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Cort Conley Explores Idaho Artists

New book highlights Gem State gems


Writer Cort Conley is more documentarian than artist. Though he tried his hand at art school years ago, he found his calling chronicling and artfully describing others' obsessions. Sharing an Italian soda with his young daughter Keats at Flying M Coffeehouse, Conley racked his brain for a W. Somerset Maugham quote to sum up his failed foray into the art world.

"There's nothing so terrible as the pursuit of art by those who have no talent," he said finally, a satisfied smile spreading across his thin lips, tufts of gray hair peeking out from under a ball cap.

A collector of stories, images and quotes, Conley is frequently drawn to those with a singular, impassioned pursuit--be it living off the grid in a remote mountain town or holing up in a barn for hours on end carving delicate patterns into horse saddles. Director of Literature at Idaho Commission on the Arts, Conley has written several books, including Idaho Loners: Hermits, Solitaries and Individualists and his most recent, Idaho Artists: A Contemporary Selection.

The 168-page book is a collection of profiles written on 36 Idaho artists--painters, sculptors, ceramists, writers, poets, woodworkers--many of them originally published in the state arts newsletter Latitudes. Though the book was conceived by late Boise State English professor Tom Trusky, Conley saw the project to completion after Trusky passed away in late 2009.

"Tom had the idea about two years ago and he was going to be the editor for it ... he did not want a book that was stuffy or artistic or museum-quality... I think he'd be happy with the outcome," said Conley.

In the book's preface, Conley tackles the timeless question, "What is art?" He muses:

"Assuredly, there is no art without craft; just as surely, artless craft abounds. Still, beyond argument, when craft transcends its maker, distinguishing between the two is a pointless exercise better left to institutions that feast upon cultural politics and economics, gatekeepers patrolling the borders of their little kingdoms by shooting trespassers on-site."

The cover of Idaho Artists plays with viewers' preconceptions of art vs. craft. On the front, there's an oval-shaped, opalescent object of indeterminate size with delicate flowery engraving. On the back, that object is more readily recognizable as a belt buckle, with engraver David Alderson's name carved at the bottom.

"You look at it and say, What is that? Is it jewelry? How big is it?" said Conley. "Then once you realize the kind of skill that's involved in doing that kind of engraving, it might open you up to considering somebody that's doing rawhide braiding or making saddles or blowing glass or any number of things also being an artist."

One of the more nontraditional artists Conley profiles is Midvale knife-maker Dwight Towell, a former farmer who fashions highly sought-after knives with handles made from delicate materials like shell, tusk, antler and bone. Speaking about his craft, Towell tells Conley:

"Like an old fellow said, 'It's easy to make a knife--just take a piece of steel and grind away everything that doesn't look like one.' I'm still grinding," said Towell.

Conley also profiles more well-known visual artists like painters Charles Gill, Tarmo Watia, Molly Hill and Troy Passey. As Conley explains in the book, writing and visual art also arm wrestled for Passey's attention--"the itch to make dark marks on white paper is shared by artists and writers," Conley quotes John Updike as saying. Though visual art ultimately won out with Passey, most of his pieces include some form of handwritten, repetitive text.

In the profile, Conley diligently describes Passey's artistic routine in his North End home: "On the fifth day, Friday, he torques up the stereo, rolls up the living room rug, vacuums the wooden floor and then kneels in the light from the three south-facing windows to ponder the expressive possibilities within the boundaries of a blank sheet of paper."

Though Passey's family has since moved to a larger house with a designated studio space, he still blankets his home with paintings-in-progress.

"I do have an actual studio now, but it's funny, I still make big pieces," said Passey. "I'm getting ready for the Modern [Art event], and so I will still sort of take over the living room for large-scale works."

Most of Conley's profiles in Idaho Artists examine the artist's workspace as a place of solitude and respite--an intimately revelatory creative womb.

"Obviously, every artist is a loner. They're alone when they're creating their art. They're oblivious to the rest of the world and if they don't have the capacity for that kind of solitude, they'll never be a great artist," explained Conley.

And that solitude extends beyond the studio for a large number of the artists profiled in Conley's book. Many live a pastoral existence, diligently honing their art-form for decades in old houses off winding dirt roads. They've traded the fast-paced metropolitan art worlds of New York and Los Angeles for the quiet, rural life that Idaho affords.

"You pay a price for living in Idaho; every person in there has. Unless they were famous when they came here ... but otherwise, it's really off-route," said Conley. "But they go right on producing, they never essentially think about that aspect of their career."

For Passey, being designated an "Idaho artist" is immaterial. With countless artists living and producing within Idaho's borders, he's most honored to have received Conley's stamp of approval.

"I think geography is a construct, you know what I mean, in terms of the borders of the state ... there are some amazingly talented people here and Cort is one. He's a total treasure for the state."