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A Public Art Movement in Montana Elevates History and Nature

A Public Art Movement in Montana Elevates History and Nature

Kaeley Boyle

Art that explores the Rocky Mountain’s history, culture and environment

In Donna Tartt’s novel The Goldfinch, one character describes artwork as “a waystation where time doesn’t exist but rather exists all at once, in every direction, all histories, and movements occurring simultaneously.”

Mary Ellen Strom’s work in Bozeman, Montana, contains echoes of these same themes. Interwoven histories of place, and the complex interpersonal relationships that inhabit them. From video projection on the terrain outside of a moving train to theatrical performances flanked by the Bridger and Tobacco Root Mountains, Strom excavates the layers of community through the language of art and collaboration.

Her project-based work focuses on “submerged narratives in the environment, history and cultural discourse(s)”. Strom’s celebrated career as an artist includes awards from the International Fulbright Scholar Fellowship, Creative Capital, M.A.P. Grants, Artadia The Fund for Art and Dialogue, Art Matters, National Endowment for the Arts, and two New York Performance Awards. 

In 2003, a site-specific multimedia installation, Geyser Land, spanned a 25-mile stretch between Livingston and Bozeman. Passengers on the train looked out the windows to see still images projected on the terrain and accompanying landmarks. A score and live narration accompanied projections of black and white animations of horses, buffalo, and archival footage. All racing in time next to present-day technology.

In Strom’s words, “Geyser Land was a celebration of place as well as a look at history, time, and landscape. The contemporary spectator was challenged to make comparisons between the cultural ideology, economic reality, and landscapes of past and present.”

Two of Geyser Land’s 1,300 participants included Jim Madden and Dede Taylor. The three would later go on to form Mountain Time Arts, an organization that would expand Strom’s passion for producing art for the public good.

Public art rooted in land and care ethics

In February 2016, Strom received a call from Madden asking her to collaborate on a project in Bozeman. A few months later, she hopped on a plane from Boston to Bozeman and spent the week discussing what would become Mountain Time Arts.

Mountain Time Arts has grown to be far more robust, with more facets, than a typical small-town arts organization. It produces bold, inventive public art projects that enliven the community’s relationship with the history, culture and environment of the Rocky Mountain West. Their projects have engaged internationally known artists, along with hundreds of local participants including ranchers, environmentalists, scientists, Indigenous community leaders and local politicians.

Montana public art chronicles of a Heatwave in 2019. The project projected video onto the Story Mill Grain Terminal
Mountain Time Arts showcases its project Standby Snow: Chronicles of a Heatwave in 2019. The project projected video onto the Story Mill Grain Terminal. Artists included collaborator and performer Laine Rettmer and singer Aliana De La Guardia. [Photo by Ben Lloyd]

MTA’s first project, “Flow,” addressed Bozeman’s history with economic expansion and the forcible removal of communities. In the 1800s, it was indigenous tribal groups that frequented the Gallatin Valley. In 2008, the Bridger View Trailer Court. In 2010, the Story Mill was placed on a list of endangered sites by the Montana Preservation Alliance after a failed development project displaced adjacent communities, leaving the area sitting idle and open to vandalism.

A late 19th century development, the Story Mill played a significant role in the region’s agricultural history. Flow used video projection to activate the site and transform the exterior of the Story Mill grain terminal with images of past and present.

Community engagement in Bozeman

Strom, a Butte native, explains MTA’s projects as “Artwork rooted in care ethics.” The group highlights sites in southwestern Montana, “that people love or are curious about.” 

Their artworks enliven an emotional attachment to the land and amplify a conversation within the community pertinent to their daily lives.

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Mountain Time Arts guides the process of public art through a cycle of research, art events, and written quality outcomes. MTA has formulated ways to produce temporal public artworks through a community-engaged process.

Laine Rettmer behind rear screen video projection,  dancing with elk horn Montana public art
Standby Snow: Chronicles of a Heatwave, 2019. Diversion 2, Collaborator and performer Laine Rettmer behind rear screen video projection, dancing with elk horn. [Photo by Ben Lloyd]

Led by a diverse team of cultural workers including artists, Indigenous scholars, environmentalists, and community leaders, MTA’s focus is social, economic, and environmental justice. Equity and inclusion are at the heart of MTA’s mission. MTA works to dismantle all forms of oppression, specifically discrimination and environmental destruction.

Strom and MTA’s next project “STANDBY SNOW: CHRONICLES OF A HEATWAVE, CHAPTER TWO” is set to start Summer 2021.

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