There’s Something Very “Home” About Missoula

Written by Kathleen Goodwin

You’ve probably seen Beth Lo in Missoula. It’s a small town, after all, and faces in a crowd become familiar the longer you spend time here. On any given day, you might see Beth hiking, or playing music at Plonk or Top Hat with one of her many bands, or browsing galleries downtown. Maybe you recognize her from her time at the University of Montana as a Professor of Art. Beth has been in Missoula since 1972, and her contribution to the arts culture of this town is immeasurable at this point. She is a world-known ceramicist and painter whose work has been recognized and displayed across the country for decades. She calls Missoula home, and she invited me to her charming home studio on a snowy winter’s day in Montana to talk about art, her recent collection on display at Radius Gallery, her influences and her home here in Missoula.

Beth Lo shows off a vase in her home studio.

Beth grew up in Indiana. Her father worked as a professor of aeronautical engineering, teaching minds like Neil Armstrong during his time at Purdue University. She recalls her first memories of the West, saying, “I had come out to the West with my family with my dad, who did consulting work in California, and every time we did that we would drive, so I fell in love with the mountains early on.”

And it was the mountains, in many ways, that influenced her decision to attend graduate school with Rudy Autio at the University of Montana in 1972.

“Of the graduate schools I got into, I chose the most adventurous one, which was Montana, and then when I got here I fell in love with this place. I just thought, ‘this is magical’. This is a really incredible place.”

Beth spent two years in graduate school here, and, knowing that Missoula was a place she wanted to stay, made a home for herself amongst the art community. “After grad school, I did not get an immediate teaching job but I saw the opportunity to open a co-op and…figure out how to stay here. I rented a place in Hamilton for $30/month and shared it with five women. I knew I could make it work.”

After creating the ceramics with raw clay, Beth paints using glazes before firing in her home kilns.

During those years in Hamilton, Beth co-founded what is now Art City with her cousin Vivian Yang and friend Maureen Powell. “The co-op was formed through a couple Montana Arts Council grants. We just wanted to do our own artwork and bring the arts to our community, so we taught classes and had some open studio space. We built a kiln and developed a place for people in the Bitterroot valley to exhibit their work and that has turned into Art City.” Though she has not been actively involved in Art City for the past few decades, the studio is still a hub for local artists and creativity.

During her time in Hamilton, Beth and her husband David formed a band, The Big Sky Mudflaps, and, in a lot of ways, the band was a main motivator that kept her here before she applied to teach at the University of Montana in 1985 after learning she was pregnant with her son, Tai. “I came out here for school in 1972, and between my two years of grad school I spent my summers in Hamilton, which is where I met a bunch of musicians and we started the band. We also had the community studio for 10 years. Then a one year teaching job opened up in Missoula and I applied for it thinking [it was time to settle down]. That one year turned unto multiple.” Beth retired in 2015 after spending decades teaching ceramics, drawing, and graduate critique at the university.

Tools of the trade.

Beth Lo’s artwork primarily focuses in ceramics, though she also works in mixed media and drawing. Her parents are originally from China, and her mother, Kiahsuang Lo, now 98-years old, is a Chinese brush painter who lives in Missoula with Beth six months a year. She explores her Asian-American culture through narrative artwork.

Beth’s work focuses on Chinese children primarily, like these collection of mugs.

“After my son was born I started doing work that was more literal and narrative about my family, about childhood, and about my Asian-American culture. I also became more clued into my heritage as I realized what my parents had been through. Making narrative art means that you are interested in telling a story—sometimes it’s a very specific story and sometimes it’s about adding the quality of storytelling to your work. In art, there is work that is more decorative, there are pieces that are more spiritual, there is political art, and so many other different kinds of artwork. An artist may want to be non-specific or very specific, and my work moves back and forth in that range. I do want to make other people think about their own families and culture. Sometimes I will have a piece that has a political message or a very specific cultural message, but sometimes I just want people to relate in a more open-ended way.”

Simply looking around at the various stages of works-in-progress in her studio, the narrative quality shines through. Painted on ceramics are images of Chinese children interacting with American foods, children painted on large vases, and clearly there is a story. It is hard to look away—Beth Lo’s colorful art is attractive to look at but it is her story-telling that is most compelling. “In my work there is imagery that looks like a story is about to unfold. There is something happening, something going on. There is a future and a past. There is personality and character in a lot of the imagery. I love using the image of the child as a symbol—of innocence, potential, vulnerability, and play. When you see the children on the ceramics, there is a fun quality there, and the kids should remind you of your own childhood.”

These platters juxtapose American foods with Chinese words to show the ways culture can blend for Asian-Americans.

Beth works year-round in her home studio in the Upper Rattlesnake, surrounded by the undeniable beauty of the mountains. She is quite prolific, and the sheer amount of art she creates at a time is very impressive. She has two kilns in her studio, and there are shelves of finished works waiting to ship to galleries across the country. On the wall overlooking her studio hangs intricate paintings by her mother. There is a CD player and a stack of CDs sitting besides the door, and she eases in and out of her work space as she shows me her pieces. She is always firing on all cylinders—that much is clear—and even as we speak I can tell that she is creating something, anything, in her mind.

Working is fun for Beth Lo, who laughs at me while I take a series of photographs.

“I go through periods of making, working with the raw clay, and my work cycle is determined to an extent by the kiln firing. I usually try to make enough to make a kiln load, so I spend a period of time making the objects and then there will be another stretch with the painting and then firing and glazing. Each morning I just try to get going. I turn on my books on CD or a  podcast and hunker down until life gets in the way.” She adds that she usually works 5-7 hours a day, depending on her work load, upcoming shows, or bands’ schedules. Yes, bands, plural. Beth Lo is also a prolific musician. She plays in five bands around town: the Big Sky Mudflaps, who have been around for almost 42 years; a salsa band called Salsa Loca that has been around for 10 years; a country swing band called Western Union that has been around for 5 years; a Brazilian group called Canta Brazil who has been active for 3 years; and lastly Trio Noir. She plays bass for all the groups.

“Missoula and Montana in general are amazing,” she reflects. “When I first came here I just found it the most open place I have ever lived—I felt that I could try anything. I think this is the case because first, there are less people; it is not so crowded so you have space to try [things]. Secondly, the natural environment is inspiring and stimulating. Nature also relaxes and frees your mind and gives you room to unwind and think and be absorbed by beauty. Missoula especially is incredibly supportive. I think we are really lucky in that way. When my mom started coming here for her six-months stays, she would say ‘This town is alive’. And it is. People here want to see what is going on. They really love the arts here.”

Beth poses with her mother at the opening of her Radius Gallery show Shape / Shift in Missoula. Photo courtesy of Radius Gallery.

Beth has been living and creating in Missoula 45 years now, and she has seen the evolution of the arts community throughout her time as an artist and art professor. “The art community has just gotten bigger. The Missoula Art Museum in town is wonderful piece of the community. Great people work there and really promote regional and local artists. The Clay Studio of Missoula has grown from this little seedling to an amazing place that has applications for residencies from all over the country, so that is another little vibrant piece of the community. Radius Gallery and other venues provide a vibrant downtown art scene. The university, of course, is solid in terms of the faculty and talent. I’m proud to say the work that is produced there rivals anything in the country. I’ve seen what’s around and the student work is exceptional! The faculty works really hard to cultivate that creativity.” She believes that perhaps the common denominator of the immense amount of world-class art coming out of this town is perhaps Missoula itself. “There are a lot of people who want to live in an environment like this: clean water, clean air, amazing views, privacy—the chance to be alone in the mountains. I just feel lucky to be alive and have the time and the space to be experimental.”

Missoula is a place where people can find solitude with nature but also have this community that loves art and supports art, and that is a very special thing. Beth Lo has found her home here. She has found her community here, and in return, that community supports her and other artists.

“It is easy to live here. It is pretty safe. There is just something very ‘home’ about Missoula.”

On display at the Shape / Shift Show at Radius Gallery in Missoula. Photo courtesy of Radius Gallery.

Beth Lo’s work can be seen currently at Radius Gallery in Missoula. The show Shape / Shift features three Montana artists: Beth Lo, Pamela Caughey, and Sean O’Connell. The show runs through February 24, 2018.