Clay Studio of Missoula is reciprical. Unintentionally, by simply being serious and talented artists, the staff and residents of CSoM add value to our community contributing to the creative force that makes Missoula a cultural capitol of our region.

And their commitment to our community doesn’t stop there. As executive director Shalene Valenzuela explains their recent expansion, “Without community members we wouldn’t need improvements.” Serving Missoula is at the forefront of their long term plans, and is already a part of their daily operations, with professional artists providing art education at nearby Lowell School, several classes and workshops available for all ages, a constant presence at Missoula festivals, and of course space and resources made available to the communtiy.

You can see the Clay Studio’s current exhibition, “Pots for the Summer Kitchen” by Sarah Jaeger, throughout the month of August at 1106 A Hawthorne St.

A full list of classes and workshops are available online.