ArtsFest highlighting local vibrancy, ideas in action
Several years ago, a handful of people started thinking about a mural festival idea.
“There are so many towns that wish they had this stuff. You wished it five years ago and now you have it,” said Cameron Moberg, an internationally known muralist, who’s back in Great Falls for the third annual ArtsFest Montana.
He visited Great Falls in 2017 and in 2018, painted the mural on the Hi-Line Climbing Center and in 2019, lead the first ArtsFest mural festival and each one since.
On this trip, his focus while interacting with locals is encouraging people not to complain about where they’re from.
“There’s so much happening here now because people are making things happen and not complaining. It’s popping downtown,” Moberg said. “Nothing’s going to change unless you do it.”
As he was painting in the alley of the Pennington/Russell Building at 2 5th St. N., a couple walked by and the man asked how they paint the murals.
Moberg said, “what to try” and gave an impromptu lesson on painting with spray cans.
“That’s my favorite part,” Moberg said as the man painted a section of the mural.
Coming back each year for the festival, Moberg said he’s seen the change in downtown and that more people out and about.
“It’s on the verge of another group of people knowing about downtown, the next wave of people are starting to venture in, and that’s pretty exciting,” he said. “The alleys look cleaner too and I don’t think it’s just that more people are walking down them” to see the art.
He said those that frequent the alleys are seeing that they have a nicer space with the murals and taking better care of the space.
“You take care of your space when it’s beautiful,” Moberg said.
This year, Ricky Watts, another big name in the mural world, painted on the back of the Brighten Up Shop on the 600 block of Central Avenue, and Moberg said the goal is to connect the murals that were painted at the O’Haire Motor Inn in 2019 with Watts’ through to the murals in the alley behind Dragonfly Dry Good and to the new ones at the Pennington building and on to those at KellerGeist on Central Avenue.
He said hopes building owners will work with artists throughout the year since there’s a lot of walls to be painted.
This year, there are six artists painting seven murals. Organizers had hoped to bring a few more artists to town this year, but the budget was tight, so they’re starting to fundraise now for next year to continue growing the festival and adding public art to the downtown.
Artists make more on commissioned projects versus festivals, but at festivals they have more freedom to create and there’s a camaraderie with the other artists, Moberg said.
“A lot of times this is out of a love of art and being with other artists and traveling,” he said. “It’s like summer camp for artists. These murals aren’t for us, this is for everyone who lives here. We want to leave behind something valuable.”
In 2019, Moberg offered a workshop on mural painting and the business side of art.
Tana Murray took the class and this year, she’s one of the artists in the festival.
She said she’s been interested in murals for a long time and jumped on the chance to take Moberg’s class. Murray said she hopes classes like that continue to get the community involved and help artists grow their skills and expose them to the festival opportunity.
Her style is more typography and she said it’s fun to be working alongside artists who all have their own style and learning from them throughout the festival.
“This festival helped a lot of people to appreciate the art” and it has exposed the community to other styles and forms of art beyond the well-known western art in the area.
She said that of passersby have been surprised that she’s a local artist, born and raised in Great Falls.
“I guess they think local artists can’t do something like this,” she said, but mixing local artists with the out of town names has been the structure of each ArtsFest event so far.
Sheree Nelson is another local artists who’s participated in the festivals all three years.
“When I was little I always wanted to do this, but growing up in Belt, I didn’t know that I could,” Nelson said.
Her murals have grown over the years as well, and this year her mural is three stories tall.
“The possibilities are endless,” she said.
In the last seven months, she’s done nine murals around the community, some indoors by hand, including the one at The Living Room salon downtown.
Nelson said changing between the spray cans and hand painting is an adjustment but she said it’s also improved her overall skills.
The said the community has enjoyed the art and “people are just hungry for it, they really are.”
The public art is “color therapy,” Nelson said. “I think there’s a whole energy to it, not just a feast for the eyes, there’s an energy that comes with color.”
Ricky Watts had been to Montana as a kid, but this was his first time here as adult.
He said it was nice to be back and appreciate the beauty of the area.
Painting in difference communities is a way to meet new people and see new things, he said.
“There’s always excitement around what we’re doing and that energizes you,” Watts said. “There’s definitely an energy that I feel when I come to a place to paint.”
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Murals have been popular the last few years and he said that many smaller cities were catching on and “seeing that it’s a positive thing and breathing life into a place.”
It’s also a way for people to connect with the art that’s’ left behind in their community.
“There’s something special about meeting the artists,” Watts said. “Having that connection with the artist is really special to a lot of people.”
For Watts, his work is usually more focused on the process that he developed around 2012 than inspiration.
He typically starts in “one area and it just builds. It’s always fun to let the painting kind of dictate where it wants to go”
But for his piece in the alley between the Pennington/Russell Building at 2 5th St. N., he said he was inspired by the cloud movement he saw in the timelapses he recorded of his work behind the Brighten Up Shop on the 600 block of Central, and it’s “an ode to the beautiful clouds that you have here.”