Helena received a visit this weekend from artist James Dinh, whose design with frequent collaborator Michael Stutz was selected in the fall as a replacement for the Confederate Memorial Fountain in Hill Park.
Dinh’s resume includes 23 public art submissions in the past five years, including a design with Stutz that was considered for the National Native American Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., last year. But Montana is new territory for the Vietnamese-born artist from Cerritos, 20 miles southeast of Los Angeles.
The design Ron Waterman of the Equity Fountain Project presented to the city in November, titled “Sphere of Interconnectedness,” features a millstone topped by a sphere of stainless steel strips. Words adorn the edge of the millstone in the design, some of which will be spelled in foreign and Native languages, said then-interim city manager Dennis Taylor.
Dinh met with the Archie Bray Foundation for the Ceramic Arts and appeared at Holter Museum of Art for a reception in his honor Saturday. He is currently finalizing details of the fountain's design with Waterman and will work with a stone fabricator on the fountain's millstone.
“I got a great welcome, so I have no complaints other than the cold,” Dinh said laughingly of his first time in Helena, or Montana in general.
Stutz, who Dinh said was particularly interested in their project as a Tennessee native, will work on the strips comprising the steel orb. The individual parts will be shipped to Helena and installed by a local contractor in July.
“He was much more (knowledgeable) than I was,” Dinh said of Stutz. “I didn’t know that these monuments were actually erected, most of them, after the Civil War.”
“I think that the community is ready to move in this direction and they’re looking forward to this project with a great deal of excitement,” Waterman said. “This’ll be the first piece of public art that the citizens have given to the city of Helena, ever. I mean, we had to create a whole process of how they could accept it because the city had never had somebody come offer them a piece of public art before. And I think that’s exciting.”
Dinh echoed that sentiment, saying he was “very impressed” by the citizen-led nature of the project.
The Arizona Republic reported Tuesday on a demonstration at the state Capitol in Phoenix in which one of the state’s six Confederate memorials was adorned with a black curtain and a sign that read “Confederates were traitors; to honor them is bigotry.”
Like Montana, Arizona did not achieve statehood until decades after the Civil War. According to data from the Southern Poverty Law Center, Confederate monuments are far less common outside the Southeast but not entirely unusual.
The SPLC counted 1,747 monuments, roads, schools, municipalities, parks and other symbols named for or dedicated to Confederate figures around the nation as of Feb. 1. Of those, 30 reside in former Union states and 30 more in states not founded until after the Civil War.
Montana still accounts for two in the latter category, both in Beaverhead County: Jeff Davis Creek and the Confederate Dam.
Calls for removal of Confederate symbols inside and outside the Southeast have seen a significant jump since June 17, 2015, the day 21-year-old Dylann Roof shot 10 and killed nine black churchgoers in Charleston, South Carolina. Roof’s personal website featured a racist manifesto and images of Roof posing with the Confederate battle flag and a burning American flag.
SPLC data counts 114 removals of Confederate symbols in 22 states and the District of Columbia since Charleston, with three other removals at unknown dates. The organization counts 129 total removals since 1880.
Notably, then-South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley signed a bill to remove a Confederate battle flag flown in front of the State House in Columbia less than one month after the shooting.
In Helena, the shooting prompted new discussion about the future of the Hill Park fountain, which was built by the Daughters of the Confederacy in 1916. City commissioners ultimately decided to have the fountain removed just days after the Unite the Right rally in Virginia turned deadly in August 2017.
“I’ve always said, and I said this to the commission, and I will say it time and again, I came to this project with sort of a blank slate,” Waterman said. “Without ties to the history, whatever happened about that fountain was before I came to it.
“… We didn’t try and look backwards, we wanted to look forwards. We looked to the future,” Waterman continued. “That’s the direction I envisioned it and I think we let artists understand that was what we were trying to do, was to take core values that we held and express them.”
Dinh approached the project with a blank slate to some degree, as well: He said submitting artists weren’t originally told of the fountain’s background.
“It was only through my own research that I learned more about it,” Dinh said.