Treasure Valley visual arts groups mix it up

Kathrin Niemann (left) and Kristen Cooper (back, right), artists in residence at Ming Studios in Downtown Boise, help students during a natural fabric-dying class. Ming Studios is an international artist residency, gallery and event venue. Founded just over a year ago, it is emerging as one of Boise’s creative hot spots.
Kathrin Niemann (left) and Kristen Cooper (back, right), artists in residence at Ming Studios in Downtown Boise, help students during a natural fabric-dying class. Ming Studios is an international artist residency, gallery and event venue. Founded just over a year ago, it is emerging as one of Boise’s creative hot spots.

Subtly colored fabrics shifted in the breeze of an open door earlier this month at Ming Studios. The deep-hued blues, soft greens, a spectrum of orange, yellow and gold, and bursts of bright red of Kathrin Niemann and Kristen Cooper’s installation Color Story wafted in the flowing air. The two Berlin-based artists work in natural-dye processes and are the latest artists to create work in this contemporary art center and international residency in Downtown Boise.

In many ways, Color Story exemplifies Ming’s mission to bring in global artists who interpret their work within the local framework because Niemann and Cooper literally used Boise’s landscape as part of their medium.

The artists scoured backyards, Valley farmland and the Foothills for flowers and foliage that they transformed into patterns on scarves, dresses and shirts. The work is subtle and simple, and yes, it’s clothing, but the idea behind it addresses a larger question: What happens when you wear your environment?

“I think you get a deeper relationship to the landscape because you see the plants you’re around every day differently,” Cooper says. Purple flowers can create a bluish green tint. Brown branches produce maroon. It’s never what you expect.

“We found dark sunflowers that I hadn’t seen before, and it turns out they make this beautiful dark blue-purple. That blew me away,” she says.

Founded in June 2014 by Jason Morales, Ming represents a shift in the Treasure Valley’s art scene. With traditional delivery systems for art, such as galleries, disappearing, more adaptive arts organizations such as Ming, Surel’s Place in Garden City and the Nampa Art Collective are on the rise.

They reflect an economic shift that dovetails with the growth of the Internet marketplace and a change in the way people are experiencing and consuming art. Multidimensional and nimble, these groups seek to connect to community through their efforts, in addition to selling work.

In Boise, Ming is fast becoming a creative hot spot. It received the Mayor’s Award for Excellence in Arts and History for Emerging Arts Organization in September, after receiving 10 separate nominations during the public process. It’s more than a gallery. Its programming includes film, dance, classical music, readings and theater, in addition to exhibits by local artists, such as an upcoming photography and film installation by Boise’s John Shinn. It will be his first gallery-type show.

Morales is working with Duck Club, a Boise-based alternative music promotion company that also presents the Treefort Music Fest, to present intimate performances by contemporary musicians, and with Boise State University to offer an outlet for university-based artists.

This diversity creates a cultural cross-pollination with visual artists interacting with filmmakers, dancers getting to know artists and so on. It also brings a diverse selection of people through its doors.

Space — the creative frontier

The building at 6th and Myrtle streets is like a blank canvas — an empty space just waiting to be filled with whatever the artists can imagine. That’s the greatest gift an artist can receive, Cooper says.

“It’s space and time, and there are no rules,” she says. “You’re welcome to make any type of work, and whatever direction you want to go, you can go there. No expectations, except my own.”

Ming has filled the space with work by artists from Germany, Holland, the Basque Country and Spain so far. Each brought a different world — and artistic — view, and ... “each of our artists have reflected back something about our community to us,” Morales says. “This creates a dialogue between Boise and the greater world, and that connection is going to be of increasing importance.”

Basque artist Judas Arrieta’s “Boiseland” incorporated Boise Basque icons, such as Pete Cenarrusa, into his installation during Jaialdi this past summer. Spanish street artist Axel Void brought his international project “Mediocre” to Boise to explore the everyday lives of two teenage girls who live here with his “Rocia y Sophia.” Dutch artist Marijn van Kreij created mixed-media paintings inspired by Boise band Built to Spill’s song “Traces.” He also worked with Boise musicians to create an accompanying performance piece. German artist Uli Westphal connected with local growers through his installation “Cornucopia,” which dealt with the politics of biodiversity in the food chain.

The artists all developed relationships with Boise that may bring them back in the future.

Usually, when artists of this caliber get an opportunity to work in the U.S., it’s in New York or San Francisco. Coming to Boise — a place they might not even know of — is a different kind of eye-opening experience.

“Boise is this really interesting microcosm, of not only the region but of the country,” Morales says. “It’s an opportunity for international artists to experience the U.S. in a slower, more accessible way. You get a chance to see the same culture you’d see anywhere, but a pace that allows you to absorb and understand.”

They live in the community, hike in the Foothills and explore the region. This chance to experience open land is “gourmet,” Westphal says.

“In Europe, everything is fixed already,” he says. “It’s populated and dense. Here, there is wilderness, and for me that is a really good feeling to have that close by. You see the mountains over there, and you don’t know what that is. There’s mystery. In Europe, you don’t get that open perspective.”

And the artists carry the word about Boise’s growing arts scene out into the world. After his Boise gig, Void was invited to bring his “Mediocre” project to legendary British street artist Banksy’s “Dismaland Bemusement Park,” a major temporary art project that happened in England in September. Void worked alongside 58 international artists, including Banksy and Damien Hirst. Morales is working to bring him back to Boise.

Artists also connect with other Boise arts communities. Boise-based filmmaker Sterling Hoch was one of the musicians who played at Van Kreij’s opening. The two hit it off and wrote and received a grant from a Swedish arts organization to make a music video for Naive Set, a band from the Netherlands. They shot it entirely on iPhones in Boise.

“I did not expect to move to Boise and find this kind of opportunity,” Hoch says. “I think what Ming is doing is pretty cool. It surprised me because I’m used to art galleries in L.A. or New York, and other galleries here where they’re more geared toward selling rather than curating. I think Ming is more focused on building relationships and creating a space where the artists can curate their exhibit. I think it’s a great asset.”

Why Idaho?

“I strongly believe in Idaho — as a concept, not just as a state,” Morales says. “It’s not in the mind-share of the majority of people outside of the United States. It’s kind of like a creative frontier in the American West, which has a lot of appeal to people outside this country.”

Morales grew up in Southern California. He moved here with his family in 2000 and stayed to go through the Executive MBA at Boise State, while keeping his idea of an international art residency brewing on the back burner. It popped to the forefront when Morales attended the 2013 Mayor’s Awards.

“It was an inspiration to have the artists there and to see what is possible,” Morales says. “That’s what got me moving.”

At the time, he had grand ambitions of building an art center Downtown and connecting with major international art curators to identify artists to invite. Then Classic Design Studio co-owner Noel Weber Jr. called with the idea of using the space in his building that was left vacant when Boise Art Glass moved into the Bogie’s Building on Front Street.

“I was focused on the other vision, so it took me awhile to realize this was the opportunity I was waiting for,” Morales says. “I couldn’t have found a better space.”

He originally planned to call the project Momenta, but Ming Studios was already on the front of the building, named for the building’s original business, Ming Auto Detail. It has become a good fit.

This more simple and local approach turned out to be a smart move. It landed him in an existing creative and welcoming community nestled among the Webers’ Classic Design Studio, Wil Kirkman’s Rocket Neon, Juliana McLenna’s Fawn and Foal T-shirt business and the crafters of Bricolage next door.

Morales also turned to family to jump-start the center. Cooper is his half-sister and now runs the residency program. Her husband, Westphal, an artist who has shown in Tokyo, Russia, Germany and Holland, helped build out the space and became Ming’s first artist-in-residence.

Morales does have a day job. He works for Microsoft as a solution specialist on its U.S. education team and travels from Boise to universities in the central United States.

Morales’ Ming project has received a few grants, but Morales is still its largest donor. Now he’s ready for it to move to the next level. He’s in the process of getting nonprofit status, expanding its board and looking to a time when he will hand Ming over to a full-time executive director and transition to becoming just a board member. He hopes his efforts will continue to benefit Boise’s artists and its economy.

“The best thing for our business, our city, our state will be to develop our culture, our art,” Morales says. “If we were to differentiate Boise in terms of having high-quality production of art and also have a community that uses its idle time to support, create, observe and learn about what’s happening in the world — that will transform Boise.”

Surel’s Place

Not far from Ming, you find Surel’s Place, an artist residency in Garden City that is making waves of its own. It brings in visual and performing artists and writers for one-week to one-month stays and has a very different feel than Ming because the artists live and work in the space.

Residents get up, have their morning coffee, wander into the studio and start creating.

“You forget to eat,” says Kansas City-based painter David Titterington, who stayed at Surel’s in July. “I got so much done. Way more than at other residencies. And what a community! I felt loved by these people, and they bought my work. It was way more than I expected.”

Artist Surel Mitchell built the home for herself in 1999. She lived and worked there, and invited people into her process. Mitchell believed that anyone could enjoy art if they just took the time. She died in 2011. The next year, her daughter Rebecca Mitchell Kelada and her mom’s friend Karen Bubb founded the residency to continue Mitchell’s legacy.

“Mom created community with anyone who makes or loves good and interesting art,” Kelada says. “And I’ve learned that if you put that art in an unintimidating place, like a home, and you minimize the art speak, people will come.”

Just like Mitchell did in her lifetime, Surel’s Place inhabits the center of Garden City’s arts community. Since the residency started, more artists are finding their way to the area, including glass artist Zion Warne, mixed media painter Sam Paden, architect and furniture craftsman Derek Hurd and illustrator Julia Green.

Surel’s Place can adapt to any artist’s project or medium. The only requirement is that they have a specific goal. Artists teach workshops, give lectures and perform for the public. Since it opened, 24 artists have inhabited the home. It also supports local artists by scheduling readings, art talks, flash shows and more. Local artists exhibit at Surel’s Other Place, a gallery inside Cinder Winery at 107 E. 44th St. in Garden City.

The success of the residency is built on a foundation of art.

“Art can exist at the center of really dynamic relationships,” Kelada says. “It brings people together in genuine ways.”

The organization also reaches into the Garden City community. It partnered with Cinder Wines on its Garden City Mural Project that installs murals in the alley outside of Cinder. The five-mural project is in its second phase. The next one will be created in spring 2016.

“Surel’s Place is an integral part of the Garden City arts scene,” says Joe Schnerr, Cinder co-owner. “They are pioneers in the Garden City revival.”

Building this community hinges on the wider community’s ability to support the artists — and that means buying art.

“We cannot support artists without buying art,” Kelada says. “They barely squeak by, and they’re so important to making life better for all of us. It’s not so much about being an arts patron. When you buy something, you become part of the process.”

Nampa Art Collective

Things are a little more raw and undefined in Nampa. There, a scrappy group called the Nampa Art Collective is working to ignite the creative community.

“There’s this creative drain toward Boise, because that’s where artists can sell their work,” says Antonia Wynn, an artist and member of the collective. “I think it’s important to draw that creativity back here.”

The collective formed three years ago to dispel the perception that Nampa is a place where nothing creative happens. Grass-roots at its core, the group is creating its own scene outside the mainstream to engage people through art.

“We’re not Boise, and that fringe identity serves us,” says Diana Forgione, a writer and filmmaker who moved to Nampa from Los Angeles a few years ago. “We have more freedom to push the boundaries.”

The collective produces the Nampa Art Walk on the second Friday of the month between May and October. This year, it added more interactive events, such as Competitive Haiku Night, a literary throw down; Chalk Bomb, a community drawing party that took over city sidewalks; Door To My Art, a fundraiser for Habitat for Humanity; and Doodle Palooza, where artists drew in alleys and sold their work on the spot.

Collective member Dig Reeder produces the Death Rattle Writers Fest that brings the Treasure Valley’s literary community together in October, and Forgione heads a Winter Film Series that screens classic films followed by a discussion.

“These aren’t complex ideas, but the fact that we’re doing something makes us unique,” says Louise Schaffer, who does marketing for the group. “In Nampa, if you’re a creative person at all, you have to make your own outlets.”

There are about 15 people on the board, and that’s also the group’s total membership. People perform roles, such as treasurer, but there is no one leader, says artist Tony Rios, who helped found the group in 2013.

“We’ve all had experiences with groups that get too political or only follow one agenda,” he says. “If someone has an idea, they bring it to us, and if we like it, we all work to make it happen.”

The group is working under the umbrella of the Downtown Business Association and is in the early stages of getting its nonprofit status. They’re entirely self-funded — last year’s budget was $250 — and they’re ambitious.

“The long goal is to have a building where we can do all mediums, visual art and film, spoken work and explore our processes,” Forgione says.

What they’ve been able to do so far is impressive, says Flying M Coffeegarage owner Lisa Myers.

“They have a lot of energy with passionate, active members,” Myers says. “They continue to find fun ways to bring the community to downtown, but what they really accomplish is the message that art is a part of every day and can be found anywhere.”

Dana Oland is a former professional dancer and member of actors equity who writes about performing and visual arts for the Idaho Statesman. Read more arts and culture coverage each Friday in the Idaho Statesman’s Scene Magazine and in her blog at

Where to learn more

Ming Studios: 420 S. 6th St., Boise, 972-9028. International residencies are currently by invitation. To find out about use of the space, contact

Surel’s Place: 212 E 33rd St., Garden City, 407-7529. To apply for a residency or if you’re a local artist seeking an event space, go to

Nampa Art Collective: Learn more at