Tippet RiseArt, Nature and Music
Each piece of art is to have its own moment, free of competition.
Tony has one of those trucks that you have to reach up for and climb into, like a child asking to be taken for a piggy back ride. As a passenger inside it, I feel just as small. Between myself and the glowing Montana landscape, there is a long, arching crack in the front windshield. I get the sense that if it were to grow as we rode, finally convincing the glass to shatter entirely, Tony would continue driving just the same, casually dusting the shards off his flannel coat. Ever since my arrival at Boseman Yellowstone International Airport earlier in the afternoon, the light hasn’t stopped changing. Here on the private acreage of Tippet Rise, the sky seems even more unstable. There’s a welcome reception going on where I’m supposed to be mingling with the rest of the guests, but I can’t stop staring out at the manic sky struggling to make up its mind over the 4,500 ha property. Whenever a gap forms in one area of the sky, the sun ambushes it, sending golden rays to climb down to earth. Meanwhile, neighbouring clouds gently release their cargo, leaving a smudge of undried ink in the air.
As I stand dumbly staring at the carousel of dramatic imagery in front of me, the weight of my camera becomes increasingly evident. When my contact, Alison, comes to introduce herself, I ask — perhaps too quickly — if it would be possible to go out on the property there and then. It’s a wrinkle in the itinerary she put together, but how could she deny the beauty so garishly unfolding? I suspect it would become a theme throughout the weekend; me, like a dog scratching at the door after just being let in. ‘Can we go out again? Who knows, the whole world may have changed by now.’
I peer through the windshield at the radiant hills as they roll and stretch to no obvious end. Crossing this vast territory seems, suddenly, an impossible task under the threat of impending darkness. There may be only eight sculptures here, but each hides in the shadows of its own private nook or cranny, miles from its fellows. The privacy is intentional, and a key motivation for choosing this boundless land. Each piece of art is to have its own moment, free of competition. Tony looks at his watch and frowns. “We don’t have long. Let’s go to Domo. It’s close enough, and we can take in a view of Beartooth Portal along the way.”
Both sculptures, by the Madrid based Ensamble Studio, are cast from concrete moulds packed tightly with Montana earth, and finished to look naturally occurring, albeit mysteriously so – an intersection of art, structure, and shelter. As their silhouettes reveal themselves on the horizon, they brood like natural geological formations, only from a world that isn’t quite our own. Tony pulls over near Domo, the larger of the installations. I hop out and make my way closer. The wind was a mere suggestion down at the reception in the barn, but up here in the hills, it’s a noisy, billowing presence. A smattering of raindrops volley unpredictably in the breeze, as if conducted by a drunken maestro. The land is immense and unpopulated. Domo’s poise feels post apocalyptic, as though I’ve been walking for weeks searching for life, and this cryptic structure is the closest I’ve come to it. If I slump exhausted against its walls, I bet I’d wake to a gang of curious nomads, jabbing me with sticks. I look up. Soon enough, the sky will be black, and the outlines of the structures will blend into the night. For now, though, the clouds swell with the evening’s finale of colour.
Gravel crunches satisfyingly under the tyres as we make our way back down through the hills. Tony slows to a crawl to make way for a couple of cows, who mosey into the path and stop, staring over at us. Their jaws casually saw away at the golden grass. The novelty of such a moment clearly holds little weight for Tony. He honks the horn subtly and whispers, “They always stop right where they shouldn’t. What are they looking at?” The cows continue to stare, and chew a few more times, unimpressed, before eventually making their casual way to the other side of the path. The final stretch back to the Tippet Rise welcome centre is long and straight. To our left is Daydreams, a replica vintage schoolhouse-turned-sculpture by Patrick Dougherty. It sports coiled branches that combine to create large, wooden tornadoes crawling along the sides, through its roof, and down to the classroom inside. As we approach the Olivier Music Barn, a warm glow within emanates over empty music stands, and tiered seating anxiously awaits weekend audiences. Beyond it, we can see the guests we previously abandoned still swirling inside Will’s Shed, Tippet Rise’s new dining and gathering area, refilling their plates and wine glasses. Climbing down from the dusty truck, we make our way inside to grab a plate of our own.
Cathy and Peter Halstead, Tippet Rise’s founders, are a magnetic presence as they bounce around the room, quickly engrossed in each conversation they encounter. Cathy’s buoyant, curly, white hair dances as she walks, mirroring her playful energy. Peter’s weathered bucket hat – a trademark of sorts that I recognise from photos of him – shelters his thin-framed glasses. A welcoming smile is embedded in his tidy, white beard. It’s obvious they’re energised by the prospect of the weekend ahead – and by the many weekends to follow. Tippet Rise lays claim to being the largest sculpture park in the world in terms of surface area, but it has also become a place of pilgrimage for enthusiasts and performers of classical music. It’s not just the mere presence of these two art forms, but rather the thoughtfulness and care with which they coexist, that represents the apogee of the Halsteads’ lifelong pursuits.
The Olivier Music Barn, positioned across a short path from Will’s Shed, has been deliberately designed to absorb music in the purest way possible. Every five or six years over the last few decades, the Halsteads have opened a new recording studio, each representing a deepening in their knowledge of capturing pristine sound. Not only have they kept up with every innovation in recording technology, they have also studied every instrument’s wavelength, figuring out how wide, how long, and how tall a room should be in order to hear the complete expression of a note. Their pride in the state of the art equipment in Olivier Barn strikes me, at first, as somewhat antithetical to what I had imagined Tippet Rise to be – a natural oasis, free of the shackles of technology and modernity – but I consider a moment further, and realise it’s fully in character. It’s simply their earnest attempt at sharing the experiences in their lives that have meant the most to them. Such as the first time Peter heard his former piano teacher, Russell Sherman, perform Beethoven. Or the journey the Halsteads took to TICKON, a sculpture park on Langeland island in Denmark. The way the music is performed and captured at Tippet Rise, and the way the sculptures coexist with this infinite, alien land, are both part of a deliberate and studied attempt to give art the stage it has earned.
Plate in hand, I find room at a table where Cathy Halstead is chatting with Mark Niccio, a clarinet player and member of a wind ensemble playing over the weekend. They’re bonding over their respective relationships with the state of Colorado; Mark is a native, while Cathy and Peter have their personal residence in Vail. The Halsteads initially looked into land in Colorado as a home for Tippet Rise before settling on Montana.
“Colorado is stunning in a grand and obvious way,” Cathy says. “Majestic beyond debate.” But when she moves on to describe the Montana landscape, she focusses less on what she sees, and more on what she feels. “Here in Montana, there’s a heaviness to the land. The manner in which it weighs on you, the endlessness of it; it can feel sombre, it can feel sad.” It’s an interesting way to describe something you’re paying homage to, but I immediately understand what she means. Just moments ago, it seemed, I had been standing amongst those hills while the sky above me wept. It’s a feeling brought about not only in the presence of nature, but also one that is triggered by art or music. Cathy calls it a ‘sad joy’. The two words directly contradict each other, but it’s an expression anybody can relate to. It’s one that’s deeply human. Perhaps, I consider as the darkness finally captures the hills around us, it’s a feeling that comes when you experience something so grand, you can’t tell whether its shedding light on your potential, or your triviality.
- Words and Photos: Matthew Johnson