FISHTAIL — Alban Bassuet ran in a circle, a large rubber mallet in each hand, banging away on a spinning steel circle overhead that was constructed by renowned sculptor Mark di Suvero.
Bassuet is not always this joyful, but after five years working with owners Cathy and Peter Halstead to turn 11,500 acres in Stillwater County into the Tippet Rise Art Center, the director is finally getting to show the place off.
Even though a blizzard was pelting the higher elevations of the property, which climb to 6,800 feet, Bassuet was enjoying the moment. The sculpture he was hammering is intended to be played like a twirling steel drum. After all, it’s called “Beethoven’s Quartet.”
“Mark tries to get to things that are beyond language,” Bassuet said.
The idea behind Tippet Rise is to "make art happen in beautiful places." The art begins as soon as you enter the property with the unusual look of a curved fence.
"He wasn't drunk when he built the fence, we asked him to put that beautiful curve in it," Bassuet said.
When it opens to the public in June with a weekly concert series, Bassuet expects people to come from around the world to see this new "land art" space that pairs stunning landscape with equally magnificent art. After a dispute over 400 yards of county road was resolved a few weeks ago, Bassuet is looking forward to hiring 20 people to help run the ranch and its two music venues and to start getting the word out about Tippet Rise.
Buses will transport guests to the property when concerts are held, and electric cars will be used on the property to escort the curious around the acreage where surprises pop out of the landscape every few miles.
The site is styled after a handful of places around the world that feature land art. They aim for a connection between the natural landscape and art. The Halsteads said they were most inspired by the Storm King Art Center in New Windsor, N.Y., which exhibits an extensive collection of international artists.
“We wanted to combine our ideas with the beauty of a specific place,” Cathy Halstead said in an email to The Gazette.
Sidney E. Frank, Cathy Halstead’s father, founded Grey Goose vodka, and Peter Halstead’s grandfather is chairman of Northern Westchester Hospital and a bank.
The Halsteads are artists. Cathy Halstead paints, and Peter Halstead is a musician, photographer and poet.
“Both our families have created places which to us were role models for what we wanted to do with our lives,” Peter Halstead said. “They were buildings at universities, villages in India, estates given to education. They were prototypes for us.”
The couple chose Stillwater County for their land art center after visiting ranches in Hawaii, California and New England. The property includes five parcels, including the 3,000-acre Johnson Ranch, which was home to the late Montana artist Isabelle Johnson.
“We came to realize that we wanted rolling hills like Storm King, but also large grassy bowls where one sculpture could be the only presence,” Peter Halstead said.
Music in Murphy Canyon
The couple owns enough land to keep true to that goal. “Beethoven’s Quartet” is miles from the nearest structure, sitting in the rolling hills above Murphy Canyon. Yet, it doesn’t feel jarring to come upon this huge steel work in rural Montana, where it is framed by nothing but sky. Thousands of miles away, di Suvero’s other works are on display at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
“Our motivation is to have sculpture that interacts with nature,” Bassuet said. “We see the curation of sculpture as important as the curation of music here.”
Part of the vision for Tippet Rise Art Center is to provide educational opportunities through internships for Montana college students and hands-on workshops for area students.
Lindsey Hinmon, who works with her husband Pete as education coordinator and operations managers, is working with teachers from Nye, Fishtail, Absarokee, Columbus and Red Lodge to arrange field trips for their students when the sculptors are on site.
Another di Suvero piece, “Proverb,” was previously on display in Dallas, where it was nicknamed “The Keys to Dallas.” Now, it’s sitting in the bottom of Box Canyon where sheep and cattle graze in the summertime.
The di Suvero works are part of a half-dozen land-specific sculptures at Tippet Rise. A guide is required to get visitors from one sculpture site to the next.
Casting the hills
On a hill overlooking a bowl on the property, which contains seven canyons, three Spanish sculptors who are part of the Ensamble Studio, are experimenting with concrete forms cast in the ground so they replicate the landscape. Absarokee concrete contractor Rich Davis was hired to assist with the project, which will include three large pieces. Hiring locals and buying locally produced construction materials were priorities for the Halsteads.
“It’s great out here,” Davis said of the area. “I love it.”
One of the most unusual landscape pieces is “Daydreams,” a site-specific work by internationally known environmental artist Patrick Dougherty.
Before Dougherty arrived to twist local willows and sticks into curious shapes, Bassuet and the Halsteads hired JXM & Associations and CTA Architects to design and build a school in the style of a one-room prairie school house from the 1800s that sits just down the road from Tippet Rise.
Every detail is exact from the shingles blowing off the roof to expose the beams and the nails pushed up from wind and weather. If it weren’t for the new concrete foundation, you would guess that the school has been there for 100 years.
The willows and sticks drape the exterior and weave through the interior of the building. Somebody commented that the work looks like something from a Tim Burton movie. Others refer to it as the house from the “Wizard of Oz.”
Bassuet explained that when Dougherty arrived on the property with his son and an assistant, he leaned on the inside wall of the school house and thought back to his days as a youngster day dreaming in school. The willows take on an almost-human appearance, leaning into the old chalkboard with gaping holes that resemble eyes.
Like the new schoolhouse built to look old, the Olivier Barn, a concert venue that will seat up to 220 people, is being built to look like a an old barn with a faded red exterior. It was designed by architect Laura Viklund, of Gunnstock Timber Frames, out of Powell, Wyo.
Lindsey Hinmon points out that from the barn, you can see four mountain ranges.
General contractor Jeff Engel of Billings, said the project to build a state-of-the-art concert venue disguised as an old barn has been “unbelievable.”
“The attention to detail and the quality of this project is just amazing. There is nothing in this building that is standard. It’s not just the sticks and the boards, it’s the people working on this job.”
Fridays are the workers’ favorite days because a local chef brings up a catered hot lunch for all to "keep morale up," Lindsey Hinmon said.
The project involves 30 subcontractors and 150 people, including engineers who designed 15 miles of new roads, geo-thermal and solar energy features, and an operation to harvest the rain and snow from the land.
For those itching to get a peek at this massive undertaking, a summer concert series will be announced in January. The series is being organized by National Public Radio host and internationally acclaimed pianist Christopher O’Riley, who is a friend of the Halsteads.
O’Riley has already performed a private concert at Tippet Rise on one of the three Steinways on the property, calling the pianos “the finest Steinways I’ve ever played.”
A recording studio is part of the Olivier Barn where plans are to record the concerts for podcasts to be available worldwide.
For the price of a $10 ticket, guests can see chamber ensembles or classical solo artists. But beyond the music, curiosity seekers may just want to experience the fascinating dichotomy of a rustic Montana ranch hosting world-renowned visual artists and musicians.