Arts & Culture

“Made in Montana” is a label that is proudly displayed on all manner of products that originate in the state.
However, I have recently come to understand that the label most appropriate for Montana’s ceramics is “Made OF Montana”. Fresh eyes showed me the difference. 

When my nephew, Dean Leeper, from Wisconsin was selected for the ceramics program at the University of Montana, I was excited to show him why we so loved living in Montana. His first few months played out according to script as we happily introduced him to some of our favorite mountain haunts. However, as he got deeper and deeper into his art and worked alongside some of Montana’s master ceramicists, he turned the tables and became my guide to a part of Montana that had been hiding in plain sight before my unseeing eyes. 

I have always known that Montana’s scenic beauty serves as creativity’s muse to inspire artistic expression. How could it not? Montana’s vibrant colors, rough textures, towering mountains, deep dark forests and vast open prairies, clear blue lakes and rivers, and her famous big skies roiling with dramatic weather changes all intertwine and spark the imagination. But what I failed to comprehend was the extent and depth that Montana’s physical, geological, biological, and cultural esthetics converge within an artist’s heart, mind, life, and expression. 

Montana provides far more than inspiration. It offers the raw substances and materials from which art is made. It houses the support network and shapes the social character essential for the arts to grow. Its teeming wildlife exemplifies survival and determination, characteristics essential for the uncertainties of an artist’s life. The hardships and rewards of its demanding and unforgiving landscapes produce artists of the same mold. Montana’s artists reflect and incorporate it all. They are independent. Fearless. Driven to do their best. Willing to experiment. Montana’s geographic isolation creates a powerful sense of community for all its residents, but especially so for artists. While often garnering national and international recognition, Montana’s artists look primarily to themselves for validation.

Nowhere is the complex relationship between Montana and its art more apparent than in ceramics. Ceramics in many ways is an art of letting go, of setting things up to then letting the vicissitudes of chemical reactions and heat take charge. It involves an intricate dance between the artist’s mind and hands, clay, glaze, and heat. Each step in the dance may depend on the work of others—to cut wood and stoke the fires of the kiln, to place the pieces in choreographed positions to let the heat flow through and play off each item, to identify, locate, and dig the soils that will constitute the clay or the glazes, to share recipes for producing diverse colors and textures.

Julia Galloway and Josh DeWeese epitomize Montana’s strong presence on the international stage of the ceramic arts. A utilitarian potter, the University of Montana’s Julia Galloway uses every means at her disposal to engage her audience in the themes and emotions encapsulated in her cups, plates, pitchers, and vases. “The Place It Is Where We Call Home” was a large-scale exhibition and installation of pottery at the Paris Gibson Square Museum of Art in Great Falls Montana that began with dinner served on Julia’s cloud plates, only to find the plates then displayed from the gallery’s ceiling. She chalked the walls of one gallery to create an illusion of a garden fence to individually perch her “Birds of North America” cups on thin shelves, several of which were equipped with motion sensors to produce the bird call as viewers passed by. Her constant innovation, workshops, teaching, writings, and studies of the ceramic arts were recently recognized by the Chicago based philanthropic organization, United States Artists, with an unrestricted $50,000 arts grants that will enable Julia to explore even more artistic frontiers.

Josh DeWeese of Montana State University often turns to Montana’s soils to constitute his clays and glazes. Josh gives a whole new meaning to roadside geology. As he travels Montana’s highways and byways, his eyes inspect all “road cuts” for exposed materials that are there for the taking with a shovel and a bucket. One of his favorite locations for gathering “mud stone” that can be pulverized and formulated into glazes is along Trail Creek outside of Bozeman. Josh found the site by following the local lore and history of potters who came before him. His MSU students routinely accompany him to gather the materials for the light olive-green glaze that gives his platters their lovely earthy hues. 

Both Julia and Josh point to the foundational importance of the Archie Bray Foundation for the Ceramic Arts in establishing Montana as a giant within the ceramic arts. Helena brickmaker Archie Bray used his Western Clay Manufacturing Company to start the first artist residency program dedicated solely to ceramics in 1951. Initial artists in residence, Rudy Autio and Peter Voulkos, began their illustrious careers there and established the center as a hub for ceramic education and innovation. The experimental and community atmosphere, the surrounding mountains, the historical brick factory and kilns, endless quantities of clay and minerals for making glazes, and the caliber of its artists have all served to make the Archie Bray Foundation an internationally acclaimed ceramics destination. It is undeniably responsible for nurturing Montana’s ceramicists who consistently embed the very fiber of Montana into their creations.