Dana Oland: Top art stories from the past 150 years of the Idaho Statesman

doland@idahostatesman.comJune 20, 2014 

When a committee put together a list of the Top 50 stories of the past 150 years to celebrate the Idaho Statesman's sesquicentennial, the impossible happened - at least impossible in my opinion. The final list did not include any stories related to the city's arts and culture.

Stories about dams bursting, political scandals and sensational crimes are important. But the following stories, all published in the newspaper, touch on a history that continues to affect our culture.

Isolated by mountains on one side and sagebrush plains on the other, the city's founders and cultural mavens knew early on that if they wanted something here - music, art, theater - they had to create it themselves. So they dug into the Treasure Valley and turned their wishes into reality with grassroots spirit and pioneer vision.

PHILHARMONIC SOCIETY

The Idaho Statesman reported the founding of the Boise Philharmonic Society on Oct. 8, 1891.

The group - headed by conductor and violinist Robert Ballot and his brother, Adolph, who played cornet - organized the first concert later that year. It became stable in the 1960s, when it became the Boise Philharmonic Association we have today.

The 1890s was a time when many cities founded orchestras, says Boise Philharmonic music director Robert Franz.

"The country was starting to mature and people were settling in, and at that time having an orchestra was a big deal," he says. "And the fact that they did it in this little outpost of a town was really forward thinking."

The orchestra remains a rich part of Boise culture today. Its musicians teach and perform in schools and create other musical groups, and the orchestra brings international soloists to perform.

JAMES CASTLE

The Boise Gallery of Art (now the Boise Art Museum) opened the first Idaho show of outsider artist James Castle, left, on Jan. 9, 1963. Though many might not be familiar with his name, Castle arguably is Idaho's most internationally acclaimed artist.

"They might not have known it fully, but they were on the forefront of discovering one of the most important artists to live in the state," says Boise Art Museum curator Sandy Harthorn.

Fairy Faye Frank's review in the Idaho Statesman called him an "artist extraordinary," described his work as "lonely - full of romance and perseverance," and stated "in the realm of serious art you'll find Castle a contender."

Castle was developmentally impaired and unable to hear or speak. He grew up in Garden Valley and lived in Boise until he died in 1977. Though he received no art training, he created a huge volume of artwork out of old books, milk cartons, envelopes and string.

In the past decade, Castle's work received a retrospective at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, which then moved to Chicago's Art Institute. He has gained international acclaim and is widely collected. In 2011, the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía in Madrid, Spain, held the first international retrospective of Castle's work.

BOISE ART ASSOCIATION

On July 21, 1931, the Statesman carried a report of a group of artists, art lovers and supporters who met for a luncheon at Hotel Boise (where the Crystal Ballroom is now) to discuss the purchase of a painting by Harvey Gregory Pruscheck.

That lunch was the beginning of the Boise Art Museum (then the Boise Gallery of Art). They did purchase the Pruscheck painting. Although no one has seen it in years, it's listed in the museum's permanent collection.

That lunch bunch included architect J.A. Fennell, who spoke of the need for a city that "had taken such a forward movement in fostering music, was making a mistake in not interesting itself more in art."

The group did form and the Boise Gallery of Art opened in 1937.

For 77 years, it has expanded, increased its permanent collection, and showcased high-profile touring exhibits by internationally acclaimed artists such as Andre Durain (1962), Rembrandt van Rijn (1973), Deborah Butterfield (1983), Dale Chihuly (2001) and Kara Walker (2014).

GENE HARRIS

No one realized when Gene Harris started playing around Boise in 1977 how much one person could influence a music scene.

The internationally renowned jazz pianist decided to "hang" in Boise after his band played a gig in Garden City. By 1978 he was making himself known at the Main Street Bistro (where Angell's is today), playing his "feel-good" brand of bluesy jazz.

In a profile of Harris that ran in the Statesman on Feb. 14, 1978, he said, "When I call people back in Los Angeles and tell them what I'm doing, they say what on earth are you doing? And you know what I say? 'I'm having a ball.' "

A few years later, he met Janie Hewitt. They fell in love and married in 1984, and Harris made Boise his permanent address. Musicians, such as jazz bassist Ray Brown, pianist Ramsey Lewis and saxophonist Red Holloway, would fly in to jam with Harris.

In the 1980s he played a regular gig at Peter Schott's Lounge in the Idanha Hotel. Tuesday nights were open jams, when anyone could play. That's when jazz singer Curtis Stigers and pianist Paul Tillotson began sitting in as teenagers. Stigers wrote his song "Swingin' Down at 10th and Main" about the scene.

Harris played at community fundraisers and events - often for free - with his L.A. Connection rhythm section. In the 1990s he gave his name to the existing Boise State University Jazz Festival, and called in major players, such as Arturo Sandoval and Chuck Mangione, to headline.

"Gene changed the musical landscape in Boise and my life," Tillotson says. "It's amazing to have a jazz master in your backyard. He influenced generations of musicians in Boise. I cherish all those memories and the recordings he left behind. I listen to them every day."

Harris died from kidney failure in 2000. The Gene Harris Jazz Festival continues today, though on a smaller scale than during Harris' lifetime.

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