Hillside full of ‘Bleu Horses’ is sculptor’s gift to Montana

Horses symbolize speed and passion, and their fundamental nature suggests wild and open movement. More than anything, perhaps, horses are a symbol of freedom.

Likewise, there is a certain freedom in art that lies in being bold and emancipated, as well as in taking the initiative. Artists are what they make of themselves—and what they choose to make for others.

“Bleu Horses,” a herd of 39 metal equines near Three Forks, epitomizes the valiance and mystique of the horse and American West, and they make clear the core of their creator, Jim Dolan.

“There is a reason that the horses aren’t fenced in,” Dolan said. “And that’s because of freedom. Horses need pure freedom. Who doesn’t want to be free?”

Dolan’s herd is visible off Highway 287 about four miles north of Three Forks, milling about on a bentonite-rich hillside west of the roadway. From the road, they appear painted blue with slits of black or white paint, casting shadows and a three-dimensional oddity. We see a patch of nature run artistically amok: manes and tails—4,000 feet of de-braided polyester rope—blowing in the prairie wind. Heads relax on movable ball bearings. But as one looks closer at the shading, the forms and the scale and perspective of the sculptures, it makes one think more carefully, more cautiously, about the scene of its making.

“I receive a lot of emotional comments about the horses,” Dolan said. “People have an emotional connection to them. Some people will say that it’s one of the neatest things that they have ever seen. Horses are a real tie-in to humanity. We all dealt with horses in one way or another if you go far enough back, right?”

Sometimes in life we do not know the heaviness until we feel the freedom. Bleu Horses delivers a sense of equanimity and liberation, the sort of serenity many strive for.

“It is a very calming thing to be up here,” said Dolan, who lives in Bozeman. “It’s a sculpture of horses, and they are not horses. It’s my idea and interpretation of them, and they are not exact copies of horses. They are who and what they are, right? Nothing Hollywood or exaggerated or anything like that.”

In 40-some years, Dolan, 67, has created more than 170 large-scale public pieces, as well as hundreds of commissions. He pays attention to craters, nooks and cavities, and the contrast of smooth and serrated. Making use of tools to sever and shape steel, he conjoins a network of paths. Innovative structures take shape as he re-arranges metal and translates the hardest of surfaces to take on the creases of flesh or the contours of anatomy.

Horse

Brian D'Ambrosio

A Bleu Horse, in profile.

He created all 39 horses sculptures in 15 months, but at that point, he had no place for them to call home. One morning, Dolan articulated his frustration to Dean Folksvord, owner of Wheat Montana, and Folksvord instantly offered Kamp Hill.

Kamp Hill is positioned with a sweeping view of the Tobacco Root and Elkhorn mountains. It’s not uncommon to spot a herd of mule deer, or elk, or a pack of coyotes. In the spring, poppies and blue flax adorn the meadow. “There are about 100 different species of grass and flowers on this hill,” Dolan said. “Rattlesnakes, too.”

The sculptures were integrated into the arid landscape beginning one Friday morning in September of 2013. It was an imaginative tale come to life, an instant legend.

As cars and semi-trailers honked, a number of installations were placed on the ridge looking at the Tobacco Root Mountains. Several of the foals were placed down, one of them in a nursing position. A number of the horses were set up to appear as if grazing and others stared down at the road with tilted ears. Depending on the perspective, some looked razor-thin.

“We had a jackhammer, a trailer tractor, six trailers and three days of moving,” said Dolan. “We placed them left, right, placed them in moving positions, nursing, laying down. We just started placing them and somehow we had the intuition to set them up right.”

Heraclitus is credited with saying, “No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.” Perhaps the same can be said for the confluence of art, metal and the mountains, for the Bleu Horses change hourly, daily, seasonally. Dawn and dusk are the magic hours for glimpsing such variations.

“The sunset really highlights the horses,” Dolan said. “In the mornings, the sun comes up from the east ridge. It’s always spectacular—always different. I could come up here a couple of times a week and never see the same thing.”

Dolan again

Brian D'Ambrosio

Dolan, with his herd in the background.

Dolan was born and raised in Livermore, Calif., and he calls the Bleu Horses his gift to the people of Montana, a way of giving back to a state that has supported his art for many years.

“Livermore was the size of Three Forks when I was growing up and now it has about 80,000 people,” he said. “Thanks to conservation easements, the ranches back then are still ranches now.”

Dolan and Wheat Montana have made a gentleman’s pact to allow the Bleu Horses to exist as a permanent part of the Gallatin County scenery.

“Montana is great for metal art because nothing rusts in Montana,” said Dolan. “These should never rust out, not with the nine inches of yearly rain we get. This is their home.”

Dolan spoke with disappointment about a similar outdoor sculpture area known as the Enchanted Highway in North Dakota, a 30-mile stretch of large metal sculptures placed along the county highway, each with a parking area and kiosk.

“The Enchanted Highway was really a neat idea,” he said. “But the sculptures haven’t been maintained and it’s really sad to see them just lying in the ground. I don’t want this to happen that way—and it won’t.”

As far as stopping at Bleu Horses, Dolan asks little of visitors, other than that they be respectful of the land (and watch for rattlesnakes) and simply enjoy their amble among the hardened herd.

“I certainly don’t discourage people from coming to see and experience the horses,” Dolan said. “As I said, it’s a gift to the people of Montana.”

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