If you sit beside the “Pool” inside the Yellowstone Art Museum, you can hear the ping of water droplets hitting the copper tube drums.
This is a peek into the world of Patrick Zentz, who describes his sculptural work, including “Pool,” as “sitting at an interface between the art and science world.”
For many years, Zentz used his cattle ranch to supplement his art income, and he spent his days observing the land from the back of a horse, chasing cattle up and down
coulees. The land inspires him, and while art directors across the country fretted that staying in Montana might hold Zentz back as an artist, Zentz said his connection to the land has always been integral to his work. He has been able to stay in Montana most of his life and exhibit work throughout the U.S.
“When you live in the environment, you pay much more attention to things,” Zentz said.
Just like Ben Franklin
Former director of the Yellowstone Art Museum in Billings David Nelson described Zentz as a polymorph because he understands “a whole lot of everything.”
“He and Benjamin Franklin would have been great friends,” Nelson said. “They have the understanding of art and science. Pat is interesting because he is so bright, yet he stays grounded.”
After growing up on a cattle ranch near Laurel, Zentz earned a bachelor’s degree in biology at Westmont College in Santa Barbara, Calif., then returned to Montana to earn an MFA at the University of Montana.
As early as the 1970s, Zentz began building environmentally activated sculptures that translate naturally occurring events into artistic visual forms.
Beth Sellars, director of Seattle gallery Suyama Space, said her gallery hosted an installation piece by Zentz in 1999 because she admired the poetry he creates through his sound designs.
“He translates the landscape. You don’t see too many artists doing that kind of thing,” Sellars said.
To create “Pool,” Zentz mounted equipment in the YAM courtyard that sends data about temperature and wind speed to a computer chip that transmits the information to the sculpture, enabling it to release droplets of water. The number of pings voiced by the drums is based on temperature.
“It’s a different way to understand what’s happening in nature, and nature is everything — this building, the trees in the courtyard — all of this is nature,” Zentz said.
Zentz donated “Pool” to the YAM and designed a bench around it so it could become a gathering spot on the first floor.
The YAM’s permanent collection has 16 of Zentz’s sculptures, including “WindSound,” which is on permanent exhibit in the Visible Vault. Architects designed the vault around the work, which was constructed in 1989 for an exhibit at the Henry Art Gallery at the University of Washington and donated by Zentz in 2010 in memory of his friend, Jerry Hayes.
YAM executive director Robyn Peterson praised Zentz’s work because it merges art and science “in defiance of educational system’s artificial separation of these subjects.”
“It provides aesthetic engagement as well as being a prompt to scientific understanding,” Peterson said.
An opening in December of another Zentz piece, “Trio,” at the Missoula Art Museum fascinated visitors, especially youngsters, MAM director Laura Millin said.
“Trio,” which was donated by Billings art collectors Carol and John Green, includes three sculptures that produce the sounds of a flute, cello and drum.
“The kids are wild about ‘Trio’; everybody is charmed by it. It’s such a discovery process,” Millin said.
The MAM has commissioned a short film about Zentz and is printing a catalog about “Trio” that is due out later this year.
Zentz originally set his sights on becoming a doctor, but he discovered he was much more fascinated by the idea of defining who we are. It took him four years to finish his MFA because he was also teaching full time at a rural K-8 school in Greenough, where he fused lessons in math, science and art. His wife, Suzie, taught kindergarten through fourth grade, and Patrick taught grades five through eight.
Zentz helped students dissect a dead calf, and taught astronomy and sociology. They cleared a farmer’s field to create a soccer field back in the 1970s, when a lot of Montanans had never played the game.
One of Montana’s foremost contemporary artists, Ted Waddell, was his graduate school adviser.
Zentz also taught sculpture at Bozeman High School before buying a cattle ranch along the Yellowstone River near Laurel.
“I realized I couldn’t make art and teach. I needed to ranch again because cows aren’t as intellectually challenging as students,” Zentz said.
Now in his 60s, Zentz is still excited about his research. He spent the past six years learning computer coding to build virtual instruments that can record data to produce recordings, either visual or auditory. He’s so excited about the project, Zentz said he hates to go to bed at night and can’t wait to get started in the morning.
“It’s like turning your smartphone into the instrument of perception,” Zentz said.
He predicts that during the next 10 years, the world will see sweeping technological advances, including cars that drive themselves.
“I’m interested in creating art that will be on the edge of that world,” Zentz said.
Zentz has gotten out of the cattle business, but he stays rooted to the land that inspires him, while his mind is already interpreting the future.