Montana Artists Refuge
- A Place to Regroup

by Francisca Nemko


The descriptive brochure for the Montana Artists Refuge states: "In a relaxed and unpretentious atmosphere, residents may work with other artists on projects, exchange ideas, or simply choose to kick back and work in solitude." Sound idyllic? Well, we thought so and contacted one of the founders of the refuge, trombonist/vocalist M. J. Williams (pictured below).

Apparently the seeds for this much-needed accommodation were planted back in the early 1970s when Williams and two friends, Joy Lewis and Nancy Owens, discovered Basin, Montana, a town of only 250 inhabitants. The three artists decided to buy some land there.

"We actually started researching the idea of a refuge in 1992," explained Williams, "and had our first residenta three-dimensional artist from Seattlein 1993. We were able to obtain a number of grants from various organizations, including the Montana Arts Council, although we began with private money from friends who believed in what we were doing. That helped purchase the main building."M. J. Williams

What had once been a bank and then a Masonic hall has been converted into two living spaces with studios suitable for visual artists. Next door, two smaller units can house yet another visual artist and behind that is a space with a piano, inviting occupancy by musicians and composers. The cost is extremely reasonable, ranging from $260 to $450 per month (which doesn't include heating, though.)

Naturally, Jazz Now is most interested in the musical residents which, of course, include Williams, a vocalist, lyricist, and trombonist. Hailing from Montana, but having spent a number of years in various other parts of the country, she dedicates most of her working time now to running the refuge. However, over the years she has cofounded several bands and trios and has performed at such events as the New York City Women in Jazz and the Bellevue and Bumbershoot festivals. She has produced a standards album, By All Means (1987), and coproduced two excellent trio CDs, What We Had in Mind (1996) and Taking the Hook (1997). Her latest, I Can Hear Your Heart, is almost an hour's worth of splendid vocals on such familiar works as "Yesterdays," "My Foolish Heart," and "Skylark," among others, plus some originals by bassist Kelly Roberter and pianist Ann Tappan with lyrics by Williams.

She is an adventurous soul, as is evidenced by her recordings, and she has carried this spirit through into her joint venture in Basin. I wondered how one got started on such an enormous project as attracting people to the refuge. "Well initially," she told me, "we wrote to every state arts publication, announcing our opening. Now we just keep updating that information. Then from that we appeared in a couple of books that cover artists' retreats. And, now we're on the Internet."

Since there's only space for four people at a time (and they often stay up to three months), it hasn't been too difficult to keep the place full. The first musician came in 1998. Pianist/vocalist/composer Cynthia Hilts, who currently makes her home in New York, was discovered by Williams while the latter was on a visit to the city's famed Knitting Factory. When Williams told Hilts about the refuge, the idea of going there immediately appealed to heras well as to several granting organizations that made it all work. The result was a two-month residency for Hilts, culminating in a concert held in Helena, Montana, in which Williams participated as both vocalist and trombonist. In a review in a local paper, Bill Borneman noted, "Strong vocal improvisingand some nice interplay between Williams and Hiltswas the highlight." Hilts was so pleased with her sojourn that she returned for another couple of months in 1999.

"Last year we had a second musician," Williams said, "Carolyn Graye, also a pianist, composer, and vocalist. While here she wrote the music for a collaborative project she's involved in with poet Denise Levertov."

A new addition this year was a two-week stay by a dance group known as Viewpoints Institute, led by Montana native Mary Overly. "She brought dancers from all over the country and kind of plunked them down in the middle of Basin. It's hard to describe what happened! Most of the visual artists who stay here keep pretty much to themselves, but the dancers are a rather wild lot. They were hanging out in the bars and on the streets having a great timeattracting primarily curious children. At the end of their stay, they put on a show in the community hall, which was attended by the locals."

Funding for such an enterprise as an artist's refuge is always a hot topic. One of Williams and Company's biggest sources is their annual Jazz Brunch held in June. "The first year we had about eighty people attend and made one thousand dollars," Williams said. "This year, there were three hundred paid admissions at fifteen dollars each."

For the first few years only one band entertained; now there are two and talk of adding more talent in the future. "Right now," Williams continued, "we're in the process of brainstorming new ways to bring in funding for scholarships, especially for younger artists who might not be able to afford to stay here. I'd like to add that the majority of our board members - many of whom have been with us from the beginning - are artists themselves."

Williams's own plans include more playing and writing, as well as a long-held vision of putting together a women's orchestra to tour the country in support of women's centers. Meanwhile, she holds down a once-a-week gig at a restaurant in nearby Belgrade, playing Jazz to an admittedly small audience. Judging from her record, once the word gets out about what she's capable of doing, it won't be too long before she'll be appearing regularly at one or other of the better-known venues. If you're interested in checking out the refuge, write them at P. O. Box 8, Basin, Montana 59631 or call 406.225.3500 and tell them Jazz Now sent you!

by Francesca Nemko

Jazz Now Magazine -- October 1999 Issue