One of Montana’s most interesting museums has no walls, no ceiling, and no entrance fee.
Located just outside the charming town of Lincoln, Mont., Blackfoot Pathways: Sculpture in the Wild is home to a collection of immense sculptures created by artists from all over the world.
As the nonprofit’s mission statement explains, the 40 acre “art park” strives to “provide an environment for the creation of significant artworks, both permanent and temporary, inspired by the environmental and industrial heritage of the Blackfoot Valley while fostering an awareness and appreciation of the arts through community participation and education.”
Sculpture in the Wild was the brainchild of Kevin O’Dwyer, an artist from Ireland who visited Montana and fell in love with the upper Blackfoot landscape and community. He conceived of the project as a way to unify and heal a community that had suffered the loss of its primary economic base when the last of the sawmills in the upper Blackfoot closed down in the 1990s.
Lifelong resident of Lincoln and President of Sculpture in the Wild, Beck Garland gives frequent walking tours of the grounds.
At the heart of Sculpture in the Wild stands a huge old tipi burner, a massive cone-shaped structure designed to incinerate the tons of sawdust generated by the mills. The fiery glow of such tipi burners used to be common landmarks around western Montana.
“This burner was moved in three pieces from its original site on my family’s mill and rebuilt here,” Garland said. “As a symbol of the former economy, and as the centerpiece of Sculpture in the Wild, it has really served as a place of healing and bringing the community together.”
The interior of the burner hosts a collection of massive steel panels onto which vintage photographic images have been transferred. Each image depicts some aspect of the logging operations that once dominated the region. “We have artist presentations here,” Garland said, “and we are planning to move a piano in for Philip Aaberg, who is our resident composer.”
More than 50 thousand people visited the site in 2019, Garland reported, which has helped put Lincoln on the map as a tourist destination. That in turn has provided a significant boost to the local economy.
The Montana Arts Council has also taken notice. Last year Sculpture in the Wild was awarded a prestigious Governor’s Arts Award. The council cited “the strength of the work,” as well as “dedication to the advancement of the arts and a continuing interest in contributing to the cultural heritage of our home.”
Anyone who makes a pilgrimage to Sculpture in the Wild would agree. A full circuit of the grounds is a little over a mile walk through the woods.
Every hundred yards or so, visitors are treated to incredible sculptures created by artists invited to Lincoln during the three-week-long installation period to assemble their works.
All of the exhibits feature natural elements from the surrounding landscape. Finnish artist Jaakko Pernu’s “Picture Frame,” for example, involves hundreds of tree branches held together with screws inside a 25-foot “frame.”
Patrick Dougherty’s “Tree Circus,” meanwhile, looks like an entire village for gnomes spun and woven from willow branches by some kind giant.
The exhibits are sometimes interactive, inviting you to step inside them. One exhibit involves following a path that descends into a trench lined with logs.
Sculpture in the Wild is not just a summer destination. The sculptures are all-weather exhibits whose characters change along with the weather.
“This is a wonderful place to cross-country ski through in winter,” Garland said.
If you’re planning a trip through the Blackfoot country, be sure to put Sculpture in the Wild on your list of stops to make. Art on such a grand scale, nestled so perfectly into the ponderosa pines and fir, truly is a unique Montana experience. MSN