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Four Spokane creatives are making waves near and far in music, acting and art

In recent years, Spokane’s art scene has blossomed into something bigger than most people probably thought possible, with homegrown events like Terrain and First Friday shining the spotlight on the city’s abundance of local talent. Here, we profile four local creatives making waves artistically both near and far.

Hilary Baird

Hilary Baird always knew she was going to be a piano teacher. In fact, a 6-year-old Baird told her teacher as much before she had even touched the instrument.

“I always knew something would happen with music when I got older,” she said. “I always really gravitated towards the musical patterns and the sounds. I was super fascinated by it.”

When Baird began taking piano lessons at age 10, the experience exceeded her expectations and she was hooked.

She only took lessons for about a year though, and would go where there was a piano, be it someone’s home, a church or a piano gallery, to teach herself the instrument.

At the same time, Baird, who moved to Spokane when she was 12, used library books to teach herself about the circle of fifths and composition.

“I liked the idea of originality,” she said. “I liked the idea that I could figure out the patterns on my own and I could figure out what matched with what.”

Baird, 30, also performs works by other composers, including Felix Mendelssohn and Franz Liszt, but learning to read music was a challenge she wasn’t initially sure she could overcome.

She didn’t know why reading music always proved to be difficult until about four years ago when she discovered she had a type of synesthesia called color Grapheme, which means her mind correlates colors with sounds, letters and numbers.

In her head, each music note is a different color, pink for A, purple for F. With sheet music full of black notes, Baird’s mind had trouble deciphering the music.

Once she had this breakthrough, Baird began highlighting her sheet music to match the color of the note with the color she saw in her head.

“I went from not being able to read music to now I can read Beethoven, Chopin, Schubert …,” she said. “I can memorize the music a lot quicker because I memorize it by the color versus the note.”

Baird’s passion for the piano and drive to overcome any obstacle that could keep her from the instrument has taken her from churches and piano galleries to the world-renowned Carnegie Hall, where she is set to perform June 28.

This dream became a reality after Baird, who served in the U.S. Navy for four years, was talking with a shipmate about what they would do after leaving the military.

Baird thought her dream to play Carnegie Hall was out of her reach, but her shipmate convinced her that she wouldn’t know for sure until she tried.

Taking his advice, Baird emailed the Carnegie Hall booking department a little about herself and a link to her music. They emailed her back with information on how to arrange a concert.

She’s been working 70 hours a week between multiple jobs, including as a certified nursing assistant at Good Samaritan Society Nursing Home, to afford a lesson here and there and the cost of renting Carnegie Hall’s Weill Recital Hall. She’s launched a GoFundMe drive to raise $2,500 for her trip.

“Even though it’s a lot of work to go, I was happy that the opportunity exists,” she said. “It’s like ‘OK, it might not have been handed to me for free, but I’m happy that at least I have the opportunity to earn it.”

During her three-hour long Carnegie Hall concert, Baird will perform a mix of known pieces and original compositions.

Baird composed one of those pieces, “A Sleepers Fantasia,” seven years ago while she was deployed in Bahrain.

After being away from the instrument for some time, Baird felt the urge to sit down at the piano and compose, putting together the patterns she taught herself as a child.

The three-movement piece runs 45 minutes, though Baird is contemplating adding a fourth movement for the performance.

“I’m going to probably redo a little bit of it since I know more about music theory and chord progressions,” she said.

She is also considering a piece called “Michelle’s Wings” that she wrote for a close friend who died five years ago after a battle with epilepsy.

The piece’s four movements represent birth, life, death and the afterlife. Baird performed this piece for Michelle’s friends and family in 2012 at a musical memorial.

Carnegie Hall isn’t all that’s in Baird’s future as she also has the opportunity to attend a series of piano master classes in Tarnow, Poland, which could culminate in the chance to go on tour.

She’s working on raising funds for that trip too, but for the time being, Baird, who spent time studying music at Spokane Falls Community College after leaving the Navy, is focused on giving private lessons and building her own studio, just like her 6-year-old self knew she would.

More music is also on the way as that’s simply how Baird’s mind works.

“Usually with music, I sit down and I think for a minute then I instantly start playing,” she said. “It’s like the music is instantly in my head.”

To contribute to Baird’s GoFundMe campaign, visit gofundme.com/carnegie-hall-fundraiser.

Keesy Timmer

Keesy Timmer knows better than anyone how much of a roller coaster life can be; his journey from Spokane student to Nashville songwriter has been as bumpy as they come.

Growing up, Timmer’s TV was always set to CMT, and he’d listen to artists like Garth Brooks, Joe Diffie and Mark Chestnutt.

Timmer, 35, began playing the guitar after he taught himself chord charts the summer before seventh grade at Horizon Middle School. In school, Timmer quickly befriended fellow guitarist Dan Schmedding, who performs as Dan Conrad, who was the heavy metal yin to Timmer’s country yang.

“I got turned on to some of his stuff and he got turned onto mine,” Timmer said. “Down the road, we ended up meeting in the middle.”

As students at University High School, Timmer, Schmedding and friend Dave Dryden took guitar lessons and wrote songs together, and Timmer and Schmedding wrote for and performed together in a band called Apitomee after graduation.

Though he enjoyed his time in the band, Timmer’s focus was slowly starting to shift more toward songwriting.

“I was starting to discover that I was starting to develop some pretty decent chops and I really enjoyed the creative process,” he said. “I really started to see that this is what I wanted to do.”

Coming from “a long line of dream-chasers that never got a chance to chase their dreams,” Timmer took a leap of faith and moved to Music City, U.S.A. in 2004.

“If you want to be an actor you move to Hollywood,” he said. “If you want to be a songwriter, you move to Nashville.”

Once in Nashville, he teamed up with Tenino, Washington-native Adam Craig, eventually joining a band with Craig called TelluRide.

It was while on tour with TelluRide that everything changed for Timmer.

The band was on its way to a show in Baltimore when Timmer fell ill. While waiting for his hotel room to be ready, Timmer went to the room of his future wife, Michelle, and her friend, who were in town to see the band.

The last thing Timmer remembers is knocking on the pair’s door. He would later wake up in the back of an ambulance after suffering a grand mal seizure.

He had another grand mal seizure at the hospital. A CAT scan determined that Timmer was suffering a series of small strokes because of a temporary blood clotting disorder he developed from spending long hours sitting in a van while touring.

After a week in the hospital, doctors told Timmer’s mother that he would no longer be able to decipher melody. Timmer was rightly terrified at the diagnosis but didn’t let it deter him from giving music another try.

He sat down with a metronome and eventually relearned rhythm. He was forced to leave TelluRide but went on to write songs for the band, now known as the Adam Craig Band.

Following his hospitalization, Timmer spent several years working odd jobs, including a stint at a fire protection company, trying to reestablish himself as a songwriter and musician.

Things started to look up again for Timmer in 2012 when he acted as emcee for Brad Paisley on the singer’s “Virtual Reality” tour, which kept him on the road for almost five months.

The next year, Timmer signed a five-year publishing deal with Blue Guitar, an impressive feat given that, as Timmer said, low music streaming rates have made it difficult to pursue a career as a songwriter.

During his time with Blue Guitar, Timmer estimates he wrote between 600 and 700 songs, eventually teaming up with country music It girl Kelsea Ballerini, with whom Timmer had written in the past.

The pair wrote a country-pop song called “Yeah Boy” during a co-writing session, and the song went on to appear on Ballerini’s debut album “The First Time.”

A year later, in May 2016, Timmer decided to leave his publishing company because he wasn’t fond of some of their practices. A termination agreement he signed has kept him out of a publishing deal for the past year.

Timmer began working as an Uber driver to make ends meet but started to wonder if Nashville was right for him.

“I’m thinking ‘If it hasn’t happened by now, it ain’t ever going to happen,’ ” he said. “I start having really serious talks with my wife about throwing in the towel and moving back home to Spokane and salvaging some sort of life.”

But soon after he hit that low, Ballerini called with yet another high: “Yeah Boy” was selected as the final single from her album.

The momentum from the single, which peaked at numbers No. 3 and 9 on the “Billboard” Country Airplay and Hot Country Songs charts respectively, has given a boost to some of Timmer’s other songs and he alludes to “really awesome things” in the works.

“It was a shot in the arm, and now I feel like I got another 10 years left in me,” he said of the success of “Yeah Boy.” “It’s been an amazing journey for me down here … I have become who I am because of this process, and I’m really excited. I feel like it’s just the beginning.”

Max Kumangai

If you watched the “Waitress” feature on “Good Morning America” last month, you would have seen a glimpse of what Spokane native Max Kumangai does as dance captain and swing in the Broadway musical.

He moves a pan rack loaded with bowls, baking ingredients and coffee pots into place before quickly taking a seat in the diner.

He then jumps up to hand a clipboard to lead actress Sara Bareilles before running back to the pan rack to grab a coffee pot for her.

He then takes the cup she’s filled, places it on a cart and grabs two sugar pourers, which he hands to Bareilles before immediately taking a napkin and menu from another actor and placing them on the pan rack, seamlessly transitioning from one moment to the next.

He then grabs a pie, one of many onstage, and performs choreography with the rest of the cast.

As a swing, he covers the male ensemble parts and two of the male lead roles. That, coupled with his role as dance captain, means its possible Kumangai knows the ins and outs of “Waitress” better than anyone else.

“I’m like the maintenance man for all the choreography and musical numbers,” Kumangai said. “If someone is not hitting their mark on stage or is passing the pie differently or someone’s having a hard time figuring out the choreography, I am the point person that they go through … There’s a lot of connecting points that make it seem like choreography. I’m in charge of that.”

Kumangai, 32, has been in charge of those connecting points since the Tony Award-nominated musical, which is based on the 2007 movie of the same name and features music and lyrics by Bareilles, opened on Broadway last year. But he got his start in theater as a student at North Central High School.

Kumangai said theater teacher Tom Armitage, who is retiring at the end of the school year, essentially forced him to try out for his first musical, “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.”

“He basically taught me everything I know,” he said. “He introduced me to theater and my love for it.”

“The reason I’m in ‘Waitress’ is because of him,” he added later in the interview.

Kumangai, who is the son of Spokesman-Review copy editor Katharine Kumangai, continued performing throughout high school and attended Missoula Children’s Theatre’s musical theater camps every summer. It was at one of these camps during his freshman year of college that he met actor Michael Lowney, who is now Kumangai’s boyfriend.

Lowney suggested Kumangai give musical theater a try professionally, so Kumangai transferred from Whitworth University, then called Whitworth College, to the University of Michigan.

“They have a very amazing, nourishing musical theater program that basically sets you up to plop down in New York and pound the pavement,” Kumangai said. “I graduated in 2008 from Michigan, and I’ve been in New York doing the theater ever since.”

Kumangai’s first play was an off-Broadway show called “What’s That Smell: The Music of Jacob Sterling.” He then performed again in “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat” and regional shows that took him around the country.

While performing in yet another production of “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat,” Kumangai got a call from his agents telling him that he needed to return to New York to audition for “Waitress.”

Kumangai, a huge fan of Bareilles, had already listened to and loved her album “What’s Inside: Songs from ‘Waitress,’ ” but he was apprehensive about taking time away from “Joseph” in the middle of a tech process, which is where everything – the actors, lighting, costumes – comes together onstage.

But his agents persisted and Kumangai got the part after several auditions.

“We opened a year ago, April 24, which has been the longest job I’ve ever had in my life,” he said. “It continues to be one of the best experiences I’ve ever had.”

His role as dance captain requires him to attend every single rehearsal, and since he lives too far away from the theater to go home in between rehearsal and showtime, Kumangai has made a second home for himself at the theater, outfitting his dressing station with a comfortable chair, a blanket and pillow, and extra toiletries.

The time commitment is a downside, but it’s far outweighed by the positives that have come from this job.

Kumangai, who considers himself a shy person, has been forced to break out of his shell in order to effectively teach the cast.

“That is one of the best things I’ve gotten out of ‘Waitress’ is challenging my own insecurities about being authoritative,” he said.

Kumangai has been asked in passing about his interest in joining the upcoming national tour of “Waitress,” though nothing has been confirmed.

He said he’d love to be a part of the show, but he could also see himself following in the footsteps of Armitage and his teachers at the musical theater camp. On yet another hand, he likes to cook (he’s baked a lot of pies since joining “Waitress”) and jokes about maybe one day having his own show on Food Network.

Kumangai said figuring out your next step is the challenge of being an actor.

“I did a lot of cool bucket list things with ‘Waitress,’ ” he said. “If that was my last show, I would walk away very proud. But what the hell am I going to do if I’m not doing that? I think I’m going to keep plugging away until I don’t land a job.”

Daniel Lopez

You may not know Daniel Lopez’s name, but you’ve definitely seen him. Or rather, you’ve seen his art.

The colorful graffiti-inspired work on the Youth for Christ’s City Life Youth Center.

The image of waves crashing against a lighthouse in the youth room of Calvary Chapel.

The mural, done in different shades of brown, on the side of Boulevard Mercantile, which depicts Spokane history and highlights the Looff Carrousel, the old Great Northern Railway depot and the Clocktower.

The recreation of Michelangelo’s “The Creation of Adam,” with Riverfront Park landmarks like the Clocktower and the pavilion balanced precariously on one of the hands, on the side of the Antiquarian.

And most recently, the ocean-themed mural on the corner of North Cochran Street and West Boone Avenue, which depicts a massive shark, some mischievous looking fish and a few turtles, one of which is wearing a snorkeling mask with a bendy straw attached.

It was all done by Lopez, whose path to a stable life focused on art has been long and winding.

Growing up in Southern California, Lopez was always interested in art and took a few art classes in high school. His grandmother, who raised him, encouraged him to pursue this interest, and Lopez got his first taste of mural work when a class project found him and other students painting a mural he designed at an elementary school.

As much as he enjoyed his time in art classes, school didn’t hold his attention, which, paired with a heroin addiction, led Lopez to drop out of school.

After 19 years of struggling with addiction and a brief stint living with his sister in Yakima after his grandmother’s death, Lopez enrolled in the Pacific Northwest Adult and Teen Challenge in Spokane.

He stayed at the treatment center for a year-and-a-half before getting a job washing dishes at Indaba Coffee.

Moving to Spokane and getting clean reignited the childhood passion Lopez had for art.

“I always loved art but I never really focused on it until I got up here,” he said. “Where I’m from, you can’t really do too much with art. I would’ve never been able to make anything out of myself where I’m from.”

Since his time in recovery, Lopez has hit the ground running, literally painting the town red and, well, just about every other color under the sun.

Sometimes Lopez reaches out to business owners about painting a mural on their wall, other times people reach out to Lopez requesting art.

“Nine out of 10 times, people don’t know what to think,” Lopez said. “But it only takes one person to take me serious and then I get the ball rolling.”

Murals can take anywhere from a week to a few months to complete, depending on how much back and forth it takes to finalize a design.

When he’s working, Lopez often gets interrupted by passers-by who want to ask questions or just say hi. He doesn’t mind a quick chat so long as he’s not rushing to complete the mural.

He’s also gotten his fair share of odd looks from people who weren’t sure what Lopez, armed with cans of spray paint, was doing.

“Once people see what’s happening, they love it,” he said. “It’s an event for everybody. It’s not just me up there on a wall.”

Lopez, 34, loves what he does because, even though he doesn’t always get to incorporate personal elements into his murals, he knows there’s a good chance each one gives a visual voice to someone who otherwise wouldn’t have one.

“Someone can sing a song and say something maybe that an artist can’t say,” he said. “Maybe I can show something that a musician couldn’t sing.”