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Doug Clark: Art Spirit Gallery has old-soul curator in 20-year-old Mason Miles

Twenty-year-old Mason Miles is the nation’s youngest art gallery curator. He talked about the Art Spirit Gallery’s 20th anniversary show,  which he arranged and hung at the gallery in Coeur d’Alene, on Thursday, July 20, 2017. (Kathy Plonka / The Spokesman-Review)

The 20th anniversary exhibition at Coeur d’Alene’s Art Spirit Gallery features the many exquisite pieces of art you’d expect, but also two surprises.

Surprise One is a 6-foot computer monitor located in the middle of the gallery. With the touch of a finger to glass, a visitor will instantly see the headshot of any artist who has ever shown at Art Spirit, examples of his or her work and a thumbnail sketch of pertinent and biographical information.

I’ve never encountered such an innovation in a gallery before, and the way they’ve incorporated it here makes it almost like an art object by itself.

The second surprise is also interactive, but in a more traditional way.

He’s Mason Miles, who is being billed by Art Spirit as America’s “youngest gallery curator.”

I don’t know what research went into this claim, but since Miles is only 20 years old I tend to believe it.

I remember being 20. The only art I cared about then had the last name Garfunkel.

Miles is something of an old soul, explained Art Spirit owner Blair Williams. Not only is he whip-smart but “a natural” for this vital role.

Williams smiled. “What Mason has is something you can’t teach,” she said.

As curator, Miles has the daunting task of arranging and hanging all the art shows, including this 20th anniversary milestone, which continues through August and features a wide variety of pieces from nearly 200 artists.

Hang the paintings. Arrange the sculptures. Coordinate colors. Consider thematic content.

And don’t ignore the political factor of artist standing and importance.

Don’t want to stick a Harold Balazs piece on a bottom corner in some faraway room.

There’s nothing slap-dash about this.

The process, said Miles, typically begins on a Saturday with the removal of all the art from the previous show.

New pieces are assembled and moved to the front of the gallery. On Sunday, Miles will prowl the gallery’s 4,000 square feet, visualizing where each piece of art will be best served.

“I like to tell a story,” he told me during my recent visit to the gallery.

Miles will spend hours and hours putting his narrative together while listening to jazz and other music.

Having so many pieces to deal with can be overwhelming, he said. “Sometimes I have to sit there and process it.”

Design and details. Details and design.

The two concepts are everything to a curator, and this anniversary show indicates how adept young Miles is at making it happen.

There are so many arresting examples to admire here from many of our best regional artists.

Beth Cavener, Mel McCuddin, George Carlson, Chris Bivins, Allen Dodge, Mark Lisk, John Thamm …

Exquisite paintings. Large metal sculptures. Photographs and fine art. Ceramics and enamels.

“We don’t sell art,” said Williams. “We facilitate people buying the pieces that they fall in love with.”

Justin Strong, by the way, should get some love, too. He did all the inputting and programming necessary to make the gallery’s touch-sensitive monitor such a hit.

The end result is an exhibition that is both enjoyable and easy on the eyes.

“I try to allow the walls to breathe,” said Miles, adding that no art show should “look cluttered” or confined. The end result “has to look natural.”

“What Mason does is an art,” Williams interjected.

So how does a kid become a curator?

From his story it sounds like the stars aligned.

A Boise resident, Miles migrated to Coeur d’Alene after graduating high school. He enrolled at North Idaho College and began taking some art classes.

“In high school I was always into design and looking at art magazines,” he explained.

One day last year, he wandered into the gallery when Williams’ mother, JoAnn Sanders, was luckily there.

She watched Miles as he took it all in.

“He wasn’t just looking at the art,” said Williams. “He was seeing the entire show.”

When Williams returned to the gallery, she said, her mom gave her an order:

“Go have coffee with him. You have to find him a job.”

At this time Art Spirit was owned and operated by a great guy named Steve Gibbs. An artist and graphic designer, Gibbs started the gallery in 1997, first in a house and then at its present and landmark location at 415 Sherman Ave.

Williams said she and the staff held their breath the first time Gibbs let Miles hang a room on his own.

The gallery owner, they figured, would let the young student put everything up and then make him take it all down while giving him a professional’s tough-love critique on where he went wrong.

Yet after examining Miles’ finished work, Gibbs had little to say other than good job.

That’s when Art Spirit staffers knew they had something special. And the timing, as it turned out, was crucial for the gallery.

Gibbs was diagnosed with ALS 10 days after Miles showed up. The degenerative neuromuscular disease took him last December. He was 64.

Fortunately, Miles was there to arrange the monthly shows all last year. Williams said Miles did so well that patrons and artists took it for granted that Gibbs was still hanging the exhibitions though he was physically unable to do all the necessary lifting and ladder climbing.

“I love it,” Miles said of his job. “I love working with my hands, creating things with other people’s creations.”

And it shows.

“Our intention,” said Williams, “is to see that this institution that Steve Gibbs founded and built continues on for another 20 years.”

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