Attendees to the Last Best Conference in the Old Sawmill District on Thursday periodically wandered outside to the back parking lot to see what was going on, which was a lot.
Artists were sawing plywood, building something, but exactly what wasn't clear yet. Another artist was painting a giant inflatable Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man. Inside a tent (painted with colorful and occasionally confrontational art), even more artists were gathered around a table drawing collaborative sketches.
The artists from the cross-country Paintallica collective, plus a few guests to round it out at 10, were there for the Last Best Conference to provide an art element. The group formed in 2004 when graduate students from the University of Iowa, who had been meeting for critiques, decided to start making work together instead. Now, the members travel from places like Portland, Oregon, and Iowa City, Iowa, and Bozeman, Montana, to sites across the country once or twice a year.
This, however, was their first Montana show.
By Friday, they will have completed a site-specific, improvised art installation. Some artists are ceramicists, others are painters, others are printmakers, and over the course of the project everyone would do a little bit of everything, even painting or altering something that someone else had done.
Jay Schmidt, a retired art professor from Montana State University, described it as invigorating compared to the solitary work of an artist in their studio, when you can fall into "a certain lane or a certain way of thinking."
"This has been education for me. I'm a better artist and a better painter as a result of this, just because it's been kind of a wild ride," he said.
They get to see how other artists work, and push themselves and their own imagery. Sometimes they make something just to get a laugh or a comment, not necessarily a goal or thing that happens alone in a studio. He picked up chainsaw art from working with the group, and showed some of his pieces as part of a solo exhibition at the Missoula Art Museum in 2013.
Their mobile studio is that tent, large enough for them to gather inside around a table. Schmidt called it a caravan, that's traveled from Kansas City to Minneapolis to Missoula.
They make drawings and pass them around, and others add to them. A Tribe Called Quest was cranked on the stereo. The interior and exterior of the tent are art objects unto themselves, with figures like devils, red snowmen smoking cigarettes, caricatures of Trump (painted and sculptural), and a smiley face figure.
David Dunlap, a retired art professor from Iowa, said working collaboratively is a way to "interrupt himself" and a "great enlivener," as he watches other artists make a jump that he would never do himself.
Gordon Barnes of Portland said it's "almost an athletic challenge" to be creative on a timeline that's out of his control. In this case, they had three days to work.
The guest artists include Theo Ellsworth of Missoula. He was at work cutting monster heads out of plywood that they planned to paint collaboratively and place onto a frame, standing 9 feet tall.
Nearby, Jamie Boling of Iowa City was painting a base layer of pink on an inflatable Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man that stood at least 10 feet tall.
There was another one to coat, and then they'd all pitch in with designs. Schmidt bought them at Lowe's on a steep discount after Halloween, and his wife altered it to make it a generic head. Now, they were blank canvases.
On Thursday afternoon, thunderheads loomed in the background and rain seemed inevitable. Once, at the Iowa State Fair, they got caught by rain.
"We got nailed by a thunderstorm and had to build this crazy tarp fort, and all of our paintings were wet when it happened, so all the paintings were washed out and we had to totally restart," Barnes said. "That was hilarious, but we're used to that kind of stuff."