Jennifer Pulchinski is laughing.
She does that a lot. Her soft laugh is integrated so smoothly into her conservation it becomes her signature sound.
Pulchinski has plenty of reasons to be happy these days. The Bozeman artist’s sculpture, “Copper City,” was one of the most buzzed-about works at the opening of Auction 48 at the Yellowstone Art Museum last month. Patrons tipped their heads sideways and peered up into the holes she carved into the wood to wind the rusty barbed wire through.
When she showed up at the museum in January with the sculpture strapped to the top of her passenger car, special events coordinator Kat Healy admired both the artwork and Pulchinski's hardy resolve to deliver the piece by herself.
The sculpture is aptly named as the recycled wire and wood came from the old mining town of Copper City near Three Forks. It will be sold along with more than 100 other works in the live auction on Saturday, March 5, at the YAM.
Another of Pulchinski's works, a 20-foot-tall outdoor sculpture, "A Nesting Place," is a striking new addition to Montana State University. She was commissioned to make the sculpture to enhance the exterior of MSU's new Animal Bio Science Building.
Punchinski never takes the easy path to find materials, preferring instead to scavenge from highway borrow pits or ranch land. Because the materials come from the land, her sculptures evoke the enduring beauty of Montana, baked by the sun and carved by the wind.
She never buys new barbed wire, mostly because it's too stiff to work with, but also because Pulchinski likes using materials that are tied to the land.
“A rancher I got the barbed wire from said it was such a cool thing. He never thought about re-using barbed wire before. Being out there, it’s inspiring to think of the shapes of the land, to think about things like what does the wind look like.”
That deep connection to the materials and to the subject matter is important to Pulchinski. Her barbed wire work spirals through holes in the wood or shoots skyward, much like a stalk of wheat.
In her two-story garage studio near Belgrade, Pulchinski has several sculptures under construction, including a long-legged creature with a plaster head with a tiny bird’s nest inside.
Lately, Pulchinski has been collecting red dogwood branches and turning them into skirts for her creatures, offering a sharp contrast to their white plaster heads and legs. She came across the dogwood when she was out cross country skiing with her Australian pup, Bruiser.
Pulchinski holds down two part-time jobs to bolster her income, but leaves four days a week to make her art.
“I make it a point for myself not to have my art as my only business,” Pulchinski said. “I think it would ruin the fun when it comes down to making money.”
She is a delivery driver for the Bozeman Co-op during the winter, and in the spring and summer she works in the garden center at Murdocks. The jobs provide social interaction when Pulchnski gets too caught up in her art.
“I find it really easy not to leave my studio for days,” she said.
Pulchinsky left Wisconsin, where she had been studying psychology, in the summer of 2000 to take a job in the gift shop at Mammoth Hot Springs. Montana drew her in and she wound up in Bozeman, where she earned an art degree at MSU.
To pay her way through college, she worked part-time jobs in construction and at the Bozeman Co-op.
“That’s why it took me seven years, but I don’t have any school loans,” Pulchinski said.
Since she started out in college studying people, Pulchinski remains fascinated with trying to find what makes each person unique.
“When people see my portraits, they see that there is something I capture that comes alive.”
Pulchinski said drawing and painting portraits helps her process human relationships because as she sketches, she interacts with her subjects to find out what drives them.
“There is a feeling that I have when people sit in front of me. I don’t’ know if it’s me or the person, but I focus on that feeling.”
Her portraits accentuate various parts of the subject's anatomy until the portrait become an irregular form, but somehow more human than a pretty picture.
Pulchinski is a collector — of people’s uniqueness, of rancher’s weathered fence posts and barbed wire, and of stories she tells through her artwork.