Artists Mari Bolen and Michele “Miki” Kapor have been partners for 47 years. In 1993 they put on the first show of the Montana Professional Artists Association, featuring Jerry Johnson, JR Eason, Mari and Miki.
“We decided at the time that we should call it a ‘professional’ show,” says Mari, “to distinguish ourselves from everyone else.”
Apparently that was a good move. The MPAA Show & Sale is still going strong. The 17th annual show will take place June 10-12 at the Bitterroot River Inn in Hamilton.
Mari and Miki both grew up in Montana. Miki, a painter, earned her art degree from Arizona State University before becoming a travel agent and heading out to see the world.
Mari, a sculptor, has degrees from Montana State University in zoology and commercial art. She has worked as an illustrator for Fish, Wildlife and Parks, at one time pulling the teeth from dead elk in Yellowstone to find out what killed them. Mari was able to put that experience and others like that to good use when sculpting the models that she makes from clay which become her well-known bronzes. She also illustrated textbooks to help pay for college, and worked for the Dept. of Film & TV as art director.
They ended up in the Bitterroot where they decided to be full-time artists. Miki said that it took some real effort to get established. They would take their portfolios to new homes in the valley to show the newcomers their art. That strategy actually worked. One woman ended up purchasing one of every bronze Mari created from then on until she died.
“If you want to be an artist,” said Mari, “you have to be a self starter and you have to work hard. You need not only the creativity, but the ability to negotiate and be a salesperson. You’re living on the edge the whole time. You never know when your next sale is coming.”
Both Mari and Miki are glad that the “not knowing” for them is mostly a thing of the past. They no longer have to travel far for shows and can relax in the knowledge that people will probably seek them out to buy their pieces.
“Now it’s easier for us to put on our own shows than it is to travel,” said Mari.
The whole idea of the MPAA show is “networking,” says Miki, “artists working for artists.”
The show was first held at the Daly Leach community room, then upstairs at the former Banque Club. It’s been held at the historic Wood home on the Eastside Hwy, and at the Stock Farm. The show has been held at the Bitterroot River Inn for several years and that proven to be a nice venue. The success of the shows is due in part to a reliance on lots of volunteer help and the generosity of a loyal group of business sponsors. The sponsor money goes to pay for the advertising and promotion which Mari and Miki don’t skimp on.
Half the artists in the show are from the Bitterroot, but they’re all from Montana. According to Miki, 750 western art shows were canceled in 2020 due to the pandemic. Last year’s show was hugely successful, as people jumped at the chance to finally get out of the house and back to normal.
MPAA signature members must participate in the Hamilton show. Eighteen artists will be featured. Not all the art is Western; contemporary art will also be on display. “It’s a wonderful group of artists,” said Mari, “a fun group of people. There’s a lot of diversity in the show.”
“We encourage everyone to come and see the art, including young people,” said Miki. “It’s free to get in.”
Friday night is the artists’ reception from 5 to 10 p.m. Hors d’ouevres from local sponsors like 2nd Street Sushi, Hamilton Packing Company, Hamilton Marketplace and Spice of Life will be featured, along with a no-host bar provided by Rainbow Bar. Saturday’s hours are 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. and Sunday the show runs from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. There will be artist demonstrations on Saturday and Sunday; the full schedule is online at montanaprofessionalartistsassoc.com.
Over the years, the show has brought in a lot of new people, “newcomers to the valley,” said Miki. “Montanans are not a stuffy bunch of people and that makes it fun,” she said. “Everyone is welcome to come and everyone does.”