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Big sky style
Bigfork, Montana suffers no identity crisis. With 14 galleries in a village of about 1,500 people, the place rates big as an art colony in a state that’s all about big—big skies, big mountains and big ranches. Tucked into a sheltered bay where the Swan River joins Flathead Lake, the scenery is breathtaking with rugged mountains and deep azure waters. But why are so many people around Bigfork hooked on art?

“When we came here from San Francisco, it was very inspirational, and I was struck that I saw real art in average people’s homes,” says Yvonne Janoff, who managed Janoff Gallery. “We saw originals in everyday homes. Maybe it has something to do with Russell’s works, or maybe it’s the isolation and the weather.”

Married to artist Larry Janoff, Yvonne’s a veteran of the Bigfork art scene, having managed the Janoff Gallery for years. She and Larry came to the region in 1977, settled in a cabin in Marion, and eventually moved to Bigfork in 1989. Larry recently stepped into semi-retirement, so he could devote more time to restoring old British motorcycles, but Yvonne keeps her hand in gallery life, assisting sculptor Eric Thorsen’s wife Cindy in their gallery.

Bob and Mary Stayton live that same symbiotic lifestyle, with Bob sculpting western themes and Mary running Buffalo Trails Gallery. The gallery is a classy mix of Bob’s sculptures, antiques, paintings, Indian creations, wearable art and custom jewelry. High school sweethearts, the Staytons grew up in the Montana ranch country, and wound up in Bigfork 18 years ago. These days, Bob tells stories of his ranching past, and often likes to portray them in bronze. The fun part is that the gallery has a raised studio in the center, so visitors can actually watch him at work.

“This is a wonderful little town and it’s been good to us,” says Mary. “People from all over the country have second and third homes here, and many come to escape urban problems. We always hear about the Californians moving in, but we have people from all over coming here.”

Outsiders probably relate to the community’s friendliness, cultural amenities, access to good art—and the chance to meet the artists themselves. Case in point: Sculptor Ken Bjorge is standing outside his gallery working on a bigger-than-life elk. Prodding foam into place, sawing, drilling and arranging, the law-professor-turned-artist stops to visit, then invites passersby to step into the gallery with him for a personal tour. For the urban refugees hungering for memorable experiences, it doesn’t get any better than this.

Wandering through Bigfork, the aroma of espresso wafts out into the streets, while another shop offers up huckleberry jams and treats. ARTfusion capitalizes on the mood with watercolors of huckleberries and other wild edibles hanging at the gallery entrance. Inside, owner Pamme Reed features a mix of glass art, ceramics and paintings from strictly Montana artists, and she emphasizes, “We have a motto in here that we want colorful, playful art that invites you to feel good.”

Reed, a transplant from San Francisco, has operated her gallery for 17 years and knows how to put a look together. She’s a painter herself, and as she chats with Whitefish potter Bill Hayes on this particular morning, it’s clear that artists thrive on the association with other like-minded souls around town.

Nancy Corbett, who’s in the midst of transferring ownership of her gallery (Corbett Gallery), agrees that artist association stimulates the creative juices. Her husband Roc has created stunning western lighting and rustic chandeliers since 1974, and his works accent the western themes in the gallery. “Bigfork is changing a lot, but it’s still managed to retain its flavor as an art complex,” Nancy says. “The community is extra supportive of art and artists and that’s why we came here. It really benefited Roc to be around other artists. It’s a nice small town feel and people meet each other on the street and greet each other.”

As the Corbetts slip out of gallery ownership, their long time art director, and wildlife painter, Jean Moore, takes over, changing the name to J. Moore Gallery. “We stress originals in here and do a lot of educating,” says Jean. “People are always surprised when they can buy an awesome original for the same price as a print. But we try to tell them that they shouldn’t buy a painting merely as an investment. After all, art only owes you the enjoyment of it, the beauty of it and the emotional reaction to it.”

With a fluctuating population based on the season, Bigfork remains casual and laid back. It’s the Montana way. As summer presses in, things ramp up, with car license plates funneling in from every state in the Union, and waiting lines forming at the many top-notch eateries. The 400-seat Bigfork Center for the Performing Arts and Sliter Park furnish venues for several theater and music productions each year, and the Bigfork Festival of the Arts takes place the first weekend in August. Meanwhile, cherry blossom time along the lakeshore puts on a floorshow of its own in summer, and in case you are among the uninformed, Flathead cherries are legendary.

“There’s just something special as you come up this way from Missoula and see the Mission Mountains,” says Reed, who came to the area 27 years ago. “It really does take your breath away and we are so fortunate to live here. There’s a lot of wonderful talent around the state, and I could have a gallery three times as big and still not have enough room to show it all. I would guess that Montana has more art per capita than any other state.”