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Follow the Blue Balloons

Great Falls Studios prepares for third annual art studio tour.

In April of 2003, as Ronni Jolles went about her day at her home in Great Falls, she suddenly heard the blaring ring of her fire alarm. Within minutes her entire house was on fire.

"Luckily it was during the day and I was on the other side of the house," said Jolles. "It happened quickly and we have pets, so I had to get the dogs out and I had to get the cats out, and by the time I did that, then I just stood there and watched."

Jolles was heartbroken as she watched her home of the past 12 years go up in flames. Fortunately, the Great Falls Fire Department arrived on the scene and was able to douse the fire, saving it from total loss. For the next nine months Jolles, her husband and her three children lived in a hotel, then a rental home and then another hotel.

"You spend months without your life in some ways, but then you realize that material things are not what matters," said Jolles.

The fire was caused by an electrical malfunction.

"It was just one of these things in an older house," said Jolles.

Jolles, a local artist, works out of her home studio, which was destroyed in the blaze. Today her studio is completely rebuilt, and even bigger and better than before. Subsequently, Jolles' studio will be one of 18 featured in the upcoming third annual Great Falls Art Studio Tour.

JOLLES was one of the first members of Great Falls Studios, a consortium of local artists founded three years ago by local potter Laura Nichols. The consortium started out with just a few members but today boasts more than 50, made up of painters, jewelry makers, sculptors and other artists. The Great Falls Art Studio Tour allows local residents to take a self-guided tour of local artists' studios, and has become the group's signature event.

On Saturday, Oct. 14, from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., anyone may use provided maps to navigate their way from studio to studio. Many of the studios are located on interesting properties that are not normally open to the public. This year's tour will include barns, outbuildings, contemporary houses and a pre-Civil War farm. In addition, most of the artists will also provide demonstrations during the tour.

"You can see kilns, digital photography studios, even watch the construction of three-dimensional structural reliefs," said wood sculptor and Great Falls Studios member Jonathan Fisher. "You can see how the artists devote space on their properties to pursue the creative life."

Maps for the tour are available at "The Artists' Atelier," a Village Center loft that is used by seven members of Great Falls Studios, and at the Great Falls Firehouse, the Great Falls Library, and RE/MAX Gateway Real Estate Office. On the day of the tour, directional signs and blue balloons will also mark studio sites.

This year's tour will benefit two causes — the Firehouse Building Fund and the Great Falls Studios "Dream Fund," used to promote visual arts in the community.

THE WORK of quilter Cindy Grisdela will also be featured in this year's Studio Tour. However, Grisdela will display her quilts in the RE/MAX Gateway Real Estate office since her home studio is small. This will be her first year participating in the tour.

"As soon as the RE/MAX office became available I decided I would do it because I just think this is a great group," said Grisdela.

Grisdela has been making quilts for more than 20 years, and has lately been experimenting with different color combinations.

"I've done a lot of work with black and white fabrics and contrasting them with brighter pieces because it sort of gives a pop to the finished product," she said. "I've also been working with with some pieces that are more like pure color primaries that I think create a sort of happy mood."

Since the Great Falls Fire Department helped to save her studio, Ronni Jolles is particularly pleased that her home will be featured as part of a tour that will benefit the Firehouse Building Fund.

Jolles created her own art form seven years ago when she retired from her 18-year career as an art teacher.

"It's kind of a new art form that I moved into with papers and from discovering what kind of papers there are around the world," said Jolles.

Jolles uses papers of all textures and colors to create pictures. As an art teacher, Jolles said she enjoyed teaching collage work, and she also wanted to practice an art medium that was different.

"There's something about working with paper and being able to use your hands — it's very tactile and it went really well with my personality," said Jolles.

Jolles has created approximately 200 pieces of varying shapes and sizes.

"Ronni's work is really novel," said Fisher. "They are very dimensional... you can see how she got her reputation as an innovative artist."