Maggy Rozycki Hiltner describes herself as a fast-talker. When discussing her 111-foot long quilt titled “Vantage Point,” which highlights hand-stitched environmental and social disasters and EPA Superfund sites, she planted a seed for her next work.
“I felt like I was saying ‘super fun’ sites,” said Hiltner. Her newest work, themed after circus posters from the 1920s and acting as brochures to tour ecological disasters, is part of a global art exhibition that had its start in Montana.
“Extraction: Art from Beyond the Abyss” features hundreds of artists from around the world creating art, music and performance centered on social and environmental consequences of resource extraction.
The multi-venue exhibition stretched across the globe this summer, co-founded by Peter Koch and the late Ed Dobb. Koch, a printer based in Berkeley, is originally from Missoula, and Dobb was a writer from Butte and journalism instructor at UC Berkeley.
“All the participation, it’s pretty amazing,” said Koch, who originally planned a much smaller exhibition themed around the infamous Berkeley Pit in Butte. “I must have struck a nerve when I started this whole thing. It just took off like grassfire.”
Montana takes center stage in the exhibition, where about 30 artists contributed works at nearly a dozen venues across the state, including Northcutt Steele Gallery and Kirks’ Grocery in Billings, Missoula Art Museum, Lewiston Art Center, The Holter Museum of Art in Helena, Hockaday Museum of Art in Kalispell, and several venues in Bozeman including Mountain Time Arts and the Museum of the Rockies.
An unnatural muse
The extraction industry has followed Hiltner since childhood. She grew up in a rural industry town outside Philadelphia where she would play atop abandoned mines reminiscent of “black deserts” because of the color caused by coal silt.
Now based in Red Lodge, Hiltner submitted an 8’ x 12’ fabric work to the Holter featuring facts culled from the EPA’s database of superfund sites in the U.S. and corresponding newspaper articles.
“There are over 1,700, if you want to go down a rabbit hole,” said Hiltner, who found the “truly atrocious ones” to highlight.
“The EPA website is so technical, you can get lost in not understanding. What I could understand is suffering … I felt that I had to turn it up in a way so that it was palatable at all.”
Turn-of-the-century magic show and circus posters provided design inspiration, with Hiltner’s characteristic skeletons pulling back the curtains.
Her goal: to insert humor into atrocity and make the work approachable. “I want it to be funny, and when you get up close, you go, ‘Oh dear. This is not funny at all.’”
Working with a cast of skeletons, Hiltner describes them as hosts who “pop up and remind you of the many ways you can die.”
Mary Serbe, who has work featured at Kirks’ Grocery in Billings, used another harbinger of death as her muse: the Berkeley Pit and Montana’s only rollercoaster.
“It made me think of the yin and yang,” she said. “Not only are you extracting from the land, the actual industry of mining is extracted, and things are taken away. Mining built that amusement park. Mining took it away.”
She’s referencing Columbia Gardens, built in the late 1800s by Butte’s “Copper King” William A. Clark. Rich with flowering gardens, a lake for swimming and boating, two zoos and an aviary, a three-tiered wooden roller coaster and other amusements, the park was later owned by Anaconda Copper and burned down in 1973, one month after closing.
“It was the only rollercoaster in Montana, and then the land it was on was needed for the mine,” said Serbe, who moved to Butte as an AmeriCorps vista worker 20 years after Columbia Gardens was destroyed, “but people would still talk about it.”
A closer look
Koch, like many Montanans, grew up with extraction industries. “We were an early sacrifice zone,” he said. “There was no ‘if’ ‘ands’ or ‘butts.’ Mining is the industry, and in order to support the mines you have to cut down all the trees and build the railroads and house all the miners."
Koch, who now resides in California, said it’s necessary to rethink such extraction practices, but sees the same mistakes being made. “It’s just like that poisonous water pouring in the pit; it will never end. We need to rethink what we are doing very radically."
Koch didn’t have to do much prodding to get artists to participate. Initially, he wanted to focus solely on the Berkeley Pit, but the idea “spread like wildfire,” he said. “These people just kept jumping on board. I wanted a little, I got a lot.”
Though Butte provides one of the state’s most visible and widely discussed aspects of the extraction industry, Christopher Boyer, a commercial pilot and photographer, took another approach.
“It always has such a spotlight that I worry the many other hardworking toxic hellholes we have will feel left out,” he said.
Boyer, who has lived in Bozeman for three decades, is feeling the impacts of growth on the area. “It’s fairly spectacular, the change here,” he said. “I’m getting old enough that some of my earliest photographs are historical documents.”
Some of Boyer’s photographs are on display in Helena, and he was invited to participate in “Extraction” by its founder Edwin Dobb. Years prior, Boyer flew Dobb over the Bakken oil fields of Eastern Montana and North Dakota to assist in a project he was working on.
“Shortly thereafter, he started putting together the 'Extraction' art intervention,” said Boyer. Across six images taken from the air, he tells various stories of humanity's extraction industry meeting with land and nature: Pronghorn killed by a train on the Hi-Line, a pipeline snaking through a grain field in North Dakota, salmon farm pens in New Brunswick, the recreational sprawl of Big Sky.
“We consume without ever facing the reality of what that consumption means,” said Boyer. “Having flown all over the country and seeing things others never see played out across the landscape, it’s become a mission of mine to explore those unseen things.”
Rosemary Howell, associate curator and collections manager at the Holter, describes the museum as a place to show work by artists reacting to or engaging with social issues, so “Extraction” was a perfect fit.
“Our goal is to uplift artist voices about serious issues.”
When curating the show, she found a balance between the directness a photograph can convey to the more abstract worlds that, say, Hiltner, crafted.
“Some artists are very direct, but we also have work that you might have to look at it for a while to even realize it’s about the environment,” Howell said.
Tracy Linder’s “Shill Shell” birds are such a work, which were exhibited recently at the Yellowstone Art Museum. The work asks the question, are we a friend or a foe to the environment?
“They are so beautiful, but they are dead,” said Howell. “They don’t have wings or eyes. There’s a lifelessness to these birds.”
Sean Chandler's contribution to "Extraction" is a personal excavation of his life and Aaniiih heritage. On display at Kirks' Grocery in Billings, his characters across the giant canvas unfold a story of youthful interests like baseball, his first car (a '65 Mustang), and a drawing of him in kindergarten dressed as Uncle Sam.
Chandler grew up in Glendive and now resides on the Fort Belknap Reservation, where he's president at Aaniiih Nakoda College. He points to a section of his work that is blacked out, an acknowledgement of land taken from the tribe in the late 1800s after gold was discovered.
"They call it the Grinnell notch," Chandler said, explaining that at that time, government-appointed commissioners, including George Bird Grinnell, encouraged the Aaniiih people to sell a portion of their land where gold was discovered.
"If you read the transcripts of the meeting, these Indian commissioners, Grinnell included, were talking down to these great men of our tribe, saying they were going to starve in 10 years and to vote to sell this area. They put a lot of fear into people's minds and split our people."
That missing chunk is obvious in many areas of Chandler's work, where holes are taken from painted creatures and shapes that sprawl across the canvas, glowing bright gold, or some dark grey and black with horns and appearing fuzzy.
"In my work, there are these pieces of things missing of us ... And we try to get these things back, we try to restore our language, our ceremonies, our way of life, but it's always in pieces."
Crosses marking graves are in the foreground of the work, a sign of the impacts of boarding schools and the many deaths of Native people at the hands of the U.S. Government, colonization, and forced assimilation. Figures, many gaunt with ribs showing, also reflect the starvation of Chandler's ancestors, both physically and spiritually, he described.
Chandler isn't without his humor in the matter, and there's plenty of outhouses and toilets throughout his work. He describes flush toilets as something his father saw when he was a child delivering newspapers. They became a symbol of affluence and an indication of wealth and prosperity to his family.
'The planet's visionaries'
The exhibition at the Holter has been in the works for three years, and it was the first venue for the show that has now gone global.
Boyer said it will take time to see if the exhibit makes a difference. “Like everyone, I wake up one day and I think the end of the world is nearly upon us, and I wake up another day and I feel incredibly optimistic about some of the movements and thoughtful things that are happening.”
Koch describes artists as the planet’s visionaries. He’s quick to point out others doing good work in environmental policy and changes to industrial practices, but “it’s the artist that will have to supply us with the vision ... All the institutions have failed us.”
Many of the works are accessible because of the humor they contain, which also helps the viewer enter the work and stay engaged. “We should face this with a sense of humor,” Koch said.
For Hiltner, it’s all “memento mori,” she said. “You are going to die, so don’t forget to live.”
Extraction: Art on the Edge of the Abyss
Extraction at MAM
Artist Maggy Rozycki Hiltner
Maggy Hiltner's "Superfun(d)"
Superfun(d) - The Berkeley Pit
Pronghorn on the HiLine
Email Arts and Entertainment Reporter Anna Paige at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter and Instagram at @penandpaige.