Sculpture in the Wild

Blackfoot Pathways and Dunrovin Ranch

Casual conversations among artists sometimes set in motion actions that ripple through communities and people.

While in Seattle in 2010 at an artist-in-residence at the Pratt Fine Art Center, internationally known metalsmith and sculptor, Kevin O’Dwyer, took the bladesmith master class offered by Rick Dunkerley of Lincoln, MT.  The two artists have much in common, but work with different metals. Rick specializes in steel, Kevin in silver. The conversation began there.

In Lincoln, Kevin encountered a community in transition. The once thriving logging and mining industries that nourished Lincoln economically had faded way, leaving a community is search of a new future. It reminded him of the Lough Boora area of his native Ireland where the centuries-old economic force of peat production was lost to modern heating technologies. There, Kevin has been instrumental in working with communities to create a Sculpture in the Parklands that honored the area’s natural environment, industrial past, and cultural heritage. Could something similar happen in Lincoln?

Lincoln certainly had the skilled labor, the creative minds, and the environmental beauty to develop something extraordinary. Would the idea catch the community’s desire to invest heart, body, and mind to make such a dream come true? That is exactly what happened. 

In just a few short years, the Blackfoot Pathways: Sculpture in the Wild has been drawing international artists and attention. Responding to a newspaper article about the park, my husband and I drove up the marvelous Blackfoot River Valley in the spring of 2015 to see for ourselves. I was enthralled. I had seen nothing like it. I appreciated both the fine details and craftsmanship, as well as the placements and interactions with the larger space. Each piece spoke of Lincoln’s relationship with its landscape and showcased the endeavors of local craftsmen and craftswomen. I returned home inspired, wondering what it would be like to have such art in my own space.

My wonder turned into action in the fall of 2015. I decided to experiment with an artist-in-residence program at Dunrovin Ranch. I had no idea of how or where to begin. Fortunately, one of our equestrian club members was an art student at the University of Montana who encouraged us to consider artist, Tyler Nansen. With a small budget and even less direction from us, Tyler agreed to come to Dunrovin in January of 2016 to spend six weeks living part-time at Dunrovin to develop an artistic expression of his view of our land.

Tyler’s “Finding Dunrovin” sculpture installation was most provocative. His golden “In Search of” sentinels, his elevated “Seven Bird Houses in a Grid”, and his greenish yellow “Window No. 4” frame elicited a wide range of reactions from me, from our ranch guests, and even from our animals. I kept coming back to them as the seasons changed, as the snow fell, and the grass grew. My animals roamed among them with curiosity, eventually acknowledging these new strange objects as part of their environment. Each visit was different, at times giving rise to contradictory feelings. Was the Dunrovin that Tyler had found a reflection of my Dunrovin? 

Visitors’ comments were most revealing. The sculptures prompted questions and ignited conversations that would not otherwise have occurred. The art was totally unexpected and seemed a juxtaposition, as they silently proclaimed that Dunrovin was unlike other guest ranches. People sensed an openness, a sense of exploration, a penchant for fun and folly, and an invitation to self-expression.  

Tyler’s public recognition for his “Finding Dunrovin” boosted his confidence and prompted him to submit a proposal to the Blackfoot Pathways Sculpture Park. His  “Bat Beacons” proposal was accepted and realized this past September. Echoes of his Dunrovin “Seven Bird Houses in a Grid” can be seen, only this time the bat boxes are real, permanent, and intended to attract occupants. After studying the ecological needs and significance of bats, Tyler melded his artistic sensibilities with the practical conservation goal of supporting declining bat populations in the upper Blackfoot Valley. 

This marriage of landscapes, conservation, communities, culture, history and art is powerful. My small Dunrovin experience allowed me to see firsthand how art can shift long-held perceptions about a place and one’s relationship to it, and how it can viscerally communicate complex emotions and attachments to place and beliefs. 

These shifts are without doubt happening in Lincoln. The Blackfoot Pathways accessibility invites children to play among and around the sculptures, introducing them to abstract concepts and making art a part of their everyday lives. This is not art presented behind evenly light museum walls of glass, but art that can be touched, and seen in the alpenglow of sunrises and sunsets, be experienced during the snow of winter and the heat of summer. It is a place of celebrations, church services, native American blessings, and community concerts. It is a living expression of a community’s pride, perseverance, resilience, and inner beauty. 

Highway 200 travelers spotting the Welcome Sculptors sign on the marquee of the Wilderness Bar immediately understand that Lincoln is not your typical back woods community. Something special is happening here. Wilderness, rivers, sculptures, sense of place, pride in history, community spirit, common purpose, old and new, swirl together to form a potent atmosphere of possibilities. 

Who knows where it will go? How far will those ripples started by that casual conversation among artists go?  Only time will tell. Time and the footsteps of the many people who come to walk the Blackfoot Pathways, contemplate the relationship between landscapes, peoples, and communities. You can add your footsteps to that path. You can be part of Lincoln’s possibilities. It certainly happened to me.

Check out the artists mentioned:

Kevin O’Dwyer,

Rick Dunkerley,

Tyler Nansen,

< FEATURED VIDEO: Sculpture in the Wild uses solar power to bring back memories

Video Description: Unique art park in Lincoln, Montana using today's tech to remember the region's unique history

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