Idaho Arts Quarterly » North Idaho

Art Spirit Gallery

North Idaho art beacon shines

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White supremacists. Survivalists. Trucks, guns, bacon grease and red meat. Any urbanite or city slicker that tells you that they don't think of at least one of those images when they hear the phrase "North Idaho"-well, they're just lying to you, partner. What can people possibly be left to think when residents call their home "North Idaho?" Wouldn't Northern be the proper qualifier, folks?

When you have all those fantastically inaccurate, sweeping generalizations on the brain, it's hard to fit the word "culture" in the same sentence when referring to the upper part of the Gem State. But the cultural offerings of Northern Idaho are sprouting faster than you can say redneck-and the strength, support and quality of the visual arts scene, in particular, might just be the most pristine gem in Idaho to date.

And if Coeur d'Alene is the capital of the "North Idaho" arts community, then The Art Spirit Gallery is the eye of the storm. Here, on the upper part of Sherman Avenue, you won't find any base-level figure sketches or gloopy pastels. Forget about wispy watercolors of flower buds and ballet dancers. And while you're at it, wipe away any assumptions you might have about what a Northern Idaho art show might look like-Steve Gibbs ensures your expectations will be exceeded.

Start with the fact that Gibbs successfully started the Art Spirit Gallery back in 1997 out of a small house off of the main walking path in downtown Coeur d'Alene. Or the fact that he converted a musky, dingy old skateboarding shop (the Shred Shed) into a groundbreaking, cutting edge art gallery. Or that Gibbs represents a number of lauded regional artists who choose to exclusively display their work at his gallery-nowhere else.

Opening and locating a gallery in Northern Idaho's Lake City-that's another story. It's something at which only a true devotee to visual artists and quality art could succeed.

"There was a long period of time when I didn't take home any money," Gibbs says, noting that he didn't take home a dime when his gallery was in its former location.

But that's what it takes to keep any gallery afloat, a truism among gallery owners from New York City to Boise to Sacramento. It's a shameless commitment to artistic integrity, that steadfast unwillingness to show art that will expand and challenge minds, not rake in dollar bills.

Gibbs says it is an attitude that only an artist can understand.

"Being an artist, and for 15 years a commercial graphic designer, gives you a different level of expertise that you can recognize good art," he says. "Good art goes to the core of the person. The actual form that their art takes-realism, sculpture, drawing, painting-there's always a level of intensity and commitment that shows through."

Gibbs continually attracts residents and tourists to Art Spirit with the frequency and diversity of his exhibitions. Changing shows on a monthly basis was a practice he started when his gallery was located outside of downtown Coeur d'Alene-realistically, it was the only way he could attract people away from the main drag to check out his art. But it's a practice he's kept, even in his current locale.

Gibbs and Gallery Assistant Janet Torline laugh when they reveal that the gallery-a curvaceous, warmly lit and modern space-used to hold skateboarding equipment. And really, it is hilarious.

Walking into the Art Spirit Gallery today is a dramatic, visceral experience. Shards of human emotion are framed on the walls, dramatic stalactites hang from the ceiling, glass art lines the windows and even more art from the low loft space above. Gibbs and Torline gesture to each section of artists-pointing out the Harold Balazs works here, the Mel McCuddin's there, the Archie Bray residents' works up there. There is so much art here-so much good art-you could spend hours smiling, crying and poring over each and every piece. The gallery is in the middle of its annual three-month break from shows; right now the gallery is a variety show of the best works of their artists. Gina Freuen's proud teapots strike poses in one corner while Beth Cavener Stichter's gorgeously gruesome figures grimace and cower in another. Don Ealy's paintings line one wall, and Mel McCuddin is spattered throughout.

Though it's an off time of year for the gallery, now is a time when art junkies might find themselves toppling over their creative edge from the sheer quality of this grab bag show.

"The way Steve presents things is different-more sophisticated," Torline says. "A lot of people are intimidated by that because the attitude of many people is that they 'don't know art.'"

Those people are who Gibbs and Torline like to see connecting to the art.

"Art communicates a feeling or a response. You might not know the language, but that's the beauty of art-it transcends language. It's cross-cultural, non-denominational. It's non-partisan. It is the fabric and foundation of every culture," Torline says.

And that attitude of understanding and acceptance of the arts has seeped out of the front doors of the Art Spirit Gallery, slowly encompassing the citizens of Coeur d'Alene, the city government, the local businesses and the people just stopping in town for the day or weekend.

When you walk down the streets of Coeur d'Alene today, that understanding and acceptance of the arts oozes from the sidewalks and street corners. Where vacant spaces and watercraft rental shops once ruled now stand statues, colorfully painted moose and public art. Arts Festivals are held several times per year. Art is very much a part of everyday life here, much like Boise. And that's something no city slicker art snob could have ever predicted about podunk "North" Idaho.

The Art Spirit Gallery is located in Downtown Coeur d'Alene at

415 Sherman Avenue. For more information call (208) 765-6006 or go to www.theartspiritgallery.com.