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On the wall: Dirk's mural stirs emotions, controversy
Dirk Lee, who now lives in Missoula, painted thiscircular mural at Billings Senior High in the 1960s.

• Artist: Dirk Lee, Senior High class of 1967, now living in Missoula.

• Mural: 8-foot circular mural in a stairwell between the second and third floors at Senior High.

Dirk Lee, who taught himself to paint and draw, never had taken an art class when he started to notice murals in the halls of Senior High.

Proposing to do a mural of his own, Lee got permission from art teacher Archie Elliot, and the student council came up with money for the paint.

Lee set up scaffolding in a stairwell of the school and began to paint a couple of hours a day for the rest of the school year.

The result was an intricate labyrinth of fanciful and real figures, designs and 1960s flotsam painted in bright colors. The work is so complex that it takes more than a casual glance to unravel intertwined pieces.

Although the mural depicts "whatever happened to hit me that day," it wound up reflecting the turmoil of the times and what goes on in young people's lives, he said recently.

The kaleidoscopic work includes a depiction of Bob Dylan, the Hunchback of Notre Dame, a reel-to-reel tape, uniformed soldiers marching behind a tank, two musicians playing electric guitars and a swatch of black-and-white op art.

He even painted himself into the mural as an artist standing on scaffolding painting a reclining female figure. The project took so long that he didn't finish it before graduation, and a small section of white space remains.

Lee's mural has generated some controversy. The word "pot" on a pot with smoke rising from it was painted over at some point. The figure of a white woman and a black man walking hand-in-hand also raised eyebrows years ago.

Those controversies don't bother Lee, but one over the depiction of a burning cross and a figure in hooded Ku Klux Klan cloak did.

Several years ago, minority students wanted those figures removed from Lee's mural.

In the mural's defense, Lee wrote a long piece for the school newspaper explaining that, when he painted it, the existence of the extremist group wasn't a topic that people liked to talk about. He hoped that, by including it in his mural, it would bring that painful subject out in the open and expose it.

He also offered to buy paint for the students who objected to KKK references so they could paint their own mural of what was important to them.

The figures stayed in his mural.

All in all, Lee is flattered that the mural has generated heated discussions.

"It makes you feel good to stir emotions and your work has that kind of life," he said.

After graduating in 1967, Lee studied art at Eastern Montana College for a few years, but said that he dropped out in solidarity with minority students who he saw returning after serving in the military.

He felt guilty being in school when other men his age were in the service.

Lee was drafted in 1971 and spent the next 21 months in the U.S. Army in Europe.

He later went to art school in Oregon and then moved to Missoula, where he continued to do his oil painting, wood engraving and printing. He's shown his work at galleries around Missoula.

Working on that mural more than 40 years ago helped him to decide to become an artist rather than a musician, which he also had considered.

Painting the mural also brought personal rewards.

"I always was a shy, nerdy guy, and it gave me confidence and gave me a chance to talk to people and come out of my shell," he said.