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Kirks’ Grocery a reflection of Billings’ messy creative side

Art center on Billings’ South Side brings community together to share and explore.
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Posted at 7:48 AM, Apr 03, 2024
and last updated 2024-04-03 09:53:54-04

BILLINGS - Entering Kirks’ Grocery, a sense of discovery, of messy creative energy, of high art and low culture, unfurls across the space.

Located on the South Side of Billings, just across the tracks from downtown, Kirks’ Grocery feels connected to the underground scene, the anti-hero hero, the place where everyone wants to hang.

The storefront area shows art from local, regional and international artists, depending on the calendar: sculptures made from wigs, embroidered stitching on found photographs, along with paintings that smash Western lore with modern art, reports the Montana Free Press. Performances, including music, sound art and readings, happen in the back.

But Kirks’ is more than an art space. It’s a reflection of the community, in all the ways that community binds people together: food, visual art, music, and a place to gather, share and explore.

Artist, musician and owner of Kirks’ Grocery, Shane de Leon, opened the space in Billings five years ago.

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Shane De Leon runs Kirks’ Grocery with Mary Serbe. They met when they both worked at the Yellowstone Art Museum in Billings.

“For me, growing up in Billings, there wasn’t much to do,” de Leon said. “There were a lot of sound projects with nowhere to go.”

De Leon runs Kirks’ Grocery with Mary Serbe. They met when they both worked at the Yellowstone Art Museum in Billings. While still working at the museum they found the space and immediately saw the potential.

“It’s for everyone, especially for people who feel like they are on the fringe of things,” Serbe said. “Kirks’ has evolved multiple times, but every time it’s always been for the common good.” In fact, “For the Common Good” is its motto.

Built in 1900, the brick building at 2920 Minnesota Ave., was converted into a wholesale grocery in the mid-1940s, according to the Western Heritage Center. The grocery was run and owned by two of the Kirk brothers, thus the name is Kirks’ Grocery. When de Leon and Serbe opened the space as an art center, they decided not to sell groceries but kept the name as a nod to Billings’ past.

A turning point for Kirks’ Grocery occurred during the pandemic.

“We thought we’d go out of business,” Serbe said. “We weren’t doing art or music or dinners. But as soon as it got a little bit safe, we started doing performances on the sidewalk.”

Some drove by slowly; others brought their own chairs and sat across the street.

“It’s for everyone, especially for people who feel like they are on the fringe of things. Kirks’ has evolved multiple times, but every time it’s always been for the common good.”
MARY SERBE

“That’s the great part of being fluid and flexible — we just went outside — although it did take a lot of effort,” Serbe said.

At the same time, Serbe and de Leon began streaming Facebook live videos.

“We’d walk through the exhibitions, then stand by a piece and just talk about it,” she said. “These weren’t highly prepared talks. But people were watching, and they were buying art.”

Kirks’ began to attract a following. So much so that people would get pizza and sit down at home to watch Serbe and de Leon on Facebook, then call in and ask them to go back to a piece or just buy it, then and there, over the phone.

“We absolutely made enough in art sales to continue to show art,” Serbe said. The best part, being an online presence, made people aware that Kirks’ Grocery was still standing, alive and well. “Sometimes, the artist would get on the streaming videos and answer questions. That was one of the greatest things about Kirks.’”

The style of Kirks’ Grocery is what de Leon and Serbe refer to as “DIY,” which means something different to everybody but basically refers to the idea of ”if you build it they will come.” Both of them are open to all kinds of events, presentations, classes, and they open up so that kids can have a place to hang out.

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“I support young musicians and young artists; a place like Kirks’ provides a home for them,” says Shane de Leon, shown here playing his guitar outside of Kirks’ Grocery. “We’re really proud of being a community art center, not just an art gallery.”

“DIY is an ‘I’m-doing-it-myself’ way of thinking,” de Leon said. “Anyone can come and do something. Just the other day we had a Planned Parenthood meeting here.”

Kirks’ Grocery is supported by the shows that charge admission, by a Kitchen Party that is put together by chef Ash Woodward with pay-what-you-can meals, by the sales of art, T-shirts, vinyl records, yoga classes, homeschoolers and by memberships.

“The membership program is about helping Kirks’ to function so we can be generous to the artists and musicians,” de Leon said. “I support young musicians and young artists; a place like Kirks’ provides a home for them. The sales of established artists support the younger artists. We’re really proud of being a community art center, not just an art gallery.”

On Friday, April 5, Kirks’ Grocery will present the work of Sheila Miles, a former Billings resident, who lived in Montana for 26 years and moved to Arizona. “Because she’s had this robust career as a painter and was highly influenced by the 26 years she spent in Montana, we wanted to show her work,” Serbe said. “She sees this show as a way to share where she’s gotten to in her career.” The show will stay up through May 25.

For more information and a schedule of events, visit their website www.kirksgrocery.com where their newsletter is available for download.