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‘Opening salvo’ — “EXTRACTION: Art on the Edge of the Abyss” opens at Holter Friday

‘Opening salvo’ — “EXTRACTION: Art on the Edge of the Abyss” opens at Holter Friday

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Helena’s apocalyptic summer eerily coincides with a new apocalyptic art exhibit opening at the Holter Museum of Art — “EXTRACTION: Art on the Edge of the Abyss.”

The public reception is 5 to 7 p.m. Friday, Aug. 6, at the Holter, 12 E. Lawrence St.

Scientists have seen climate catastrophes coming for decades.

So have artists.

This exhibit grows out of Montana’s very own ravaged landscapes — think of the inspiration of the Berkeley Pit — one of the largest toxic Superfund sites in America.

Two of the founders of this unique, multi-national EXTRACTION exhibit had Montana roots — writer Edwin Dobb (now deceased) of Butte and letterpress printer Peter Rutledge Koch, who grew up in Missoula and now resides in Berkeley.

The exhibit is a special project of the CODEX Foundation, which was founded by Koch.

“EXTRACTION” opens at 50 different sites this summer and fall on four continents and involves hundreds of artists, as well as writers, historians, environmentalists and educators.

All the works address a single theme —” the most pressing environmental issue of our time — the suicidal consumption of the planet’s natural resources...including climate change.”

“‘EXTRACTION’ is a call to action by artists and creators, said Holter associate curator Rosemary Howell.

It’s “a collective global exclamation: “ENOUGH!” say the exhibit founders.

Four hundred centuries of artmaking have shown us that in times of great challenge, when a culture has lost its way, the arts can serve as its moral guide —the light in the wilderness that leads us back to the path,” writes Samuel Pelts, “EXTRACTION” project manager.

“Never have we faced greater challenges as a species than in the era we have just entered.... This is our opening salvo.” 

“The first art institution Peter Koch reached out to was the Holter,” when he was launching “EXTRACTION,” said Howell.

The Holter put out a call for art in September 2019 and chose works by Montana artists: Maggy Rozycki Hiltner, Tracy Linder, Christopher Boyer, Jeff Van Tine, Lillian Nelson, Kathleen Herlihy-Paoli, Julia Schoebel and Evan Thompson plus selections from its permanent collection that include works by Koch.

“EXTRACTION” is on display throughout the museum through Oct. 10.

As of the publishing of the exhibit catalog, Montana is the state with the most “EXTRACTION” venue sites, with eight (see list in sidebar).

Perhaps, that’s because Montana artists have a visceral knowledge of the devastating impacts of mining, clearcutting and poisoned landscapes.

When Montanans hear the word “Superfund,” many know what it means to stare down into the abyss of the Berkeley Pit.

It’s likely most know someone impacted by one of Montana’s 17 Superfund sites, two of which are on Helena’s doorstep.

Despite the sheer scale of destruction in this state and globally, the art goes beyond reflecting grim reality.

“It’s a really heavy theme,” said Howell, “about a very real issue we’re going to have to deal with. It’s intensified by the heat and smoke and fires right now.”

But there’s also some humor and some hope.

Take Maggy Rozycki Hiltner’s quilt, “Superfun(d).”

It’s a decidedly festive and eye-catching quilt — the design reminiscent of circus sideshow posters with skeletons as carnival barkers bidding one to step right up and take a closer look.

Here one discovers the “wonders” of Cancer Alley, Green Rabbits, Cancer Clusters and other outrageous creepy crawly stuff that’s all TOO real.

There’s even a special tribute to the Rube-Goldberg-like contraptions at the Berkeley Pit that scare birds from landing on the toxic water.

Each gay “circus poster” contains Hiltner’s summary of the science of a different Superfund site.

“Most of the data comes from the website,” she said. “Everyone has a Superfund site in their backyard. It’s kind of crazy to think about. I picked ones that are particularly egregious or outrageous.”

The title and inspiration, ”Superfun(d), came from a public talk Hiltner gave at the Holter museum several years ago, about her work, “Vantage Point.”

She tends to talk fast, she said, and some members of the audience thought she was saying “superfun'' instead of “Superfund.” 

Thus, the spark for a new artwork was born.

“I think humor is a way to talk about a very serious subject…. I feel that’s the way to weave through some very heavy and dire subjects. You might have to introduce them in an unconventional way.”

From a distance, “It all looks happy,” she said. “But we know that’s not true.”

The more research she did, the more she learned about Montana’s history of extractive industry.

“It’s kind of shocking how close we are living to things that aren’t good for us.”

Tracy Linder’s installation, “Shill/Shell” also takes a lighter approach.

The installation captures one’s eye because of the lovely resined bird forms covered with cottonwood leaves jutting out of the wall on brass cradles.  The birds alternate face up and face down. All are hollow, flightless, with no legs.

The title suggests “imposter and protector as a means to consider the balance or imbalance in each act we take,” she wrote in her artist statement.

“In a lot of my works I’m asking are we friend or foe? We’re not sure how we are impacting our environment.”

She hopes when people see her piece, “they look at the birds intimately. I want people to think of the birds’ lives as precious.”

Many of her works involve plants and animals or humans and animals, she said. “In this case it’s plants and birds,” and she wants viewers “to think of those interrelationships that are so necessary for our survival.”

Other artists in the exhibit include: aerial photos by Christopher Boyer, extraction industry photos by Jeff Van Tine, an installation on loss of bird habitat by Lillian Nelson, brightly colored acrylic theatrical paintings focused on water issues and wildfire by Kathy Herlihy-Paoli; a ledger artwork responding to oil and gas extraction on tribal land by Blackfeet artist and attorney Evan Thompson, and a mixed-media/pop culture work on excessive consumerism by Julia Schoebel.

The exhibit is more than visually arresting, said Howell. “We want our ‘EXTRACTION’ exhibit to be informative, but also have action items— here’s some things we can do.”

Artists and those who care, it’s not too late to be involved. Learn more at

“Everyone can be both creator and catalyst,” say the organizers.

“At a time of growing despair and paralysis, people from all backgrounds and levels of experience — from the amateur to the virtuoso — can take action. We invite everyone to join us in creating an international art ruckus.”

“Four hundred centuries of artmaking have shown us that in times of great challenge, when a culture has lost its way, the arts can serve as its moral guide --the light in the wilderness that leads us back to the path. Never have we faced greater challenges as a species than in the era we have just entered…. This is our opening salvo.”

-- Samuel Pelts, EXTRACTION Catalog (EXTRACTION project manager, CODEX Foundation)


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