REPORT: Montana

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“A Potter’s Shrine,” 1985-87, Robert Harrison, Mixed media, dimensions variable
Archie Bray Foundation Collection, Photo: Margery Gordon

The undulating foothills of the Rocky Mountains skirting Montana’s capital frame the red clay core of its contemporary art community. A circular brick enclosure open to the endless sky honors the legendary origins of the Archie Bray Foundation for the Ceramic Arts, established in 1951 by the second-generation owner of the Western Clay Manufacturing Company: a mosaic sampler of bricks, tiles, sculptures and tableware fired onsite over a century, A Potters Shrine (1985- 1987) by artist Robert Harrison set the groundwork for 30 years of architectural accumulations, monumental sculptures, and token offerings subsequent residents have planted around this Helena campus. Radiating from the urn-capped axis of this ceramic compass, through its four cardinal archways, is Bray’s vision for “a place of art, of simple things… lovely people all tuned to… a beautiful spirit.” The same enterprising dedication to open-minded exploration and discovery (which inspired Lewis & Clark to persevere through this harsh frontier 200 years ago) today sustains clusters of contemporary art around the state: Great Falls to the north, Bozeman to the south, Billings to the east, Missoula to the west.

“All the residents at the Bray are pushing boundaries, even work that’s historically based,” says potter Julia Galloway, who merges the functional and theatrical ends of the ceramic spectrum by suspending plates in cloud-like formations. Her stay in the late ’90s was marked by “a sense of optimism-that anything could happen because of the space, and people are so strongly independent and incredibly passionate that they make it happen.” Such resourcefulness is a natural outgrowth of the lowest population density in the continental US, with just over 1 million residents spread across the fourth largest state.

A disproportionately high concentration of accomplished ceramists are woven into a web of education and residency programs spun out to the edges of Wyoming, where the Red Lodge Clay Center is approaching its 10th anniversary. To connect such a far-flung network, the Missoula-based Galloway founded the group Montana Clay, which now boasts 120 members; their gathering in Great Falls kicks off September 11 with the opening of “Montana Clay: The Past, Present and Future of Ceramics Under the Big Sky” at the Paris Gibson Square Museum of Art. The sprawling survey of 50-plus members is contextualized with a tribute to 18 “Founding Mudders and Potters.”

This homage posthumously reunites the Bray’s primary residents, Rudy Autio and Peter Voulkos, with their mentor Frances Senska, who imparted modernist ideas learned from László Moholy-Nagy at the “New Bauhaus” in Chicago. Senska also applied lessons from Michigan’s Cranbrook Academy of Art to set up the first ceramics studio and curriculum at Montana State College (now Montana State University-Bozeman) after her arrival in 1946. Autio and Voulkos would each go on to have significant careers, with Voulkos becoming the founding father of Southern California ceramics. But while undergraduates in Bozeman, they were among the disciples of Robert DeWeese, whose innovative painting and teaching methods had a profound impact on generations of students. “They weren’t interested in traditional Western motifs, but in the sense of space here and in the landscape-the mental space to work, the isolation-and the camaraderie with a group of likeminded people,” says Josh DeWeese of his late parents Bob and Gennie DeWeese, whose broad brushstrokes and unconventional compositions broke away from the Western art repertoire still dominant around the Rocky Mountain region. DeWeese has been placing seminal examples of their pioneering work in the collections of the state’s three main contemporary art venues-the Holter Museum of Art in Helena, the Missoula Art Museum (MAM), and the Yellowstone Art Museum (YAM) in Billings-which are still in the early stages of scholarship about the underexposed contributions of the “Montana Modernists.”

“They supported each other because there weren’t that many of them,” DeWeese recalls. “It was not unusual for them to drive across the state to go to people’s openings.” His family developed close friendships with John Buck and Deborah Butterfield when the couple taught at MSU-Bozeman in the late 1970s and ’80s, and Josh did odd jobs for them between semesters at Kansas City Art Institute. “I learned things working with John that I still think about-ideas of craftsmanship and working with your hands,” says DeWeese. A summer residency at the Bray led DeWeese to 14 years as the foundation’s director; now a member of the MSUBozeman faculty, he brings his own students to visit Buck and Butterfield’s studios, when they are not off installing work at galleries or museums.

“Muse,” 2014, John Buck, Carved jelutong wood with motor, dimensions variable
Photo: courtesy Missoula Art Museum

“John Buck: Free For All” at MAM (September 25 – March 12) presents the constellation of carved symbols and figures that defines Buck’s work, including a recent kinetic installation, State of the Union (2014). Meanwhile, in the closest metropolis, 15 of Butterfield’s beloved life-size equines-most cast in bronze from branches bent into limbs and haunches-inhabit the Denver Botanic Gardens though October 18. “Deborah Butterfield: The Nature of Horses” is accompanied by another widely collected Montanan’s impressionistic renderings of horses and cattle herded into the Gardens’ Gates Court Gallery for “Within Range: Paintings by Theodore Waddell” through November 8.

Waddell’s attachment to the High Plains carries on the legacy of “rancher-artists” like Isabelle Johnson, a guiding light who was also at home on the pastures surrounding Billings, Montana’s largest city with 100,000 people. After studying art in 1930s New York, Johnson shaded her landscapes with a sensitivity reminiscent of Cézanne rather than the stylized realism favored by Western artists. The state’s first modernist painter receives an overdue retrospective at YAM, November 3 – January 3. Johnson is the second subject in the museum’s “Montana Masters” series, which opens October 8 with “Persistent Memories: Sculptural Works by Willem Volkersz.” While installations evoking his childhood in the Netherlands during WWII sound more solemn notes, the Bozeman-based artist often infuses his immigrant experience with images of Americana painted on reliefs that pop with neon, found bird figurines, and touristy trinkets.

Volkersz is among nearly 40 contemporary artists featured in the “Montana Triennial” at MAM, through Sept. 4. Guest juror Peter Held wasn’t surprised by the variety of more than 200 submissions for the third Triennial in Missoula. “The art here has always been diverse, whether in material or subject matter,” notes the ceramics scholar and former director of the Holter. The scope and sophistication of contemporary art in Montana from the 1940s to the present is also apparent in the YAM’s permanent exhibit, “Boundless Visions.” As executive director Robyn Peterson explains, “We identified a real strand of stubbornness by artists who refused to leave here. Whether it was the land or the life or the cost or space of studios, they made very deliberate choices to stay-which took some determination because it’s hard going.”

“I’ve been denigrated and celebrated as a regional artist,” states Tracy Linder, a mid-career artist based on a ranch outside Billings who feels a kinship with predecessors like Waddell and Butterfield. The cattle, crops and tools Linder molds from organic materials are multiplied in elegiac installations that offer insight on the natural rhythms observed by family farms in contrast to today’s agri-business practices. With work that is both materially and thematically dynamic-and solo shows at venues such as MAM, YAM, the Holter, and the Nicolaysen in Casper, WY-Linder represents an artist whose work is at once cutting-edge, and deeply rooted in the region. “To live in the West and be part of rural life, to have a real connection to the land, to know the survival skills and experience the circle of life of human, animal and plant on a day-to-day basis, and convey a sense of what it feels like, how complex it is, why it is important, and know that beauty lies in unexpected places-that is why I am here. That is what feeds my work.”

—MARGERY GORDON