FEATURE: The Creative Conundrum

Can artists going against the Western grain make it in Jackson Hole?

Article published by: Claudia Turner, Buckrail.

JACKSON HOLE, WY – In 2014, art collector Matt Swanson commissioned Jason Borbay to create a Jackson-inspired canvas. To capture the energy, he insisted that Borbay experience Jackson Hole firsthand, so Borbay made a trip to Teton Village. Over a two-day period, he went snowmobiling, hiking, visited the Cowboy Bar, The Spur, The Moose and other valley locales. At the time, his first daughter was only six months old, and he had a two-year lease in Manhattan, so Borbay was locked-down. But he distinctly remembers calling his wife Erin and saying, “I don’t know when, but I’m taking you here.”

Why are artists drawn to the Tetons, and is it possible to retain individuality and edge and still succeed here? Do you need financial cushioning to make it in the valley, or the drive of  Ansel Adams or Thomas Moran?

Fast forward to 2015, Borbay’s second daughter, Vega, was born, and Borbay (or “Borbet” outside of the art scene) landed a two-month residency in the Bahamas. “We loved the experience of life on the road, so we left our Manhattan apartment in July of 2015 to become a nomadic family of four,” he said. After Borbay’s base of operations shifted to Minnetonka, Minnesota, he and his wife looked to Jackson Hole for their next move.

Borbay believes a place’s creative class ultimately defines it. He cited artists such as Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg for helping establish SOHO in Manhattan when it was nothing but abandoned factories. “Developers did, and always will, follow the cool kids, buy-up and develop property, often pricing out the artists responsible for building allure,” he said. “This has been happening forever. There was a time when moving to Brooklyn was a sign of failure for an artist. ‘He/She can’t make it in Manhattan’ they’d say. But look what happened? Real estate prices in Brooklyn are outpacing Manhattan.”His initial plan was to find a place in Jackson, but a chance meeting with Scott Fitzgerald at the Silicon Couloir holiday party opened his eyes to Victor. He wanted space, a family-focused community of like-minded individuals, and the opportunity to build something. “Victor and Driggs feel like Brooklyn in the 90’s—I see nothing but opportunity, and with the greatest ski town in the world with a sizzling art market just over the pass—moving to Victor was the obvious choice,” Borbay said.

Borbay says the starving artist is a misnomer he is striving to eradicate. “Today, in the age of digital democratization, the creative class is stronger, more savvy and successful,” he said. “Creatives are now reaching collectors directly, retaining all of their sales [versus 50 percent through a gallery] and many have fortified their finances.”

So, the artist of today has two choices: establish themselves in a city like Manhattan, or find the next Brooklyn and move to Victor.

Planting or pulling up roots

Borbay’s story offers inspiration to burgeoning artists, but it’s important to keep in mind that he cultivated success in a place far from the Tetons. While Borbay was still finding his artistic niche in New York, Aaron Wallis first arrived to Jackson in 2006 on his way to California. He was involved with the founding of Teton Artlab, a local nonprofit that supports artists in myriad ways, providing studio space, along with exhibition and performance opportunities. He moved back here for good in 2008. Now Wallis is approaching a full decade in Jackson. He said he did most of his work at the Artlab up until a little over a year ago when his press was sold and he was kicked out of his studio. He’s been on his own since, making contemporary art that “probably does not belong here,” and just getting by like most artists do.

“I don’t think a young artist who does anything edgy will ever ‘make it’ here in Jackson,” said Wallis, who lamented the list of failed galleries that have hung contemporary or non-commercial work by local artists. He also laments a transient population that he says stifles the possibility for a real art scene to develop here. “Most of the wealthy people who live elsewhere don’t contribute to a local culture; they are merely consumers of culture,” he said.

“I’ve watched the best artists in Jackson, like Mike Parillo or Charlotte Potter, leave to further their careers,” Wallis added. He believes any young person here who wants to be a serious artist should leave and go to art school. And then come back after school “if you miss getting ill at the Vill.” But he does not think you’re going to learn the prerequisite level of artistic professionalism in Jackson or develop thick skin in a place he finds mostly devoid of critical dialogue.

Indeed, Wallis struggles with his place here. “I wake up every day and think, ‘Maybe I should just drive to Detroit and not come back,’ but I’m a Taurus and earth signs don’t like change,” he said.

Piecing together his Jackson existence with picture framing, teaching, and property maintenance, Wallis sells maybe 10 to 20 pieces a year without any representation. He also says he’s willing to accept a standard of living that many people here would consider beneath their dignity. “I don’t have a Range Rover and never will.” But he feels that since his work addresses social inequality, that being around a privileged class has provided him with insight into class struggle he never would have picked up living in a city.

'El Chapo' by Aaron Wallis.

‘El Chapo’ by Aaron Wallis.

Wallis doesn’t think artists are drawn to Jackson. He thinks skiers, mountain athletes, and affluent people are pulled toward the Tetons. “The idea of Jackson as a creative mecca is integral to the simulacra of Jackson Hole, which is the only Jackson that still exists,” Wallis said. The working class, the cowboys and the ski bums, he says, are both disappearing.

While some artists like Wallis have become discouraged by the valley art scene’s finicky nature, others artists are intent on calling Jackson Hole home and attracting more creative people to the Tetons.

Travis Walker is the executive director of Teton Artlab. He said, “As soon as humans found this place, art has been made here.” Indeed, Walker continued, Thomas Moran and Ansel Adams both came here. Many people ventured here to paint and photograph in an attempt to somehow capture the area’s beauty.

“It’s a natural place for artists to come,” Walker said. “Quentin Tarantino came here and made part of ‘Django Unchained’, unsupported by the state of Wyoming. People just want to come here so badly. It’s really important for me and the Artlab to find a way to harness that power of each artist when they come out here.”

But Walker said it’s exceedingly difficult for artists, and myriad other middle class folks, to find space to live these days. The Artlab gives visiting artists free housing and studio space, and subsidizes studio space for locals. He acknowledges that while the valley is a magnet for artists, it’s not the easiest place to plant roots. True artists, he said, need some space and need to be in their own little world to create.

The Artlab has had an open call for two years. Before that Walker curated a number of different residencies to see what would work—between famous and not so famous artists. “I found the greatest impact in emerging artists,” he noted. “We support famous artists and musicians on a different level, but when you help someone create that work it’s a different thing. It’s harder to quantify. Some of the greatest art in the world has been generated off of the art of others. It’s just not possible to make art when you’re working 50 hours a week, or supporting a large family, or on Facebook all the time. It’s just super important to get away from your life.”

Walker moved to the valley in 2002. He had earned degrees in painting and printmaking from Virginia and Pennsylvania, and was seeking a change in his environment. “If you think you’re going to just sell paintings all the time by yourself at the beginning, you’re crazy,” said Walker, who “got really curious” about this whole world in Jackson Hole where you can make money in the art sphere beyond making art. Walker started the ArtLab in 2008 to create a real space for private studios.

So Walker quit his job at the Art Association, and basically learned everything he needed to learn about writing grants and how to make a business work. “We wanted space to work in and a venue where artists, for the first time in the history of the valley, took control,” Walker said.  So he rented a couple hotel rooms next to Teton Thai at the time, surrounded by young people and artists. He eventually received grant money and grew out of that space.

Today he is on to his fifth space. Through the years, the Artlab has been in a candy factory and old county jail, and has awarded $100,000 in stipends to artists since its inception. Through grant monies, the Artlab gives new artists a thousand dollar stipend plus a room and studio. The whole project has been completely volunteer-based until last year. “Somehow it ended up working and now I’m a part-time executive director. It’s just grown. It’s still almost impossible to survive here without support,” Walker said.

Walker has found it essential to support the entire artist community, from fine art to craft art. In art school things get separated. In the Artlab, however, everyone is curious about what everyone else is doing. There’s no hierarchy. His only regret is that they just don’t have the resources yet to provide housing for locals.

“I’d love to supply every artist in town with affordable housing,” he said. “We are talking about it. It is a dream, and we’re trying to find a way to build something like that, accommodating about 30 units. We are definitely exploring our options right now, and gaining more and more support from the community. To survive in Jackson you’re like a hermit crab going from space to space but we’re kind of tired of that.”

Walker said that even if you get your dream job working in the arts, artists still want to explore their own ideas, and it’s easy to burn out when you don’t have time to make your own art. A program like Artlab allows Walker a chance to provide a life-changing experience with concentrated creative time. “For me, my own painting style has completely changed. Hopefully we keep doing it on a bigger scale,” Walker said.

Michelle Ramin

‘Summering in Spain’ by Michelle Ramin.

Michelle Ramin, 34, was a Teton Artlab resident in February 2015. She makes highly rendered figurative work, recently in colored pencils and watercolors.

“I had an overwhelmingly amazing experience,” she said. “Jackson itself is such a beautiful town and has a stellar art community. At the Artlab, I had a beautifully lit studio and private apartment. I had the freedom to make what I wanted. Travis brought in various curators, journalists, et cetera, to the Artlab for interviews and photoshoots. A lot of great press came out of my time there as well.”

But while Ramin appreciates Jackson’s supportive environment, she isn’t sure it’s viable for emerging artists. “Positive? Absolutely! Realistic? I’m not so sure,” she said of Jackson’s environs. “The cost of living, I know, is astronomical and without the jobs to really back it up. San Francisco has a similar issue with the insane cost of rent, but at least there are [high-paying] jobs available, especially if you’re in tech.” Ramin said she would move to Jackson in a heartbeat if there were jobs in her field that could pay the rent and bills.

Finding time for art

If all your time is spent working to pay escalating valley rent and bills, when do you find the time to create? Pablo Picasso once said, “Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once we grow up.”

After we marry and have children, or begin day jobs that evolve into full-blown careers, how do we hold on to our creative roots?

Teton Thai in Driggs (Ryan Haworth)

The stylish aesthetic of Teton Thai in Driggs care of Ryan Haworth.

“I’ll come back to my art full-time when I have gained enough life experience,” said Ryan Haworth. The 33-year-old valley creative had his last art show one month before his first daughter was born in October 2009. He was also in the midst of finishing a poster design project for Carrie Fischer’s “Wishful Drinking” tour. “I wasn’t feeling the content I was coming up with, and I was about to be a dad with a new schedule, so I backed off for awhile; pulled it all back.”

Haworth now has two daughters and is owner and manager of two restaurants: The Indian in Jackson and Teton Thai in Driggs. He curates and designs the art and interior decoration in both restaurants, which has become a form of working installations, maintaining the feel and layout of each space. Between black booths and reclaimed wood, his creativity is wrapped up in the old books and sculptural art that bridge Western and Eastern influences on the walls.

For Haworth, the hardest part has been finding a balance between creativity and business, and understanding how they can work together. He said that while there isn’t a lot of competition for artists in Jackson, there aren’t as many opportunities. “Those lucky enough to grow up here, with Pulitzer Prize-winning authors at our high school, and access to great foundations like Center for the Arts, still have to deal with Jackson’s limitations,” Haworth said.

“I thought, ‘Just make art, and have someone manage the restaurant.’ But the business became a key to survival and a steady income with a reliable schedule,” he noted. When you’re a father, staying up from 1 to 4 a.m.—a time Haworth says many creatives find their greatest peace and insight to ruminate and make art—isn’t ideal. To stay in an area like Teton Valley means not attempting to become the typical version of a successful artist. It usually means staying for other reasons: family, home, business. “If it’s about success it’s not easy from a money aspect here. But if you love art, creativity, and the mountains, you’ll find a way to make it work,” Haworth said.

Have a goal and keep creating

For some, the romanticized notion of being a starving artist wanes after college. You’ll have plenty of conversation material for cocktail parties and you’ll likely make the best color combinations at the Eddie Bauer window display. But the point of bussing tables at the steakhouse and washing dishes at a pizza shack is to afford rent and the materials needed to continue your work. What is it that separates creative prodigies from average Joes, and if you’re the next Salvador Dali, how are you going to pursue your creative expression with enough time and energy after a string of days slinging cocktails and bagging groceries?

As a first-generation American, Jakub Galzcynski, 29, doesn’t rely on parents or connections. Originally from Chicago, he’s an aspiring architect and part-time snowboard instructor. This is the life of the budding architect as well as an artist with promise in Jackson Hole: enthusiasm in the face of unguaranteed achievements.

“A friend at the mountain may be living in a carpet factory with six other dudes, and happy to just drink and snowboard all day, doing whatever it takes just to be living here in Jackson and taking on the mountain,” said Galzcynski, who wants primarily to build and create. Snowboarding, meanwhile, he uses as a fun diversion.

Just like learning to snowboard, there are a lot of roadblocks and disasters when getting a foothold into the architectural field. And similar to snowboarding, you have to pull yourself up and try again. Galzcynski said the significant component to getting ahead in snowboarding or in architecture is to keep repeating simple steps until they’re seamless, and to correspondingly not spread yourself and your work too thin.

Humility helps with success

Inside Daly Project Gallery (Meg Daly)

Inside Meg Daly’s gallery, which will close its doors next week, Daly Projects.

“If I were going to offer any advice to other artists it would be to strive for greatness while cultivating ever-deepening humility,” Meg Daly noted. “The artists who seem happiest are as excited about being part of a local art fair as they are about a museum show. They don’t let their larger ambitions cancel out the smaller but emotionally sustaining successes along the way.”

As a writer—one of many hats she wears—Daly has enjoyed  her own creative success getting published. She’s written essays and articles that were personally important to her, including seminal features and arts criticism for this newspaper. So from a creative standpoint, she’s achieved important personal goals. “And from those efforts I’ve probably netted about $2,000 over eight years,” Daly laughed.

Born and raised in the valley, Daly’s time living outside of Jackson offered her more critical success, and more money. “I had my fifteen minutes,” she said. But Daly says she doesn’t need more of them from Jackson.

It’s been several years since Daly gave up the idea of writing for financial success or fame. “Getting to that point was a 10-year, knock-down, drag-out fight,” she admitted. Like many artists, Daly always had very high ambitions for herself, and it was “both the most heartbreaking and most liberating thing to realize that I had significant limits to my talent and my capability. Personally, I’m much more interested in writing something well-crafted than being adored for a piece of writing,” she explained.

Daly says Jacksonites sometimes embrace a false narrative that they comprise a special breed of people living a dream life, and she believes that’s dangerous to indulge, for anyone, but especially for artists. “You have to stay with your craft and your process. Fulfillment must come from the making first and foremost, not on bagging peaks,” she said.

Daly shared one final, sobering thought. “Here is the cold, hard fact: There isn’t a big enough art market in Jackson for all Jackson artists to make it here.”  That creates a competitive environment, she says. And while some competition can be helpful for artists, it can quickly become toxic. One of the reasons Daly, who moved her gallery Daly Projects next door to the Artlab on South Jackson St. in December, likes the vibe at the Artlab is because artists there collaborate and support one another.

Daly opened Daly Projects one year ago and has represented a vibrant array of burgeoning and established artists such as Mike Tierney, Abbie Miller, Pamela Gibson and Katy Ann Fox. Her plan was to showcase Jackson artists in a gallery setting that could reimagine human and natural landscapes with a contemporary vision. Although it has become a popular spot for contemporary art, the gallery is closing its doors next week. Daly believes this is a common reality for small businesses and art galleries, which often struggle to stay afloat in the valley. “We simply aren’t making enough money to sustain operations, which was my goal by the one-year mark,” Daly explained.

Although the gallery will close its doors, Daly, ever resilient, doesn’t see this past year as a failure. She says each new project has been an exploration of the bridge between art and the communication of art to a viewer.

Make art because you must

Mike Tierney moved to Jackson in 1996 and has exhibited work at Daly’s gallery. His work currently adorns the bottom of Jackson Hole Mountain Resort’s aerial tram after it was selected for the resort’s 50th anniversary contest that promises exposure but meager financial fruits. He says artists don’t come here to make it, but usually come here after they already have. “It’s la la land,” he said. “White people problems, you know—how to rent your third property for market value, where to go to dinner, what outfit to wear on the hill. If you’re worried about making it, then you wont. If you want to be an artist here, then do it.”

Mike Tierney

‘Wild Nights’ by Mike Tierney.

Tierney says that’s what matters. Do your thing, and if you’re any good at it, it will be seen and, to some degree and for some period of time, celebrated. The crowd is fickle, and fame is not enough, he said. So artists, Tierney stressed, have to make art for themselves. Since everyone and everything changes, creative people need to adapt, find their market, progress their style, and find fulfillment outside of sales. “Have a job and make art because you have to,” he said.

It’s an extreme environment and competitive across the board, but Tierney doesn’t see that as a bad thing. He said the talent is extensive, and very supportive of new ideas and authenticity. “Even if your style gets bit, you stay one up by dreaming and doing.” He said the number one rule is not giving up and, as one painter in town told him: make time everyday to practice. “I live in a cardboard box in a warehouse,” Tierney said. “It’s the deep end, and some would call it a nightmare. But I love what I do. I make art. I will not give up on the dream, or myself.”

Tierney moved here to paint skis for Igneous Skis, and then got immersed in ski culture and wrangling big mountain lines. “After shredding the gnar for many years, I began to think it was selfish and unnecessarily dangerous to keep it up,” he said. That’s when he shifted his focus fully to making art, where he could translate those magical experiences on the mountain into a more lasting format. “It’s quite a tribe, and they’ve embraced my art as ski/art culture.”

Tierney said that while he has provided a gift to mountain-minded people, he has also let folks down. That’s why he stresses the importance of not painting for the approval of the crowd. “They will put you high up on a pedestal, and then gladly watch you splat,” he said.

Crafting an honest trajectory

Luke Zender is a  dancer, videographer, performance artist, dance instructor and choreographer. He works at Contemporary Dance Wyoming, Peridance Capezio Center, and Infinite Vitality Productions. He is also a part-time box office ticket agent at Center for the Arts. In the summer or during slow periods, he teaches dance classes or waits tables at local restaurants.

Artist/performer Luke Zender is adorned by audience members during ‘Ignis Anima’ Friday at the Pink Garter. (Sargent Schutt)

Artist/performer Luke Zender is adorned by audience members during ‘Ignis Anima’ Friday at the Pink Garter. (Photo: Sargent Schutt)

“I don’t know if creative people are actually drawn to Jackson,” Zender mused. He doesn’t think diverse, experimental art is really celebrated here to the degree that it deserves to be. But being in Jackson, in nature, inspires him, and a hike always breaks down his creative blocks. Give him an hour in the woods and he will be “able to spill my heart out to you.”

But Zender thinks the valley’s idyllic environs can be a bad thing, too. “I think that Jackson is a good place for an artist to gather thoughts, rebuild inner confidence, and reconnect with the land, but not necessarily a place someone would want to end up to share their art.” He noted Dancers’ Workshop and the many opportunities for young creative people to explore their passions, but is wary of Jackson’s insular nature. Zender believes there is a sense of contentment in Jackson where you may reach a certain plateau, stop growing as an artist, and that’s it, you’re just comfortable and existing.

Just last Friday, Zender put Jackson’s appetite for edgy art to the test during “Ignis Anima” (Latin for “soul fire”), a video and live performance at the Pink Garter. Directed by Kayla Arend, with a musical score by Maddy German, the video showcased Zender’s choreography performed by dancer Francesca Romo. The idea behind “Ignis Anima” is to dance with paint where paint becomes a symbol of people’s experiences and emotions. Zender and Romo, dressed in white, performed in the live piece while audience members splashed paint on the dancers. Zender was pleasantly surprised by Jackson’s reaction to the show. “We were almost nude, very about the body. I think a lot of people enjoyed it for the right reasons, and many others enjoyed it maybe by making fun of it.”

Pink Garter management was thrilled, he added, saying it was more people than they had seen attend any art show at the venue before. The exhibit for “Ignis Anima” will be up at the Pink Garter gallery for the rest of February. There will also be a similar performance at the Center for the Arts on March 11.

Babs Case works with Zender at Dancers’ Workshop. As founder of Contemporary Dance Wyoming, and artistic director of DW, Case has helped to cultivate young developing students as well as traveling professionals from the New York City Ballet. Case says she believes that it’s possible for any artist to make it in Jackson, and the art doesn’t have to be Western-centric by any means, but it depends on each individual to make it happen for themselves. She notes artists like the English son of a coal miner, Henry Moore, who came from poverty and a family of eleven children to find success from bronze coal mining sculptures. “Many people would define themselves as artists. Whether or not they’re willing to commit their lives is something else entirely,” Case said.

A difficult place for fringe artists

For a small town, Jackson is bountiful with arts and culture, but it is decidedly limited in comparison to the offerings of a metropolis. Londe Gagnon was born and raised in Jackson. She studied performing arts at the University of Montana and returned to work as head coach of Jackson Hole High School’s speech and debate team as well as general manager at her family business, Painted Buffalo Inn. Gagnon finds herself working 96 hours per week on “travel weeks,” between October and March, when the speech and debate team busses to other towns for meets.

Gagnon believes Jackson has a medley of opportunities to be an artist. “It’s top-tier for Wyoming,” she mused, citing the Center for the Arts and Pink Garter Theatre. But she is also wary that Jackson’s contemporary art scene is not progressing. “Creatively, Jackson is the same style and art. New and different is just so weird here.”

It’s a difficult place for fringe artists— those looking for a subculture of arts, or eager to shine on a funky, alternative path that strays from the typical tourist-centric Western art. Gagnon feels that she can stand out here, but is also limited at the same time, and she has noticed this as a general concern for the performing arts students she coaches at the high school. She remembers art students in Missoula going against the grain almost to an absurd and cliquey degree. Here, it’s the opposite. Everyone is very much wrapped up in the grain, she said.

“It’s comfortable here,” Gagnon explained. “Would an indie theater survive? Jackson wants a taste of ‘the different,’” she said, noting Frank’s Fall Film Festival. “But would it survive long-term? There’s the sterile Center for the Arts, the rise in rent, and this general movement away from the gritty undertone of the old town community. It feels more elitist now than when I was a kid.”

But a small community like Jackson means people know people, and opportunities, as limited as they may be, can arise anywhere. “You have to find your way in, but you can see a way in,” Gagnon said. “If you’re in New York, you might get swallowed up.” So the real question Gagnon says you have to ask yourself as a creative person living in a small community like Jackson is, “What are you in it for? The fame or glory, or the happiness?”

Gagnon stays because this is her hometown, but also because she sees a future in theater, and she sees the potential for a creative, expressive return to theater. She says the significant thing she has to keep reminding herself is not to become discouraged or forget what she really wants. Today, she’s working 96 hours a week and mostly behind the stage, but tomorrow she wants to be on the stage again, enjoying the limelight and facing the possibility of rejection head on.

“Something has to change,” she said.

A change is going to come

Is Jackson and the surrounding valley a place any artist can make it? Artist transplant Borbay answered with a resounding “Yes—100 percent. A scene is created when a group of like-minded individuals come together and build a community. As the artists begin to stabilize and make moves, the area’s profile will rise,” said Borbay, who believes that Teton Valley will become much more than a satellite to Jackson Hole; it will become a destination. “I’ve always believed this: if an artist has a studio and an Internet connection, they can make it in Siberia.”

Borbay spent the first decade of his adult life living in Manhattan. He came to accept that there was no world outside of Manhattan. If it hadn’t been for his travels, he says he doesn’t think he would have ever left or thought about leaving. Traveling opened his eyes and while he will always be a NYC artist, the Tetons inspire him in a way skyscrapers never could. So when asked if Jackson is too Western and tourist-centric, he again wanted to shift the focus from the present to the future. Like the phrase “starving artist”—the idea that someone is struggling and can’t make it because of a limited perspective is a notion Borbay intends to dispel over time.

He believes that the art world is one big, never-ending installment of “The Hunger Games.” Millions of talented artists are out there creating, and a vast majority of them are eventually choked out by a lack of resources, eventually leaving the field for financial stability. However, Borbay has said that, with the advent of social media and the increased business savvy of artists, the top of the pyramid is flattening out. “There are more lifeboats and the yacht is bigger.”

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