If you grew up in Montana, the backdrop to your childhood was likely a Monte Dolack print. The Treasure State artist has been painting, drawing, and printing posters for the last 40 years. And Montanans love the stuff. You couldn’t skip a stone on Flathead Lake without hitting a cabin containing a Dolack print or three.
In one of Dolack’s best-known series, wild animals take over domestic scenes. Grizzly bears recline on couches. Trout jump out of bathtubs while feathery ducks paddle next to the rubber sort. The kitschy, kaleidoscopic prints mix iconic Montana wildlife with a healthy dose of humor, winning his work a place on the walls, and in the hearts, of multigenerational ranch families and fly-through fishermen alike. The $35 price tag helps, too.
Dolack has long worked with conservation and wilderness groups (an alliance that helped cement his place in so many Montana living rooms). In his new show, Altered State, Dolack takes a look at less picturesque and more controversial topics like climate change, coal, Superfund sites, and the effects of extractive companies moving into Montana’s wild spaces.
I recently dropped by the show at the Holter Museum in Helena, Mont. As I’m from Big Sky Country, I was curious as to how art, environmentalism, and mining mix in a red(dish) state with a strong industry presence. As much as I love Montana, “environmentalist” tends to elicit a negative reaction here. And don’t get started on “artist.”
So how does Dolack navigate this potential cultural minefield? He tries to avoid a “shame on you” mentality, he told me* over the phone. “I wasn’t trying to wag the finger at anyone in particular. This is just the way it is,” he said.
Unlike the broad whimsy found in some of Dolack’s past work, most of the pieces in Altered State are simple and subtle. An antelope watches a coal train zip along the plains. In “Oil and Water,” a family of geese swims through the reflection of a refinery.
In a less subtle move, Dolack incorporated the fruits of Montana’s extractive industries into the collection. He used copper as a canvas; the frames are rubbed with coal. One frame of bright, jagged coal pieces nearly overwhelms the painting inside: a meandering Smith River. “Marriage of Convenience” is a sculpture of a man and a woman made out of coal — Dolack’s commentary on our dependance on the dirty fuel.
While he watches coal trains pull through Missoula every day, Dolack actually had trouble finding the hard, shiny stuff to use in his show. He called around to different energy sellers. No one could help him. He finally got his hands on some from a friend who works with ranchers in Eastern Montana to fight coal development.
The collection is very personal for the third-generation Montanan. Dolack’s grandfather was a coal miner and his father worked at a copper refinery in Great Falls. Dolack even spent summers working at the refinery to pay tuition at Montana State University and University of Montana.
His family was very supportive of his decision to become an artist, he said. In fact, his blue-collar appeal traces back to his childhood. His family couldn’t afford art, so original Monte Dolacks filled the walls.
Dolack still tries to speak to a wider audience. “Some artists might fill a room with coal. It might be really cool but a lot of people might miss the message,” he said. “You have to be pretty well informed about art to understand that vocabulary.”
And he’s witnessed his hands-off approach spurring across-the-aisle communication: At the opening, he watched a prominent local environmentalist discuss a piece with a conservative commissioner.
Dolack plans to continue to touch on coal and climate change in future works, but he wants to incorporate more animals and explore an international angle. “This work was about my own history, family, and culture,” he said. “But [regional and global issues] touch each other.” The coal on those trains is heading from Montana to China, after all.
*Full disclosure: I’ve never met Monte but, like most progressive Montanans, he’s a family friend. In one Dolack poster from the ‘70s, my top-hat-wearing father grins and waves from a hot-air balloon.
Altered State will be showing at the Holter Museum in Helena, Mont., until April 13.