Feature September 13, 2016
Artistic Sensibilities Shaped by Place

Despite its size, the Wood River Valley continues to be a deep well of talent.  Sun Valley stars are breaking across the world, everywhere from the Czech Republic to Liverpool. We profiled three emerging artists, all hailing from the Wood River Valley, who are making waves in their respective fields of fiction, opera and music. In all cases, place—this particular place—had a profound effect on their art and sensibilities.

Ian Janco

Music has been buried in Ian Janco’s bones since he was born.  From an early age, he’s known how he wanted to spend his life. “Growing up, when people would ask me what I wanted to be, I would always tell them, ‘a songwriter,’” he said.

This career choice was no surprise given his upbringing; he grew up on a sprawling, isolated ranch at Robinson Bar in the Boulder-White Cloud Range owned by the legendary singer-songwriter Carole King.

Janco’s mother, Elissa Kline, who was a friend of King’s daughter, left her job in a New York music studio for a one-year stint as caretaker of the ranch, bringing along Janco’s father. One year soon became 17. Janco credits the 11 years he spent growing up on the ranch for inspiring his career as a singer-songwriter. King’s ranch was teeming with everything a budding artist could hope for, including musical mentors.

“Carole had a studio on the ranch, and my dad taught himself, learning how to play all the instruments, how to record his own music. I think it was watching that process, on top of my mom’s influence, playing music around the house all of the time, that was the start,” Janco reminisced.

This start came early; as a 5-year-old, Ian performed an original song at a blues festival.  At 8, he recorded his first five-song EP. By 10, he was playing drums, bass, and guitar in local bands.

“I first wrote an original song at 5. I mean, it was not very good, but what could you expect? Once I got to high school, I started to really take it seriously, once I had real things to write about: girls, depression, fun things like that.”

After spending his elementary years as one of 26 students in a one-room schoolhouse in Stanley, Janco moved to Sun Valley when he was 11. He was shocked by the relatively mammoth middle school. He relocated again for high school, to Santa Cruz, California.

All of these different places have impacted his art, Janco says, and Idaho continues to live on in his sound. “I was lucky to have different environments to play music in,” he explained. ”With Stanley, Sun Valley, and then Santa Cruz, I have had lots of different influences, and you can still hear some of Idaho, that sensibility has stayed in my writing.”

While Janco is currently across the pond, studying at the Liverpool Institute for Performing Arts, he feels lucky to return to the Valley that first inspired him.

This summer, he graced the same stage where he saw his first concert: Carole King and James Taylor at River Run Lodge. This time, he was the one performing, opening for Emmylou Harris.

For Janco, writing is not just a way to pay the bills; he sees it more as a calling.

“I see songwriting as a craft, a job, an honor, a duty. Songs are a profound thing, taking the fleeting moments people experience every day and preserving them. You have to be open and receptive to those moments. One second could inspire the song of your life.”

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Writer Alexander Maksik relaxes in one of his old haunts: Iconoclast Books in Ketchum

Alexander Maksik

Though Alexander Maksik was not officially an “author” until the publication of his first novel, “You Deserve Nothing,” in 2011, he said he has been “writing for as long as I can remember.” It certainly seems as if he had a backlog of stories to tell; since his first, he has published two more novels, “A Marker to Measure Drift,” in 2013, and “Shelter in Place,” coming out in September 2016. He has also been a contributing editor for Condé Nast Traveler, and his writing has appeared in everything from “Best American Nonrequired Reading” to Salon.

With two critically acclaimed novels and a slew of prizes, Maksik is by most measures a success. However, he does not subscribe to narrow parameters to define his life’s work.  “While I would, of course, like to win prizes and appear at the top of bestseller lists, I don’t see those things as indicative of success. My primary interest is to write as well as I can, to write books that are unconventional, urgent, challenging, and that will have real emotional resonance with readers,” he said.

This drive to put words down on paper is, at times, “difficult, isolating and frustrating,” Maksik noted. However, “it also provides me a very particular pleasure, one I’ve found nowhere else in my life.”

The people and places of the Wood River Valley cultivated this drive. Maksik attended Community School, where his father was the headmaster and his mother was head of the lower school. “I was profoundly influenced by my teachers here,” he said, giving particular credit to Bob Brock and Tom Johnson, “both of whom taught me to read and to write in ways I’d never imagined possible at the time.”

He found a sanctuary at Iconoclast Books in Ketchum. “Sarah Hedrick and her late husband, Gary Hunt, were both very supportive of me from an early age and provided me a warm place to read my terrible poems aloud,” Maksik said.

Maksik has found that our wide-open spaces and undisturbed wilderness create the perfect backdrop for introspection and creation. While trying to break out of Idaho would be a challenge for many, he found nothing but virtue in his upbringing.

“If anything,” he commented, “growing up in Idaho was an advantage. Much of what I learned here, particularly in the backcountry, has been useful to me as a writer: an ability to be alone, to find pleasure in that solitude, to be self-sufficient, to pay careful attention to the world.”

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Louissa Waycott cools off in the Sun Valley Pavilion fountain.

Louisa Waycott

Louisa Waycott seems to be something of an anachronism, a 21st-century woman pursuing an 18th-century art. However, she insists, opera is overdue for a comeback.

“It used to be the most popular art form out there, and, I think now, with the opera houses streaming their performances and recordings, it’s becoming popular again. It still has the power to overwhelm and inspire you,” she enthused.

Waycott stumbled into her passion, discovering opera during an internship her senior year of high school. As part of Community School’s cherished tradition of senior projects, Louisa interned at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City. She was immediately transfixed.

Though she initially hoped to pursue a career as a cellist, Waycott turned her eye toward the insular and elite world of opera and has never looked back.

“I threw almost everything else out the window, I was so inspired. I wanted to learn how people could amplify their voices so much they could sing in a 3000-seat house and be heard fully, without a microphone, over a 120-piece orchestra,” she recalled.

Years of honing her acting and musical skills in the Sun Valley laboratory allowed her to make the transition. Sun Valley’s size belies its dynamic arts scene; our quiet mountain town is home to world-class artists, devoted to enriching their surroundings.

“Sun Valley just attracts the most unique and interesting people. There are so many amazing and talented people that want to give back to the community,” she said.

With such a deep pool of talent concentrated in a small area, students of the arts are afforded opportunities that would be prohibitively expensive or inaccessible in cities like New York.  Programs like the Sun Valley Summer Symphony and the accompanying School of Music exposed Waycott to incredible artists and instructors.

“You are able to see top artists of the musical and classical theatre world, Yo-Yo Ma, Midori Goto¯, Deborah Voigt, I mean, amazing artists,” Waycott offered. “Somewhere else, you’d be paying a lot of money to see anyone like that.  Once, I was able to sing for Deborah Voigt, which would be almost impossible (anywhere else) when you’re competing against 600 other people for the one spot.”

While Waycott built her skills in Idaho, she has also taken pains to venture out into the larger world, which, as she was entering the new world of opera, was necessary to gauge her progress.

“Basically, anyone who wants to pursue something that is being ranked on an international level, you have to get out to see where you are, talent-wise, to see how you are developing compared to everyone else. You do not want to distance yourself from what is currently happening on the world stage,”
she noted.

Waycott has certainly kept up to date on the world stage, traveling everywhere from Italy to the Czech Republic, soaking up the sounds and sites of opera’s old masters. With every new experience, her reverence for the art has deepened.

“There is something beautiful about a raw voice. You become overwhelmed by the sheer beauty of music. Opera just opens you up to
the core.”

This article appears in the Fall 2016 Issue of Sun Valley Magazine.