Legendary Artist Monte Dolack Captures Montana’s History
BY TODD WILKINSON
Montana has nurtured a motherlode of creative talent, from globally renowned writers and poets to famous musicians, artists and actors. For years, Monte Dolack, the homegrown “magic realist,” has reigned perhaps as the closest thing we have to a modern “painter laureate.”
While Charles Marion Russell is considered the best-known Montana easel painter who ever lived, it’s a sure bet there are many more reproductions of Dolack’s whimsical and aesthetically dreamy works hanging in the homes and offices of 21st- century denizens than those of the famed “cowboy artist.”
Russell is heralded for portraying the last gaps of the “Old West,” namely depictions of indigenous people, the near extermination of bison and the rise of ranching culture that marked “the end of the frontier.”
In contrast, Dolack has gained national attention over the last three decades for exploring themes of the “New West.” “The proliferation of his imagery has given him folk- hero status among people from all walks of life.
This winter, a new and long-awaited coffee table art book titled Vision, Myth and Mystery: The Art of Monte Dolack is being published by the University of Montana Press. The volume brims with Dolack’s most popular paintings over the last 40-some years, including pieces that are part of major collections and have traveled the world.
Thomas McGuane, the revered American novelist and essayist who lives near Montana’s Absaroka Mountains, says Dolack excels in delivering a juxtaposition of the transcendent with the absurd. In 2018, Dolack was honored with the prestigious Governor’s Humanities Award—the state’s highest civilian honor—and a year later it was McGuane who was feted.
“Charlie Russell was of course a great painter, great character and interesting writer, too often co-opted by the chamber-of-commerce drawn to the colonial heroics of his work. Its often- valedictory quality—the last of the this or that—can seem an elegy for the West as an interesting place,” McGuane says.
On the one hand, Dolack might deliver soothing angling scenes inspired by the words of author Norman Maclean and his classic novella A River Runs Through It. Meanwhile, on the other, he has called out the tragedy of Manifest Destiny causing environmental degradation, be it the toxic legacy of copper mining in Butte, the destruction—and rehabilitation—of the Clark Fork River, and even Montana’s prairies holding underground nuclear missiles that would bring doomsday if ever launched.
McGuane thinks of Dolack as a provocateur in the best way possible. “Monte’s version is a potent evocation of the state as I know it, powered at one level by the natural world, and on another by the persistent individualism of Montanans, natives and settlers, who feel entitled to define Montana on their own terms, unencumbered by received versions.”
“He has captured the whimsy, the beauty and at times touched upon the significant conservation challenges of our state and does it in a way that both that grade-schooler in me long ago and now as a public servant can appreciate even better.” – Steve Bullock
Few understood the larger universal appeal of Montana better than the late novelist and memoirist Ivan Doig. What he appreciated about Dolack, a good friend, was his attachment to “The Big Open” of the eastern plains that extend across Montana, the Dakotas, Nebraska and Wyoming.
“Monte puts the two Montanas together. East of the Divide: the great mountain fronts out there in one direction, those blessed square buttes in a couple of others, the water of the Missouri forever passing through … This is that Montana of the eye, the unforgettable glimpse, the long gaze, the memory,” Doig wrote.
Born in 1950, Dolack grew up a copper smelter’s son in Great Falls not far from where C.M. Russell had his studio a few decades earlier. He too toiled in the smelter while working his way through college at the University of Montana in Missoula and he relates to the ethic of the working class. Foremost, he is a champion of the underdog which has translated into epic battles between well-funded out-of-state companies and conservationists trying to protect habitat for wildlife that has no voice.
“Montana has a notable and sometimes volatile relationship with its industrial legacy,” Dolack says. “A powerful tension exists. Some of Montana’s great natural beauty has been set aside in national and state parks. Its abundant rivers and wildlife are astounding and draw tourists from around the world.”
The most recent major Dolack exhibition was a multimedia affair titled Altered State: Musings on the Contemporary Montana Landscape with Paintings and Construction. The showing featured dozens of works and premiered at the Holter Museum in Helena. It was an assemblage that easily could have hung at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
Nothing better illustrated the bite of his commentary than his work Sacred and Profane. The setting is the Berkeley Pit, a mine tailings pond in Butte that is reputed to be among the most polluted in America. A few decades ago, a flock of snow geese landed on its surface and died from its poison.
In the painting, Dolack turns to magical realism in portraying the real-life statue of Virgin Mary, called Our Lady of the Rockies, that is perched on a mountainside above the town. It’s as if the artist is exploring this question with us: How could Butte, once a beacon of prosperity, become one of the most contaminated small cities in the country?
“I can relate to the plight of working-class people struggling to make ends meet and support their families—trying to give them a better life. That’s also my story,” Dolack says. “But what I don’t accept are situations when desperate people are taken advantage of, and they’re basically told they have to accept environmental destruction, or they won’t have a job.”
“Montana has a notable and sometimes volatile relationship with its industrial legacy,” Dolack says. “A powerful tension exists.”
Early in his life, recent Montana Governor Steve Bullock remembered his father putting Dolack posters on the wall of their home. “Growing up, [Dolack] was almost this mystical person to me,” Bullock says. “I remember the whimsical fun of his posters portraying ducks in a bathtub and penguins chilling in the refrigerator and a wolf standing on top of a car howling.”
Before Bullock ever learned about the French Impressionists or knew much about Charlie Russell, he knew the name Monte Dolack. “He was a pretty big deal in Montana and I kind of thought about him as I would a professional athlete I admired,” Bullock says. “You could travel across the state and his artwork was everywhere.”
Dolack has no presumption about any impact his art might have on people in 50fifty or a hundred100 years. “I think people can get a pretty good sense of who I am, what I value and where I’ve been based upon my artwork,” the artist says. “If there’s any message latent in the paint, it’s that we need to pay attention to nature. It’s out there, right in front of us every day. All of us have one foot in her current.”
Right now, with the new book hot off the presses, Dolack is composing the visual pieces of his Third Act and has a major new art series in store.
“He has captured the whimsy, the beauty and at times touched upon the significant conservation challenges of our state and does it in a way that both that grade-schooler in me long ago and now as a public servant can appreciate even better,” Bullock says. “Some fine artists choose to obscure out of some sort of pretentiousness. Even the most amazing and sophisticated Dolack paintings are approachable to folks from all stripes. You don’t have to be a fine art connoisseur for it to grab at your heart.”
Todd Wilkinson, a regular contributor to Mountain Outlaw, is a Bozeman-based correspondent for National Geographic and The Guardian. He is the author of critically acclaimed books on Ted Turner, famous Jackson Hole grizzly mother 399, and scientific whistleblowers. He is also founder of Mountain Journal, a nationally recognized nonprofit online magazine devoted to exploring the intersection between people and nature in Greater Yellowstone.