Sculpting a reason to love the wind

  • Gary Bates uses a rubber mallet to bang on Horizon Seven Ranges

  • Lunar Ketcherschmitt is a large reclaimed boiler cut in two that spins in the wind

  • There Ain't No Justice, There's Just Us is a sculpture Bates made out of old jail cell doors


NAME Gary Bates

AGE 61

HOMETOWN Amsterdam, Montana

OCCUPATION Sculptor, former farmboy

KNOWN FOR Creating huge kinetic sculptures

SAYS "I don't know if these pieces are going to work. I hope they are. But you never know for sure."

WHAT THE HECK DOES "KETCHERSCHMITT" MEAN, ANYWAY? It's a made-up word combining "catcher's mitt" and "Messerschmitt"

MOST FAMOUS ARTWORKS Will He Drill (inspired by Western windmills, located at the Yellowstone Art Museum in Billings) and Wind Arc, a 4,060-pound thingamajig at Montana State University


Gary Bates' 1951 Chevrolet pickup truck bounces and squeaks around the sculptor's 280-acre wheat farm in Amsterdam, Mont., which also doubles as an open-air art gallery. The 61-year-old Bates remembers summer days spent here as a youth, driving a tractor, when wind gusts regularly ruined his afternoons.

Bates' teachers and family classified his restless tinkering with bicycles and farm equipment as the work of an inventor, not an artist. It wasn't until he started taking art classes at Montana State University that he decided he was a sculptor. Suddenly, driving the tractor in the wind became a source of inspiration, rather than an annoyance.

"I wanted a way to like the afternoons," he says. So, in his early 20s, he started creating sculptures that would spin and move and celebrate the wind. He put the sculptures out on the edges of the fields to entertain him while he drove the tractor. And he made them big, so he could see them from a mile away.

His interest in jumbo-sized sculpture proved too large for both MSU and the University of Montana, so Bates honed his craft at the Kansas City Art Institute. After receiving his degree, he returned to the farm to build sculptures; the tractoring chores were placed in the hands of his nephew. Bates has always worked other jobs to make ends meet. The dozen or so employee stickers on his truck testify to many summers spent working as a maintenance man for the National Park Service, something he did until 2001. He only recently started sculpting full time.

Bates stops his truck in front of a sculpture he calls Lunar Ketcherschmitt, the steel of which was cut from the boiler of a historic hotel. Half the cylinder stands vertically in the field, acting as a pedestal; the other half, positioned horizontally on top, rotates gently in the breeze. Bates stares at it from the truck; he built the sculpture in 1986, but he still marvels at it as a child would.

"It has a wonderful motion, don't you think? It looks like it goes faster and slower," he says, referring to the asymmetrical positioning. "It's exactly the same speed all the time."

Bates sees his sculptures as instruments for telling stories and sharing information about the land. He hopes his work will trigger people to think about the planet. He's not an engineer; Bates builds models rather than draws blueprints, and he insists that he never really knows whether a piece will work until he's built it. He says that's why he builds them in the first place, adding that even engineers can't explain why Lunar Ketcherschmitt starts spinning.

The next sculpture in the field is Horizon Seven Ranges, the upturned end of a railroad tank car with the silhouette of the surrounding mountain peaks carved into its edge. There's a barber's chair in the middle; sitting in it, you can contemplate the landscape while the chair slowly turns. Bates bangs on the side of the heavy steel with his fist, allowing the sound to resonate.

"The joy of this work is to find that idea, and be able to share it," he says. "It's nothing just to look at it." His latest idea celebrates rain rather than wind. Rain Scale, commissioned by Green River Community College in Auburn, Wash., will be a massive, horizontal, stainless steel ring perched atop a steel-pipe arch. When it rains, as it often does in Auburn, the weight of 3/8-inch of water will tip the 2,000-pound ring into a seesawing motion for 50 minutes, depositing the water into a pond below.

"I came up with this concept, and it was five and a half months before I realized why it worked," Bates says. Between explanations, Bates starts banging on Horizon Seven Ranges with both fists, for 10 seconds straight, reveling in the cacophony.

"I am the most surprised person in the world when my pieces work. That euphoria is unbelievable."

The author is a freelance writer based in Bozeman, Montana.

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