Paul G. Eitner left New Jersey in 1914 at age 37 and ended up in Miles City, Mont. Physicians had recommended the drier climate as a treatment for his tuberculosis. He found work as a ranch hand in Custer County and later at a liquor store.
In 1918, Eitner was accused of murdering Joseph Nugent, a man who supposedly tried courting a woman Eitner was in love with. He pleaded guilty and was sentenced to life in prison at Deer Lodge.
A model prisoner, Eitner was granted several privileges, including tending the prison’s turkey flock. As he aged, he slipped away from reality. Prison administration treated him like a mascot, allowing him to write checks for goods and services and cover employee salaries. The checks, in fact, were bogus, an attempt to humor man who had irretrievably slipped into fantasy.
“Turkey Pete” died in 1967. He was 89 and had been in prison for 49 years. His home for almost half a century, Cell No. 1, was retired. His was the only funeral ever held inside the walls of the prison.
He is now being memorialized again, this time as part of an exhibit of art work at the Old Montana Prison in Deer Lodge, art inspired by the history and emotions of the abandoned penitentiary. “Pete’s Flock,” by Jonathan Read, is a collection of 15 ceramic sculptures of stylized turkeys, representing the first 15 inmates imprisoned on the grounds in the 1870s.
The exhibit, “Hope, Terror, Promise, Rage: Contemporary Perspectives on the Past,” features works by six current and former sculpture and installation artists from the Archie Bray Foundation for the Ceramic Arts in Helena and a sculpture professor from the University of Montana.
“My hope has been to create an art exhibition that will offer new voices and bring distinct points of view to the difficult issues and themes surrounding a century of prison life in Montana,” exhibit curator Laura Cotton said.
Montana’s Territorial Prison took in its first prisoner on July 2, 1871. It was closed in the late 1970s when the new Montana State Prison, also in Deer Lodge, opened. Contemporary art has never been exhibited before in the Old Prison, but Alcatraz Penitentiary in San Francisco Bay and other prisons have hosted similar exhibits.
Cotton said the intensity of the art educates visitors about the history of the prison and broadens the visitors’ “emotional experience” of a place that symbolizes everything from loss and fear to despair and promise.
“Visitors still sense the palpable emotions of former inhabitants and staff as they learn about gruesome deaths,” Cotton said. “There were horrendous crimes, broken spirits, terrifying riots and primitive living conditions.” She said the exhibit humanizes “decades of stories in ways that make strong connections to contemporary life and today’s criminal justice system and corrections policies.”
Cotton, art curator for the University of Michigan-Dearborn Campus, is a 1993 Powell County High School graduate. Cotton was in Deer Lodge, the Powell County seat, in the summer of 2014, serving as interim curator at the Old Montana Prison, when several artists from Archie Bray toured the prison. Inspired by the imposing fortress-like architecture, as well as the site’s history and desolate interiors, they asked if the museum had considered having a contemporary art exhibit.
“Some may ask why a historic site would collaborate with artists,” Cotton said. “One of my main motivations behind the project is the fact that this exhibition significantly helps Powell County Museum and Arts Foundation to fulfill its mission to educate its visitors about both art and history. However, it goes one step further by educating visitors about art through history and history through art.”
Artists participating in the exhibit have come to the Bray from Israel, Texas, New York, Florida and Canada. They are Christopher Dufala, Maggie Finlayson, Elena Lourenco, Zemer Peled, Joanna Powell, Jonathan Read and Chris Riccardo.
Read, the artist who created “Pete’s Flock,” said he hopes the piece “gives a visual understanding to visitors of the prison’s tiny beginnings. I understand that the colors and vibrancy I have given to the surface of my sculptural turkeys is not like that of a live turkey. However, my second intention for the piece was to pay tribute to Turkey Pete’s legend and illustrate the color and whimsy of his personality.”
The Old Montana Prison is an intimidating, austere place: guns, shackles and restraints behind mesh partitions; cell block corridors painted in industrial gray; basement showers damp and eerie; heavy metal doors in solitary confinement that block light and sound.
Surrounded by chain link, steel mesh, brick, concrete and barbed wire, it is not hard to imagine the bleakness and the suppressed humanity of the inhabitants.
“Bending But Not Breaking” by Christopher Dufala emphasizes the despondency—and stubbornness—of the human condition. Dufalo reconstructed old timber inside the confined space of a prison cell.
“It has been coaxed into its new environment, seemingly bent, twisted and forced into a space it was never meant to fit,” Dufala said. “My first visit to the Old Montana Prison, I found a tactile wonderland of mid-century ruin. My initial thoughts were on past occupants of the prison, specifically the solitary confinement cells. Did they represent the worst of society, the most violent and cruel? Trying to place myself inside the mind of a prisoner, I imagined what kind of psychological diversion could ease the ever-present sense of despair.”
While walking through the prison, artist Joanna Powell couldn’t help thinking what she would want if she were behind the wall. She thought of a disco ball and its ability to reflect light. Her exhibit, “Party in the Hamptons,” is a symbol of the forlornness the inmates may have felt every day.
“The repetition and uniformity in a disco ball’s mirrors feels like a metaphor for the analogous identities of the prisoners,” said Powell, a long-term artist in residence and Windgate Fellow at the Archie Bray Foundation. “The juxtaposition of the lighthearted disco ball amongst the confining cement walls can also represent an outside world that is distant and unreachable.”
The installations are on display through June 20, 2016, and Cotton said it is her hope that other new and rotating art exhibits will follow.
“Art has the power to bring these things to life even more than ever for the visitors,” she said.