First seen in Montana Kaimin photo by Eli Imadali
The Union ballroom is sweaty, like a middle school gym decked out for a dance (the kind you used to drop low to Usher in.) But this isn’t an Usher music video. It’s the third funk show hosted by a new artist collective, South Higgins Soul.
South Higgins Soul attempts to create an inclusive space for all musicians, visual artists and performers to come together monthly. The shows combine painters, photographers, jewelry-makers, poets, dancers, bands and other Missoula artists for a night of funky music and esoteric experiences meant to bring everyone out of their shell.
“Dress Funky, be groovy,” the collective suggests in its tagline. Friday night’s crowd certainly took the advice. The crowd packed into the ballroom danced around balloons and wore polka dots, suspenders and ‘70s-inspired geometric sunglasses. Rainbow acid visual videos projected onto a wall while bands played.
When founders Rebecca Ruppert and Shawn Mennell moved from Wyoming to Missoula two years ago, they were chasing a bohemian artist’s dream full of drum circles and skinny-dipping in the Clark Fork river. Instead, they found an art community pushed underground and isolated. They saw a lack of support, structure, and community.
The couple perceived the public’s reluctance to express itself and dance at shows as a symptom of a larger generational problem of self-isolation and even a romanticization of depression.
“I definitely think that us as a generation should just lose our cool for once,” Ruppert, a writer and performance artist, said.
The focus on the individual spills over into the art world in Missoula, Ruppert said, and to create art, people must feel a sense of freedom.
“In order to do that, you need to break up this idea that it is just about my image,” she said.
“Missoula is experiencing a bit of a drought in places for young people to express themselves,” Landen Beckner, a painter and poet, said. He’s been part of South Higgins Soul since its inception and hopes the collective can help fill that hole.
The couple founded the collective, inspired by a British soul music dance party in the ‘70s, to create a space for artists and people to let loose. They hope that feeling of freedom from judgement will eventually spill out into everyday life beyond the collective’s shows.
“Art has created a counterculture in every era, or a different world underneath the surface of your everyday 9 to 5,” Ruppert said. “No one wants to deal with maintaining the face used during school or work at a show.”
South Higgins Soul is unique in the equal weight it gives to all artists in its shows. Poets and visual performers take the stage between band performances, not tacked on to the beginning or end of the show as people are arriving or trickling away. This is meant to create a complete sensory experience that connects the visual and auditory. The couple is attempting to create a space for collaboration instead of competition between artists.
Mennell, a self-described “savage beatnik painter and printmaker,” sees this as a starting point for making the arts community resistant to gentrification and limited resources by creating a stronger community.
At the collective’s third show, the first band, Edgar Allen Kubrick, filled the ballroom with electric guitar riffs and a deep drawl reminiscent of ‘60s rock ‘n’ roll. Photos by Justis Wilson covered the back of the room, striking and dystopic portraits lit by green lights. Paintings resembling Picasso modernist spreads hung next to them. The other visual artist, Oliver Brown, displayed his wire-wrapped jewelry in the back of the party.
The highlight of the night was Fertile Crescent, a new funk band made up of 10 University of Montana students. Their suspenders, the coordinated dance moves of the brass section, and saxophone solos brought the crowd to cheers and inspired dancing that shook the ballroom floor.
The head member of the band, UM sophomore Kyle Curtis, said Fertile Crescent was founded based on a mission to play music that everyone can dance to. The band formed in August 2018, and he thought the collective’s purpose and the band’s mission were compatible.
UM student Maggie Bornstein came to the show Friday to support local artists. Her hot-pink fanny pack and hoops the size of grapefruits with silver stars in the center matched the funky theme.
The night seemed to embody the “get funky and groovy” vibe the founders set out to create. Ruppert hopes South Higgins Soul can be a balm for our generation — a space for artists to come together freely without judgment, a place to find inspiration and support.