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‘Form and function’ find a peculiar home in Bozeman’s Misco Mill

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The Misco Mill, originally built as a grain mill in the 1930s, was refurbished nearly 20 years ago. Today, it is a gallery, workshop, living space and VRBO apartment. PHOTO BY BELLA BUTLER

By Bella Butler EBS EDITORIAL ASSISTANT

BOZEMAN – A dated, yet charming, structure ornaments Bozeman’s fledgling city skyline: an old grain mill. The relic, a standing homage to a Bozeman-of-old, has weathered the changing tides of the city, a fact most apparent when eyeballing it next to the neighbors du jour—a boutique coffee shop and a pottery studio. But the Misco Mill has adapted to the present, housing a gallery, a VRBO apartment and a furniture workshop, ensuring it will endure long into Bozeman’s unfurling metamorphosis.

When one crosses the threshold of the mill’s entrance, the noises of a busy Wallace Street fade and a warm light welcomes visitors into a high-ceilinged room. Paintings, photos and sculptures of both rustic and modern styles garnish the walls, achieving a palpable feng shui.

The gallery space, which serves as a first impression of the multi-purpose building, was a far cry from enchanting some 20 years ago when Shaw Thompson, his father Sam and his brother Nate stumbled upon the structure.

Thompson’s love affair with the Treasure State began on a family trip he was 15 years old, igniting an adoration that is predated by other creative minds, such as writer John Steinbeck and painter Charlie Russell.  In 2000, he answered the call, moving East from California with his brother in tow.

The Shaw boys passed by the old mill on a drive, observing the crippled structure through the tinted lens of what Thompson recalls as youthful passion, compelling the family to buy an empty grain mill that was nearly 70 years old and bore resemblance to a forsaken pigeon coop.

Thompson experiments with different pieces in the early stages of assembling a light fixture. PHOTO BY BELLA BUTLER

Serendipity, or something like it, lead the Thompsons to a place that needed them perhaps as much as they needed it, as the Shaw boys themselves needed a little glue and chewing gum to become closer.

Fortunately, Thompson was blessed with an artistic foresight that allowed him to see the potential in something many would discount as mundane—he refers to this as his “crazy mind.” Despite the barren rooms and shattered windows of the mill, he recognized a space with the capacity to inspire him, one that could foster creativity in his art, his lifestyle and his craftsmanship.

Two decades later, the once-rundown mill is home to a vibrant gallery, workshop and living space, and Thompson’s vision has only grown with it.

“This is part of a leg from a cast iron stove,” said Thompson, gesturing toward the severe brow and snout of a mask, a member of a peculiar trio, hanging on the east wall of the gallery. The rust-spattered piece is laid over bison hide, which is adorned with two drawer-pulls to mimic hollow eyes. “It’s become a disease … I can’t stop seeing these faces.”  

The masks are adjacent to a series of Thompson’s acrylic paintings, featuring bright blues and reds, in stark, eye-catching contrast to the gentler earthy tones that dominate the gallery.

Perhaps, it’s just this sort of juxtaposition that constitutes the spiritual backbone of the mill.

Having been a grain mill since its construction in the 1930s, the Thompson men were building upon what most would consider blank canvas. They felt, however, their mission was to supplement the mill’s long-established wealth of character.

Through the formation of a gallery, a workshop and an apartment, the Thompsons built upon that charisma, bringing several fresh narratives to the mill.

“For me, the building created the adventure,” Thompson said.

In Thompson’s workshop, two-by-six planks are stacked atop one another like a Jenga tower—he laughs at the precarious inefficiency of the method, but he can’t help but feel allured by the abnormality, and even after two decades, the atypical walls, the paradoxically organized piles of clutter, and a cathedral-esque ceiling still inspire the artist on a daily basis. Much like a “Where’s Waldo” or “In This Picture” book scene, knickknacks, doo-dads, rusty gears, ribbed ground stakes, tire rims and an assemblage of unidentifiable trinkets spring up in every nook, every crevice, for an optic experience unlike most. One’s eyes could drift over the contents indefinitely.

Thompson, a collector of sorts, attends antique sales and trades with his neighbor for unique pieces. Strangers and friends even began leaving offerings on his doorstep, and the scraps he acquires become the components of lights, coffee tables and other home ornaments he constructs. A born artist, Thompson takes instruction from the form of the object, “listening” to the shape and its movement in a space to determine its final home. He must listen, of course, over a Johnny Cash tune blasting from a radio. 

The Misco Mill artist takes pride in creating things of function and beauty that go on to become installations in people’s homes.

Thompson’s apartment sits above the workshop and gallery space in the mill. While most of the construction is new, he refurbished old grain bins to use in his closet and left an original beam in the main living area. PHOTO BY BELLA BUTLER

“I think it’s pretty cool to have something that is art but also functions well as something you can use every day,” Thompson said.

Around the corner from the shop and up a set of polished stairs is Thompson’s apartment, comprised by two sets of stairs and a ladder connecting two floors and a loft. His home is bathed in natural light, but is brightened even more so by the array of artwork that dangles on practically every inch of free space.

Beside his dining room table rests an in-progress commissioned painting. Thompson said he likes to be surrounded by his work, as inspiration and decision making don’t rest and often arises without notice.

Thompson is totally relaxed in the mill, a rare sight in an American culture of constant hustle, but he achieves this by existing entirely in his element. He is a man of few, yet thoughtful, words, but the eclectic and busy mill speaks volumes on his behalf. Despite the distinguished partitions of space, Misco Mill feels like a contiguous series of ecosystems, like when the pleasant blend of clinking metal and radio static bleed from the workshop and are picked up by the Mill’s many guests and residents: Fanny, Thompson’s pup, dragging her toys down from the apartment; Thompson’s father perusing the shelves for a missing key; Thompson’s girlfriend’s mom greeting patrons as they enter the front door, to name a few.

“It’s pretty hard to think of not having this place,” Thompson said. “It would be a huge hole in my life. Once you get rid of something like this, you can’t really replace it.”

Eight decades: many more stories. This is the Misco Mill, and, for now, Shaw is its shepherd, breathing fresh life into a dormant, but never dead, entity.

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