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Bannack Unreal

Bannack Off the Wall

BANNACK. IS. ART.  Abstract Expressionism. A museum, no less impressive than MOMA. Masterpieces created from abandonment and decay on and within the walls of the buildings have captivated me to the point of obsession. Like viewing the works of Pollock, Rothko or Kandinsky. Or more so.  I have discovered images in their league, more stunning than I could have ever imagined.

Bannack, Montana. To historians this ghost town sitting in a remote corner of southwestern Montana is essential to understanding the history of the American West. To tourists it’s a state-run, charming historic town complete with a book store, refreshments and a tour guide. To some native Montanans it’s one of the big ghost towns, maybe nothing more. To this Montanan, it holds a secret. An American time capsule. And I’m about to shout this secret out to the Big Sky.  I’m not opening up King Tut’s Tomb, but close. 

As artist, curator, archaeologist, anthropologist, I give you in photograph:

Bannack Off the Wall.

Bannack Town 

This remote ghost town, named after the local Bannock Indians, suddenly became a boomtown of 4,000 people after gold was discovered in 1862 one year after the start of the Civil War. Burgeoning to a population of 10,000 by 1864, it was named the first capital of the new Montana Territory.

 Typical of western mining camps, the area attracted hearty men and women who worked long and hard in the pursuit of a fresh start and quick riches. Enduring incredible hardships just to reach their distant destinations by wagon train and horses, they then survived on limited supplies and often faced the grueling, long Montana winters. The sturdily built town is a collection of tiny log cabins, saloons, a hotel, a church, brothels, a few stores and a gallows constructed on the facing hillside.  This literally lawless boomtown was continually ravaged by crime, creating the need for the original citizens’ Montana Vigilantes.

Also threatening the pioneers were the local Native Americans who sought retribution against those settlers whom they saw encroaching on their land.  The intruders, in turn, were driven by Manifest Destiny territorial expansion, and refused to respect treaties that protected the natives’ fundamental rights. 

Over 60 buildings remain today, each one revealing important human elements of a long-gone era.

The artistic splendor of these water-etched interior walls totally captivated me as a fine art photographer. The walls are also a window in time, exposing layer upon layer of peeled, cracked, torn, corroded wall covering. Materials used to cover up the logs and chinking for insulation and decoration consisted of lathe, cardboard, burlap, glue, tacks, nails, plaster, newsprint, muslin, canvas, paint of many colors.  For the wealthy there was beautifully embossed and hand-painted wallpaper; for the poor there were painted bedsheets. One layer was laid on top of the other in any and every combination. Over the years water invasion from the roofs and walls created beautiful abstract watercolor patterns. It is interesting and challenging to figure out the sequence of the layering and how these gorgeous designs were formed.

The wall “artwork” chronicles the story of “home sweet home” dating back to 1862.  Time and water, the master craftsmen, leave us stunning art hiding in plain sight. Like viewing growth rings in trees or an ancient ruin, we can create an archeologic picture from the clues left behind. These images give us a direct link to the people who lived in Bannack. Sumptuous patterns honor those homemakers who tried to make the best of their raw conditions. My photographs reflect the unique personality of each wall, home, home owner, and my respect for their individuality.

 A stroll through this gallery of forensic fine art is both beautiful and nostalgic, summoning the distant past. Images pop out and become subjects like Rorschach Inkblots inviting you to interpret what you see.  Think Pollock, Rothko, Kandinsky. I challenge you the viewer to use your own memories and experiences to appreciate this art.

The selection of my wall pictures and the way I process them are both parts of a new creation, not just a recording for documentary purposes. I look for the exceptional in the ordinary. Bannack Off the Wall is my effort to convey the wonder of these spectacular, unique, colorful patterns and shapes that call to us from the past and connect us to an aesthetic that transcends the past.

Dedication 

I dedicate this work to Roy Herseth, who in the 1950s believed Bannack should be protected from future mining and developers and as such sought permission from the State of Montana to create a State Monument which eventually morphed into a Montana State Park.  Now in his late 90’s, he is the last man alive to have resided in Bannack. 

I encourage you, the reader, to support the preservation of Bannack by contributing to the Bannack State Park, the Bannack Association, the Montana Historical Society, the Beaverhead County Museum.  I also encourage you to hurry up and visit the Park. These wall patterns are ephemeral and change from season to season.  At some point they will be lost entirely.

 

Afterword

This here’s Montana! On this early morning, May 21, 2021, I am reading The Way West by A B Guthrie inside a cozy log house near Jeffers, Montana, not far from Bannack.  It is snowing hard, the temperature is 27 degrees, the wind-chill is 12 degrees with a 20 miles per hour north wind. For the next three days the forecast is snow, heavy snow. This fierce late spring wind and snow are no less severe than what was experienced by the early settlers in the 1860’s when gold was discovered and the rush to Montana began.

 

 

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