John and Ewa Zirkle enjoy quality time together. John learned to speak her native language – Polish. PHOTO COURTESY EWA ZIRKLE

The unknown JZ

A behind the scenes look at the public face of WMPAC

That feeling – the one found when securing that stretch of fresh powder and sharing it with friends on a bluebird day in Big Sky – John Zirkle loves that feeling. Zen days like that are works of art etched into memories. He wants to extend that feeling of connection and joy. As director of Warren Miller Performing Arts Center (WMPAC), he wants the center to serve as a beacon in the night, a gathering place. 

“I just think if you want to do something, you can do it. That was Warren’s [Miller’s] thing – you can do anything in a ski town. I really do take it to heart,” he said. 

All things in life can be viewed as art to varying degrees, although Zirkle is quick to point out that he does not want to appear kitschy and certainly does not want WMPAC to appear or be stuffy. 

“There is a history of lack of access to the arts because it appears to be only for snobby people, but I think Big Sky is leading the way. Everything that Brian [Hurlbut] does with the Arts Council and everything that we do, Brian Stumpf and Lauren Jackson with Dammit Lauren and the Well – they are doing amazing things,” he said. 

He does not even really like the word “art,” believing it to have been cheapened over the years to represent completely abstract individuals functioning on the fringe of society. 

The artists with whom he works and the art he knows is intentional, structured and professional. He chases donors and spends his days balancing, always balancing. Balancing between patrons who want conceptual and those who prefer things to be tangible; balancing the budget. Art is not always beautiful. Sometimes it is messy and sometimes it is tedious. 

“I’m proud to say that I’m kind of a boring person, too. We imagine artists to be in their studio all day, tearing their hair out and waiting for the muse,” he said. “I spend the majority of my day looking at spreadsheets and writing emails, trying to make ends meet; trying to get a message out.” 

With his position comes a dedication to the community – a tireless quest and palpable energy. 

When other people find themselves drinking a beer and watching the ballgame, Zirkle can often be found engaged in a conversation asking the big life questions: What is art? What does art mean to you? What does art mean in a ski community? How does one find meaning? 

A penny voting system offered at the end of WMPAC shows allows for feedback. It has been beneficial in guiding him in what Big Sky residents and visitors like. If only three people vote that they were displeased with a performance – although logically knowing the performance was an overwhelming success, he thinks about why those three people disliked it. 

After a decade in Big Sky serving in a remarkably public position, he said he still views himself as a pretty average Joe. 

Zirkle noted one of the amazing things about this community is that it allows a chance for singularity and individuality. He grew tired of trying to make it in New York City after he had just completed a prestigious choral fellowship in Eastern Europe. He even learned a handful of languages from that experience. Expectations were high for him after returning to the States. He made the decision to pull the cord in NYC and find the mountains. Zirkle had no clue that in the process, he would also find his career in the arts. 

“I found more opportunity here professionally than I might have in New York or in a big city. My life is full of creativity and arts stuff, which is amazing and not something I anticipated,” he said. 

When he first moved here, before opportunity knocked, he thought he would ski as much as possible, have many friends and nearly just as many jobs to make ends meet. It is a common story in a ski town, it just turned-out to not be his story. 

He described stabilizing forces in the community – nature, the river, the mountain. He explained the struggle is to find anchors and human systems outside of nature. 

“There is a destabilizing force from the very nature of a tourist destination in that people come and go rapidly. But I also think that because we are so aware of so much human influx... it makes our community stronger – because we are aware of how tenuous it is. And that, ultimately, for me is the staying power of this area,” he said. 

Time in Big Sky and a decade of growth has altered his perception of success. 

“I don’t think being on a stage singing in front of 30,000 people is the ultimate end all be all of success,” he said. “Being a part of a community, at least for me feels like an arrival of sorts. I’m just so thankful for this community. I find Big Sky to be incredibly supportive – it’s just moving.”

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