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 amazed.
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 bent.
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 obscured.
"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 hall.
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 destroyed" by overdevelopment.
"It's really 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 state.
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 electric lights.
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 natural habitat.
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 eye.
"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 through?"
Carol Bradley 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.
The following sidebar article accompanies this feature story:
- The artist (Montana artist Dana Boussard in her own words on the duty of artists to grapple with the changing West.)