Take six artists and drop them into five historic sites in Montana and give them a month to create new works inspired both by the place and its history.
That’s the joyful assignment that sent these artists to the following sites this summer:
- David Burke, Butte-Anaconda National Historic Landmark, month of August, painting
- Kit Frost, Glacier National Park: GNP National Park Service, mid-August to mid-September, photography
- D.G. House, Traveler’s Rest National Historic Landmark, September/October, painting
- Lewis Williams, Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument, August, painting/woodcut prints
- Ben Bloch, Virginia City National Historic Landmark, mid-July through mid-August, painting
- Tim Holmes, artist-at-large who is visiting all sites to provide a unifying perspective, (July through October), painting
The project, “Reimagine Montana: National Parks, Historic Landmarks, Trails and Monuments Across Time” is funded by a $20,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts and National Park Service, both of which are celebrating anniversaries this year. The NEA marks 50 years and the NPS celebrates its 100th anniversary.
All five sites have national historic significance, said Chere Jiusto, executive director of MPA, who came up with the brainstorm.
The impetus for creating this project was an NEA call for proposal, Imagine Your Parks, said Jiusto. “It just put me in mind of the powerful artwork that had been done over time depicting Montana, the cultural and history here, the vast landscape -- it seemed like such a perfect fit.”
“It seemed a really beautiful way to commemorate these places that mean so much to all us and how they resonate with people.”
These contemporary artists-in-residence walk in the steps of such renowned artists as Karl Bodmer, Thomas Moran, Charlie Russell, Thomas Hart Benton, Gustav Sohon, John Fery and Native American traditional artists.
“It’s been just a tremendous success,” Jiusto said of the project. “Uniformly, the artists have just loved it. Creatively, the work they’ve produced is beyond what we had hoped for.”
“Every place that hosted them found the artist in tune with the history that took place there -- in particular.”
Some of the art is still in progress.
Glacier Park visitors just might find Helena artist Holmes painting at Lake McDonald in September.
In October he’ll be at Traveler’s Rest, one mile south of Lolo, where Lewis and Clark stopped for three days, Sept. 9-11, 1805, and again on their return trip in 1806.
Also at Traveler’s Rest is the resident-artist at this site, DG House. She is creating ledger art pieces and paintings inspired by the water of the river, the wildlife in the valley, the ancient Native American history associated with this place and the Lewis & Clark saga.
House will be on site during the annual park’s celebration the week of Sept 21, and her work will be on display through Sept. 28.
On Sept. 24 House will give a lecture on her work and there will be a tour, and on Sept. 27 she will be on hand for a members-only evening program.
She will also be at the site Oct. 3-6.
Some of the artists who’ve completed their artist residencies are already sharing their works.
Painter Ben Bloch, of Missoula and Cameron, will show works from his Virginia City residency at The Public House, 130 E Broadway, Missoula, on First Friday Art Walk, Oct. 7.
Both Holmes and Bloch spoke of their art and inspiration.
Holmes considers himself the luckiest of all the artists because he gets to visit all the sites, he said. “It’s just about the best gig an artist could get.”
His lively, vivid oil paintings depict nature and buildings in a fluid and animated style.
In fact, one could say, Holmes’ residency have been an exercise in “going with the flow.”
Arriving in Virgille, he soon discovered he was in a gem of a place that had been unknown to him. “I was really taken with it.”
A few days later, while canoeing the Missouri Breaks, he found himself slogging through a mud flat when he stopped for lunch.
Since he is a sculptor, it was a happy discovery.
“I wound up sculpting myself for an hour and a half - -just playing in the mud and making sculptures on my body. The reflections of the cliffs above me were just so astonishing.”
“That’s kind of the spirit of the whole thing -- celebrating with the way we interact with our incredible environment. ... It has nothing to do with the residency, but everything to do with being an artist in the world.”
Another chance encounter, this time with an angry landowner outside of Virginia City, also evolved into something quite extraordinary.
The landowner roared up on his ATV in a huff, angrily telling Holmes, who had just set up his paints, that he was trespassing. After Holmes apologized and told him about the Reimagine Montana project, the landowner told Holmes the whole story of the place and the history of his family.
“I felt like we had a really great connection,” he said. He winds up telling Holmes, “You’re welcome to stay here as long as you like and have a good time.”
“To me, it felt like a real Montana experience,” said Holmes. “It just turned into a fabulous experience. The fact is we are surrounded by really lovely people.”
Thus Holmes now has a colorful story to accompanying his equally colorful painting, “Coal Banks Bend.”
He hopes to have a whole collection of stories to share by the time he’s done. He plans an exhibit of the Reimagine works at his Helena studio in October or November.
Bloch, the Virginia City on site artist-in-residence, created eight works.
While his subject is the landscape and architecture and how they are changing, his real focus is the mood and spirit of the place --what he calls its “hauntedness.”
“One of the things about Virginia City is that it has such a recent history of gold mining,” he said. “I felt that lingering, haunted energy that ...was very powerful to absorb and try to represent.”
It’s particularly captured in a strangely curving tree on the winding way into Virginia City and in a picture of a tailing pond.
There’s “an energy that has a real feel” that’s unavoidable and inspired some of the works, he said. “I tried to add a sense of that.”
At the end of the project, MPA will select one artwork from each artist for a permanent collection and other works for a final exhibition that will juxtapose work by these contemporary artists alongside historical imagery and writings.
The exhibit will open in June 2017 at the Butte-Silver Bow Public Archives, and will be designed to travel. Other venues are in the works.
For more information about the project, contact Jiusto at 457-2822 or visit www.preservemontana.org.