by Ann M. Colford

The town of Sandpoint, Idaho, seems to attract more than its share of creative people. Maybe it's the comfort of the surrounding Selkirk Mountains or the inspiring views of Lake Pend Oreille. Or maybe it's something in the water. Whatever the draw, Sandpoint's creative citizens can now gather at the North Idaho Arts Center, a place for homegrown, participatory art. The member-supported organization got its start a couple of years ago, thanks to the efforts of Sandpoint resident Jennifer Goldblum, who says she had no idea what she was getting into at the time.

"I had no experience at all, so there's been lots of on-the-job training for those of us in it," she says. "It's a huge volunteer effort, but we've had a wide variety of ages and backgrounds involved. That's been the joy of watching it come together."

Goldblum says the idea of an artists' community center came from the Open Studio Project in Chicago. "It's a place where people can come in and use the space, and take classes if they want to," she explains. "It's an arts process organization, with a focus on the visual arts."

After learning about the Chicago project, Goldblum checked with other art-loving friends in Sandpoint, and they decided to see if the idea would fly in their much-smaller community. She took out an ad announcing a preliminary meeting and immediately received several calls in response. A core group came together to form the board of directors, and the next several months were spent developing by-laws and a mission statement, finding mentors with experience in non-profit management, and contacting foundations. After a couple of temporary homes, the group is now settling into an old food co-op building and working on fulfilling that mission statement.

"We hope to be a networking resource for artists in the region and eventually publish a directory," says Ellen Weissman, NIAC's current president. "NIAC's long-range goal is to become one of Sandpoint's treasures, as is the Festival at Sandpoint, POAC and the Panida Theater, and to strengthen the local arts community, celebrate local talent and leave a legacy for our children."

"We are a center for the visual, performing and living arts," Goldblum adds. The Center offers classes, workshops and events, as well as providing a place in the community for artists to gather.

A quick glance at the latest newsletter confirms a wide variety of activities on tap. Each month, NIAC presents a World Travel Slide Show on the first Wednesday and an Open Mike session on the last Friday. "Mostly, [the open mike night] ends up being people sharing poetry," Goldblum says, "but people can bring in visual art work, too."

Continuing classes are held nearly every afternoon and evening and offer instruction in everything from "Kids' Watercolor and Drawing" to "Circular Breathing and Rhythmic Intonations of the Didjeridoo." The current crop of classes covers music, dance, visual arts and cooking, with sessions for a variety of ages.

Among the new offerings for the winter quarter are a few new multi-session classes. Local art historian Diana Scott, who teaches at North Idaho College and the Cuyamungue Institute of New Mexico, began "Ancient Art, Myth and Spirituality" this week, but there's still time to sign up for the rest of the course. This eight-session class meets on the first and fourth Mondays of each month from 6:30-8:30 pm. Scott draws upon her deep interest in the imagery of ancient cultures for this series.

"I love the ancient world," Scott says. "This class is my pet project, because I can combine my interests in traveling, art, and spirituality." Each session will focus on the imagery of a different culture, Scott explains. "We're going to go all over the world in this class, from Australian aboriginal cultures to European cave art to Asia, Africa and Native America."

The class will see slides of art from these various cultures, and the discussions will explore the belief systems underlying the images and how these images make their way into contemporary culture. "You can see in it the threads of all of our contemporary major religions," Scott adds. "For instance, the cave art of Europe has mostly animal imagery -- the bear as healer, and the stag symbolizing renewal with the loss of its horns. You see similarities in Native American art and images. And you see it in Christianity, with images of the Lamb of God."

Myth and spirituality of both the ancient world and the present will play a large role in the discussions as well, Scott says. "There are lots of definitions of what myth means. The work of Joseph Campbell is a good example. He says myth helps to make clear the inexplicable." She sees a powerful link between the imagery of a culture and its spiritual belief systems. "The arts are always there, expressing the spirit," she says. "Myth is a part of that. But the art is always there, telling the story."

To emphasize the connection with the present, Scott plans to highlight the work of some contemporary artists who integrate similar visual themes into their work. She has taught this class before -- at North Idaho College and the Gardenia Center in Sandpoint -- but this is the first time she has integrated contemporary work with images from the past. "The class changes over time as I change," she says. "I think it's important to look at the visionaries, because they let us know what's coming up in the future."

While she likes pointing out connections with the present, Scott cautions that artifacts must be seen within their historical circumstances. She talks about a 30,000-year-old figure of a woman found in Europe. "We don't know exactly how it was used, but we know these kinds of things were used in a whole context. People now want to call them goddesses, but we just don't know."

No previous art history training is required for this class, and Scott hopes to attract a group large enough to trigger lively discussions. "The number of students doesn't really matter, as long as there's lots of input," she says. "I like to have people from different belief systems in the class, because that strengthens the conversations."

Scott hopes the class will inspire people to travel and seek out art experiences for themselves. "I try to whet people's interest, encourage people to see art in person, to see the size, the context, and the place. This is a wonderful class for artists, who need to look at other art to give them ideas and inspiration, and for anyone who is a lover of the ancient world."

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