Lincoln sculpture park: Preserving the past with art

LINCOLN—A “House of Sky” is just one of the vivid art installations a visitor comes upon in the “Blackfoot Pathways: Sculpture in the Wild” in Lincoln.

There is also a genuine historic tepee burner from a nearby mill; a “Hill and Valley” landscape formation made from newspapers; a bulky frame-like statue of entangled spruce branches bound in a wood and metal frame; and a mammoth gateway of downed ponderosa pines, engraved with poetry, overlooking a golden fantasy village.

These site-specific, monumental abstract sculptures are located on a 28-acre parcel of public land just outside Lincoln, 60 miles northwest of Helena. Harvested from the surrounding ponderosa and lodgepole forest, they have been literally created to tell the story of Montana’s landscape, its people, its culture, its history.

“This simply wouldn’t have worked if we would have dropped it in the asphalt jungle somewhere,” said Kevin O’Dwyer, curator of Sculpture in the Wild and silversmith exhibitor. O’Dwyer is a native of Ireland whose artwork reflects his interest in ancient landscapes, industrial archeology and architecture.

“We have thoughtfully considered and integrated the culture and the community and the heritage of Lincoln into a beautiful forested area,” O’Dwyer said. “The art has been done thoughtfully with the legacy and the heritage and the environment of Lincoln in mind.”

“It’s not a tourist trap,” added Becky Garland, president of the board of Sculpture in the Wild. “It’s a natural place. It’s real. You can feel it. It is all rooted at the basic level in the landscape, in us.”

Perhaps it’s only natural that the origins of the project were communal.

O’Dwyer visited Lincoln in April 2013 to join forces with Rick Dunkerley, an award-winning master bladesmith who specializes in Damascus steel. The pair originally met at the Pratt Fine Art Center in Seattle in 2010, when O’Dwyer, then artist-in-residence, took a bladesmith master class presented by Dunkerley. O’Dwyer, who had led the development of “Sculpture in the Parklands” at Lough Boora Parklands in Ireland, saw likenesses between Lincoln and that section of the Irish midlands.

Similar to the midlands, he saw in Lincoln a region at an economic and cultural turning point, an area slowly losing its character to forces beyond its control. Lough Boora slumped following decades of peat harvest that left great tracts of hacked bogs and hardly any economic options. O’Dwyer began and directed the Lough Boora International Sculpture Symposium in a disused peat-harvesting site.

“In Lincoln, the mining and logging industries have to all intents and purposes stopped,” O’Dwyer said. “There was the opportunity to depict the history. There were strong similarities—an area at the crossroads, really.”

Dunkerley, a resident of Lincoln for more than 20 years, was at first doubtful when O’Dwyer introduced the idea. But O’Dwyer had commissioned more than 25 site-specific installations worldwide. He was experienced, passionate and convincing.


Gary Pemble

“Montana Line Drawing” by Kevin O’Dwyer

Dunkerley recognized that bringing a few of the world’s top symposium sculptors to create a site that honors the industrial heritage of the Blackfoot Valley could help revive the town. In addition to economic advantages, O’Dwyer viewed it as a channel, crafting a future for Lincoln as an artistic and cultural hub in the state.

Dunkerley contacted a dozen community members and became the project manager.

“It was all so positive and the community responded overwhelmingly to the idea in good favor and with enthusiasm,” Dunkerley said.

Sculpture in the Wild went from an open tract of land on the east edge of Lincoln to an exuberant explosion of ideas.

Jaako Pernu, a Finnish sculptor and environmental artist, joined the project. Danish sculptor Jorn Ronnau and Irish three-dimensional artist Alan Counihan came on board as well. So did Steven Siegel, an American noted for the creation of public art installations in natural and urban contexts that reinvent the role of sculpture for an eco-conscious planet. The artists all had their own inspiration as to how to interpret the heritage and landscape.

Six exhibits opened to the public in 2014, and it is open year-round, with no admission charge. The Sculpture in Wild is just east of Lincoln on the north side of Highway 200. It is designed to provide artists, educators and the business community with cultural, social and economic opportunities, including lectures and night walks.

“It has given us the prime opportunity to admire the history of the Blackfoot Valley and to get to know one another a little better,” said Dunkerley, executive director of Sculpture in the Wild. “It has given us the ability to have new eyes, the eyes of world-renowned artists who responded to the beauty and heritage of our land. It has made us all look differently at what we have maybe taken for granted in our daily lives.”


Gary Pemble

“A Gateway of Change” by Jorn Ronnau of Denmark.

Counihan’s inspiration for “House of Sky” came from Montana author Ivan Doig’s memoir “This House of Sky.” The silver box is an optical illusion: it will never twice look the same because the sky perpetually casts different shadows.

“The idea of this ‘House of Sky’ is that you can’t ever live in it,” Counihan said. “It’s like a changing dream. It is always changing.”

The art walk nurtures an individual expression of feelings and emotions.

“It’s always a different here,” Garland said. “It has different shadows at different times of day. It is different when it is cold or when it is warm. No matter. It’s still a dream world.”

Garland said she overhears more and more Lincoln school kids talking about art. “I think that because of Sculpture in the Wild that the kids are interacting a little differently,” she said. “I’ve heard them saying things like, ‘This is abstract, or this isn’t abstract.’”

Indeed, Sculpture in the Wild is the art of community.

“Sculpture in the Wild complements the beauty of Lincoln and complements our space,” Garland said. “We are a town of good, hardworking people, who work hard from dawn to dusk. As a mountain town that has always relied on timber and mining and recreation, we’ve tried to come up with new ideas. And we are hoping that the park is one of those things that allows us to come out smelling like a rose.”

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