For Marilyn Bruya, the turning point came one February morning a few years ago when she gazed out the window of an airplane over western Montana and made a startling discovery.
"There were more
clearcuts than forests," Bruya recalls, still
By the time she returned home to
Missoula, inspiration had bubbled into conviction. Ever since,
Bruya has been creating photo art with a save-the-environment
In one, a "before" picture shows a
billboard along the interstate blocking the view of a nearby range.
In the "after" photo, the ad on the billboard has been replaced
with a likeness of the very mountaintop the billboard had
"I didn't really do
it to sell," said Bruya, who teaches art at the University of
Montana. "The purpose is to open people's eyes to things."
Bruya is a protest artist, one of a growing
band of Montana painters, photographers and the like who point a
finger at societal ills. Protest is just the latest chapter in the
evolution of Western art, says painter Dana Boussard. In her own
painted fiber constructions, Boussard uses spiritual images to
question mining, logging and other land-use policies. From her
studio in Arlee, Boussard has created more than three dozen works
now on display in corporate and state buildings. Her work is also
at the Anchorage International Airport and in Boise, Idaho's city
Typical of her works is a piece titled
"The Bird Dropped an Orchid at My Feet," which protests the
widespread use of agricultural pesticides. "The Bird was unaware
that the cherry contained more pesticide than her body could
absorb," the text reads. "Even the flower was thick with it ... but
she didn't notice."
Boussard says artists who
cling to Montana's past ought to consider whether, by portraying
the state as a land of still-picture-perfect vistas, they are
contributing to the influx of newcomers that has helped spoil some
of those very views.
Ten thousand people moved
to Montana in the last decade, pushing its population to 870,000,
according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Boussard says: "Some of us
need to ask ourselves: "Are we just trafficking in Montana images?
And what is the power of these images?" "
There's no question unplanned growth is ruining pockets of the
state, painter Russell Chatham says. Although he is renowned for
his misty tableaus of southern Montana's Paradise Valley, Chatham,
56, believes that in reality the valley has been "largely
too bad," said Chatham, who moved to Livingston from California in
1971. "The shortsighted lack of zoning has proved to be a
tremendous disaster. It has allowed people to break up their
ranches into five-acre parcels and sell them to people with
trailers ... They're going to keep pouring in here, and nobody's
going to stop them, because the cities are unlivable."
But while he describes himself as a devout
environmentalist, Chatham draws the line at injecting harsh truths
into his work. "If it's hostile or inaccessible, then it's not
working for me," he says of protest art.
Certainly, some of the work dangles on the fringe. A series by Ted
Waddell of Ryegate takes direct aim at the controversial
Zortman-Landusky open-pit gold mine located in the Little Rocky
Mountains in the north central part of the
In Exhibit A, Waddell has affixed his own
labels to bottles of water. They read: "Zzortman Water. Two percent
cyanide." Waddell deliberately spells the name Zortman with two z's
to avoid lawsuits.
A configuration of bones
linked by fiberglass - and noticeably absent of flesh - is titled
"Zzortman Whitetail." Similar materials shaped like a cross are
dubbed "Zzortman Crucifix."
"I would point out that you
can't have it both ways," Waddell says. "The mining people say to
us, "Oh, we're going to bring jobs in." Yeah, but cyanide (a toxic
substance used to extract gold) kills people."
With a tad more subtlety, Billings artist Karen Kitchell also
suggests that "perhaps there's a cost to things - a price usually
more complex than we think."
In one of a series
of oil-on-canvas paintings based on the song "Home on the Range,"
Kitchell contrasts a sweeping scene of a prairie and puffy clouds
overhead with the inset of a city at night, its skyline
crisscrossed by power lines and dotted with hundreds of twinkling
But Kitchell disputes the
notion that she is a "protest artist." If artists who depict
reality are "protest artists," she says, then perhaps artists who
ignore the truth should be labeled "denial artists."
"I really want people to see
that telling the truth is important, even when it's not all
flattery," says Kitchell, who sells more of her work outside the
state than in it.
Some Montana artists have long
used their talents to decry environmentally questionable practices.
Monte Dolack's popular posters often depict wildlife invading
domestic settings to humorously illustrate the loss of their
In one of his paintings, beaver
kick back cheerfully in a log cabin while remnants of a clear-cut
forest are visible from a window. In another, titled "Outside
Chance," a bull elk stands bugling on top of a Jeep that is slowly
sinking into the ground.
The elk piece is about
"nature overcoming technology," says Dolack, who lives in Missoula.
"At the same time, there's a bit of humor in it. I have elk hunters
who like it as well as people who don't hunt."
He likes to think that his whimsical paintings and lithographs are
more than pleasing to the
"We have to look at the
Montana we're painting now," Dolack says. "What would Charlie
Russell be painting today? Would he still be painting cowboys and
Indians, or would he be painting cowboys in pickup trucks or Native
Americans on the reservations fighting poverty and trying to break
writes for the Great Falls Tribune in Montana.
Dana Boussard has tracked the work of protest
artists in a video now in production at the nonprofit Center for
the Rocky Mountain West, which is based at the University of
Montana, Missoula, MT 59812-1205.