The late Bruce Putnam, director of aviation and transit for the city of Billings for 27 years, used to envision a string of bison sculptures stretching from the airport down to the city center and on to the Yellowstone River.
That art project was never realized, but an effort to memorialize Putnam with three pictograph-like sculptures of bison is moving forward.
“When I think about buffalo, I think about Bruce Putnam,” Mark Kennedy said. “He was larger than life.”
Kennedy, a former City Council member, was on the Aviation and Transit Commission last fall when Terry Zee Lee proposed the memorial.
Lee, who had organized a series of exhibits at Billings Logan International Airport and knew Putnam well, had already pitched her idea to Putnam’s successor, Tom Binford.
The commission quickly agreed to support the project, just a few weeks before Putnam died last October of cancer.
The commission asked Joliet sculptor Charles Ringer to create a monumental bison sculpture. Based on a suggestion of Lee, who had talked the idea over with Putnam before his death, Ringer came up with a steel outline of a bull bison, suggestive of cave paintings and Native American pictographs.
When he brought a small-scale model of the sculpture to a later meeting of the commission, Ringer said, “it was a huge hit,” and commission members decided to expand the project.
The plan now is for Ringer to create two slightly smaller sculptures, representing a bison cow and calf, to stand with the bison bull. The steel bull will be 17 feet long and 9 feet tall and the smaller ones will be 12 ½ by 6 ½ feet.
Models of the sculptures are being sold to finance the project. Nineteen-inch models of the bull are going for $500 and 11-inch models of the smaller bison are being sold for $400.
Binford said $200 from the sale of each model will go toward the project and is tax-deductible. The total cost of the project has been estimated at $30,000.
The commission has asked Ringer to make 100 models. If they all sell, yielding $20,000, Binford said the aviation division will use $10,000 from its discretionary fund to pay for creating a platform and putting in landscaping and signs.
The bull bison will also feature a fused glass heart and heart line created by Billings stained-glass artist Angela Babby. Each of the models will have a heart or heart line represented by trade beads or modern replicas of trade beads.
The commission is working with the Billings Community Foundation to collect money for the project. Teresa Darnielle Morse, with the foundation, said it is acting as a “fiscal sponsor,” using its nonprofit status to receive gifts or donations on behalf of the project.
Putnam was a native of South Dakota who spent most of his life in Montana and he was deeply interested in the history of the West. He earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in history from Montana State University. He went into aviation after working on Huey helicopters during a two-year stint in the Army.
Kennedy said the memorial is so much more fitting than just putting Putnam’s name on an airport or transit building, which was originally considered by the commission.
He said the hope is that residents and airport visitors will see the sculptures — no specific location at the airport has been decided on yet — and be inspired to learn more about about the history of the American West.
Ringer has already created 60 models and 13 had been sold as of last week. Kennedy said many other people have talked of buying a model, and he’s confident the fundraising goal will be met relatively quickly.
“It’s taken off,” he said. “It’s got a life of its own now.”