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New views of the Old West

The Big Sky's the limit in Bozeman's arts scene. But the most prized landscapes may be the ones rolling by outside the car window.

April 13, 2008|Stephanie Simon | Times Staff Writer

BOZEMAN, MONT. — My travels have taken me to many striking landscapes: the tangled marshes of South Carolina's barrier islands, the red-rock canyons of southwest Utah, a bare expanse of Nevada desert framed by a purple sunset. But nowhere have I had such a strong impulse to capture the scenery -- to take it home with me -- as I did on a recent trip to southern Montana.

As I drove west to Bozeman, the sky opened up and seemed to unfold until the pale blue stretched forever. Farmland rolled out alongside the interstate, dotted at tidy intervals with big, round bales of hay. Knife-edged mountains to the north glowed under a fresh drape of snow, while to the south, gentler hills rose and fell in shades of brown.

A thick cloud would cross the mountains, and the luminous scene would turn sharply foreboding. Another gust of wind would send lacy puffs drifting overhead, and the same land would look invitingly mysterious, full of shadowed, secret nooks.

I dreamed of finding a piece of art that would capture the way this landscape constantly changed, the wild sense of possibility it evoked.

When I got to Bozeman, I started browsing the galleries.

The town, founded in 1864, is charming. Main Street is lined with meticulously restored turn-of-the-last-century buildings. It's made for strolling -- and shoppers and diners of every budget can find something to their liking.

There are college hangouts -- an Internet cafe, a pizza joint -- and high-concept restaurants such as the popular Plonk, which offers up pricey twists on traditional food, such as a crayfish waffle with key-lime remoulade and a buffalo burger with Gorgonzola dolce spread.

An Army-Navy store sells hunting and fishing gear; a few blocks down, a gourmet fish shop offers sushi-grade salmon (removed from the ocean just 36 hours ago, the clerk assures). There's a toy store on Main Street and a cobbler who peddles handmade elk-skin boots for $240 a pair. And there are at least 10 galleries.

The galleries offer art of many mediums: oil and watercolor painting, pottery, etching, sculpture, photography. But wander in and out of several of the galleries in an afternoon, and the many offerings soon seem to blend together.

The theme of most works on display could best be described as heroic Old West: giant paintings of stampeding horses, leaping trout, log cabins covered in snow. Native Americans, decked out in feathers. Cattle. Sunsets. And, of course, the rugged cowboy: taming a bucking bronco, leaning against a fence, squinting into the sun.

Much of this art, in the style of the late Charles M. Russell, is quite well done; some pieces command top dollar. A bronze cowboy sculpture by real-life cowboy J.C. Dye was priced at nearly $13,000 when I visited last fall; a Mimi Grant oil painting of bear cubs sniffing the spring air was offered for $11,000.

Tourists gravitate toward this Old West art, much of it produced by artists who live in the area at least part time.

"They fall in love with the history, the landscape, the people, the culture, and they decide they would like to collect a piece of artwork that's reflective of the region," said Curtis Tierney. His East Main Street gallery, Tierney Fine Art, specializes in Western and "sporting" art, including meticulously detailed paintings of fly-fishing and bird-hunting scenes.

I could see the appeal. Problem was, none of it appealed to me.


Eager to check out a more contemporary take on the Montana landscape, I arranged to visit the Bozeman studios of a husband-and-wife team, Terry Karson and Sara Mast.

At first glance, their art seems well removed from the beauty of Big Sky Country.

Karson works with -- well, to put it bluntly, junk. His studio is filled with empty boxes that his friends have salvaged from their trash cans: Pillsbury Fudge Supreme Brownies, Orville Redenbacher popcorn, Marie Callender's chicken pot pies.

Much of his work involves creating insects from this garbage: He cuts butterfly shapes from brownie boxes or creates silvery larvae from rolled-up slivers of potato-chip bags -- and then pins these trash creatures onto a black background, as for an entomology exhibit.

For another series, Karson cuts the logo from a discarded box into thin rectangles, sands them down until they look like ancient tiles, then reassembles them in a mixed-up order, so the brand name is only barely decipherable.

Karson's been doing this type of work for more than a decade; it grows out of his frustration at what he perceives as a squandering of Montana's environmental treasures. The more he looks out his picture windows at development in the mountains, at the mounds of garbage his neighbors put on the curb, the more his passion for this work grows; he feels compelled to reuse and recycle trash to make a statement about consumerism, materialism and what he sees as pending ecological disaster.

"In the future," he says, "collections of cardboard butterflies may be all we have left."

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