Alan Counihan Visual Artist

The work of Alan Counihan

House of Sky, Montana, USA. 2014

In September 2014 I travelled to the town of Lincoln, Montana, USA to participate in the inaugural Blackfoot Pathways Sculpture in the Wild Symposium. Lincoln is a small town of 1200 people which, like many other towns of its size in this part of America, has difficulty providing jobs for its young inhabitants due to the closure of the area’s traditional industries of mining and logging. The townspeople would prefer Lincoln to be nationally known for a more interesting cause that that of having once been the home of the Unabomber, Theodore Kaczynski. They have taken the inspired and courageous decision to create a sculpture park which will, over time, become a cultural destination for visitors to north-western Montana. The townspeople comprise a remarkable community and the amount of fund-raising, generous collaboration and voluntary work with which they have invested this project is truly remarkable.

Artists participating in this inaugural symposium were Kevin O’Dwyer (Ireland), Steven Siegel (USA), Jorn Ronnau(Denmark), Jaako Pernu(Finland) and myself. Apart from the sculpture he created Kevin O’Dwyer contributed his experience as instigator and curator of Ireland’s Sculpture in the Parklands and has assisted the development of the Sculpture in the Wild symposium and Lincoln’s new sculpture park.







House of Sky, the work I developed for the landscape of Lincoln, Montana, takes its title from the memoir of a Montana childhood by the American writer Ivan Doig. In the course of that wonderful memoir Doig describes the blue expanse over Montana rangeland as forming the walls and roof of all of life’s experience ….. a single great house of sky. I wanted my work to engage with the sky of Montana as much as with the landscape.







The words of another Montana author, Norman McLean, on his night-time boyhood joy of being- not under the stars but among them- also played a part in the development of this new work as did those of Johnathan Raban in Bad Lands: an American Romance. Raban’s book traces the history of settlers and immigrants lured to the prairies of eastern Montana in the late 19th and early 20th centuries by the false promise of bounteous and fertile land. The dreams of these settlers were exploited by the railroad companies and the government so that the  lives and homesteads of many ended in ruin. Shaped by these readings, the impenetrable form of House of Sky in Lincoln came to represent the uninhabitable dreams of those 19th century settlers. It is an uninhabitable ‘Dream Home.’

An exploitative and unsustainable relationship to the land was not a feature of the region’s indigenous peoples. They knew from centuries of experience how to nourish and be grateful for their region’s resources. It had been my initial intention to include within this work the oldest expression for land as place of origin, spiritual homeland or ground. Such a word or phrase would have been coined by the oldest inhabitants of the landscapes of north-western Montana, among them the tribes of the Salish Kootenai and the Blackfeet.








During the symposium I travelled with Cindy Meiler and Lisa Smith to visit Cindy’s relatives in the town of Browning on the Blackfeet Reservation. That proved a remarkable discovery of land, people and friendships. I did not return with the word I was looking for, nor did I expect to. I knew that such a word could not be lightly given to a stranger of unknown disposition or intention. Besides, I had no desire to appropriate a word I could not understand having learned from Keith Basso’s remarkable book Wisdom Sits in Places (Landscape and Language among the Western Apache) that the place names of indigenous peoples are closely guarded for they are usually associated with sites and stories of moral instruction. “Drink from places,” Apache boys and girls are told. “Then you can work on your mind”.

Shortly before my departure from Lincoln I was generously offered the Salish word, Šiyulex, for inclusion in the work. I have recently learned that on 30th October 2014 Blackfoot Elder, Martin Eagle Child, will visit Lincoln to  pray at House of Sky, to gift the word I hoped for and to dedicate the sculpture park. In light of this great honour and gift I will return to incorporate these words within the work at a future date.

The brief for participating artists at Sculpture in the Wild was open but the symposium’s title implied that our materials would be drawn from the immediate woodland environment. However, I deliberately chose to work with a material – polished stainless steel – that is not only alien to the woodland but discordant with it. The highly industrial material suggests a disconnection with the earth, with our place of origin and habitation.

House of Sky stands on four lodge pole pine trees felled for its making. These have been peeled and blackened with several coats of waste engine oil. Violence and pollution underly both the work and the bright, unhabitable future it represents.

Metaphors apart, the sculpture was shaped by the exigencies of its location, a mixed woodland of ponderosa and lodgepole pine trees with very few open areas or clearings. The verticality of all those tree trunks called for a work that would rise toward the light among them, sharing their reach, drawing the eye and the mind skyward. On the blackened poles, the house seems to float like a jewel among the trees, as changeable as the sky, never the same.







It would not have been possible to have created House of Sky within the time frame without the generous support, skills and physical efforts of many people. My thanks to all involved but especially to Jeff Dawson, Lisa, Mark and Sarah Smith, Steve Woodhouse, Danny Blackgoat, Rick Dunkerly, Marshall Bullis, Wendy Gehring, Cindy  Meiler, Jennifer Thompson, and last but not least, the indomitable Becky Garland.




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