A traditional Cheyenne flute song, played on a handcrafted courting flute, opened a ceremony at the State Capitol Friday afternoon honoring 10 of Montana’s finest folk artists.
They joined the ranks of Montana’s Circle of American Masters, a select circle of now 42 artists who are recognized by the Montana Arts Council for the artistry and excellence of their crafts.
Among them were two local artists, master bamboo flyrod maker Glenn Brackett, who owns a rod shop in Twin Bridges, and master bladesmith Rick Dunkerley of Lincoln.
Both were about 6 years old when they first developed a passion for their craft.
“I used to troll with my father and grandfather at Bucks Lake near Quincy, Calif.,” Brackett said. “I can bring back all that feeling and those memories — the smell of the worms and the wicker basket creel, just by holding a bamboo rod in my hands.”
“It can bring all those memories back,” he said. “It has some kind of magical quality. Live is the key word — because it’s built from something live.”
He also knows the rod’s ability to stir magical memories of happy times works on others, too.
A letter he’s kept over the years is from a customer in New York City who wrote of looking out his window at the destruction and smoke of 9/11: “The thing that helps keep me together is the rod that you built for me.”
Brackett, whose been building bamboo flyrods for more than 40 years, started Sweetgrass Rods in Twin Bridges, and now has a crew of people he’s taught the craft to —“ the Boo Crew” — who work with him.
“Forty years ago you couldn’t count on two hands” those who could make bamboo flyrods, he said. Now, “the craft is really being carried forward by individual rod builders.” His Sweetgrass Rods shop is one of the last production shops in the world building rods from bamboo.
Recently he branched into a new area, building a bamboo violin bow for violinist Joshua Bell and making a gift of it to him when he played a concert in Great Falls.
Dunkerley, likewise, became fascinated with his craft, thanks to his father, who brought him a knife from Spain when he was a child.
“The fascination continued to grow,” he said. He built his first knife in 1983 as a hobby when he was in the U.S. Air Force.
Now, his knives are not only functional but stunning works of art.
Dunkerley is one of 110 blademakers, internationally, with a Master Smith rating and one of a handful of Americans to earn a Maestro rating from the Italian Knifemakers organization.
His specialty is one-of-a-kind mosaic Damascus steel folding knives.
Largely self-taught, he has learned to forge metal and create Damascus steel, which was originally used by medieval sword makers.
An outfitter in the Scapegoat Wilderness, Dunkerley brings together his love for fishing and the outdoors with knifemaking in the words and pictures he works into the blades.
“In blades, I like to do fish and dry flies,” he said. The handles are often elaborately embellished.
“They evolve as I make them,” he said of his knives. He used to feel he was forcing the knife designs 15 years ago. Now he lets the knife become what it wants to be.
Like the other American Master artists recognized Friday, Dunkerley is generous in sharing his skills.
“For the past four years I’ve worked with the industrial arts teacher in Lincoln,” he said. “They are actually making knives. They had to add another metals class.”
The students have been “very appreciative,” he said.
The other visual folk and traditional artists honored Friday were: Scott Enloe, Great Falls, canoe and furniture builder; Howard Knight, Stevensville, leather artist; Gordon McMullen, Bozeman, wood turner; Jay Old Mouse, Lame Deer, traditional flutemaker; Birdie Real Bird, Garryowen, beadwork artist; Jim Rempp, Missoula, bow maker; Marilyn Stevens, Trego, basketweaver; and Brenda Yirsa, Big Sandy, quilt artist.
“I just saw this was something we had to do,” said Cindy Kittredge, Montana Arts Council’s folk arts and market development specialist, of the award.
“They’re incredible artists,” she said. “They’re hidden in plain view. Their community knows them, but I don’t know that the rest of Montana knows about them. It was time to shine a light on them.
“That’s the excitement of this. These Montana artists create art that speaks to who we are as Montanans.”