Four miles north of the Interstate 90 exit to Helena, a few dark dots can be spied along the ridge of a distant hilltop. Drive a bit farther and the dots begin to take shape. Closer still, and the shapes take form. Horses. Grouped and gathered. Fenceless and wild. Sentinels, dark against a deepening cobalt sky.
Jim Dolan’s 39 steel Bleu Horses are an arresting sight, a gift to the people of Montana and the manifestation of a promise he made 48 years ago when he was a student at Montana State University.
Dolan came to Montana State in 1966 from California when out-of-state tuition was $180 per quarter more than in-state tuition. That was a high price for Dolan. So, he went before a committee to get that extra tuition waived. When asked by the committee why the university should waive the extra tuition, he answered, “I plan to live here and be an asset to the state of Montana.
“I always knew that someday I’d have a specific project to give back to the people of Montana,” he said. “I decided last year, on my 64th birthday, this is what I would do.”
Dolan arrived at the notion of using horses, not buffalo or antelope, for example, because they appeal to people universally.
“If you go far enough back, all of our families had to work with horses,” he said. “We all have that tie to horses, and I felt wild horses symbolized Montana perfectly.”
It took 15 months and an undisclosed amount of money to build, transport and install the horses along U.S. Highway 287 on Kamp Hill, land owned by Wheat Montana. Dean Folkvord, general manager and CEO of Wheat Montana who is also a graduate of MSU, agreed to the installation and liked the idea of giving back to the people of Montana as much as Dolan did.
“The property isn’t suited to farming, so I felt it was a great opportunity to put it to use,” Folkvord said. “With someone like Jim Dolan doing the art, and if we could provide the landscape for the display, for us it was a good decision.”
Folks have been stopping into Wheat Montana and talking about the horses, creating a kind of buzz that could become contagious.
“There’s been a lot of people hearing about it and coming out to look at it,” Folkvord said. “It’s kind of funny how well it fits in. Jim has really got a good sense for how to group them. And I think people appreciate the value that has been extended to the people of Montana by Jim’s talent.”
Originally, Dolan wanted the horses installed in Ennis, but it wasn’t working out. One day, according to Folkvord, Dolan was sitting in the café having coffee, talking about his idea for the horses.
“I suggested he go look at the land up the road, and within an hour he came back and said it was the perfect spot,” Folkvord said.
Folkvord thinks it actually looks like he designed the horses for that particular spot instead of the other way around.
“Our farms are on 15,000 acres. If we can donate five or 10 acres … Well, that’s a pretty small contribution from our family to improve Montana a little bit.”
Dolan loves the placement of the horses and is grateful to Folkvord and Wheat Montana for allowing him to install his sculptures there.
“I wanted a location where people would see it from both directions,” he said. “The sky lights them up all day, and it’s wild, not fenced in. Best of all, if you look at them from a certain direction, you can see the ridgeline of the Tobacco Roots behind them.”
In another aspect of giving back to the community, Dolan hired Reach (a local, private, nonprofit organization that provides services to adults with developmental disabilities) to help with the horses’ manes and tails.
“I bought 4,000 feet of black polyrope and cut it in two- and three-foot lengths,” he said. “I had the employees at Reach, Inc. unravel the rope to make the tails and manes. They really enjoyed doing it, and when I told them what the ropes were for, they felt like they were involved in something bigger than just the job. So those people, they’re part of this, too.”
Twelve of the horses have bearings in them, so when the wind blows they swivel, black manes moving. One even has another gizmo where the wind makes the horse’s head dip and rise.
“I tried to place the horses the way I see the horses living in their natural environment according to their nature,” Dolan said. “They’re social. They pick who they want to be around.”
There are several groupings: a mare with a colt, a couple of young stallions along the ridgeline waiting for something to happen, a watchful horse overseeing them all.
“They’re not representational,” Dolan said. “They’re symbols of horses and what horses mean to Montanans. But at first sight, I want people to believe they are real horses, just for a second.”
Fellow metal sculptor Gary Bates, whose piece Wind Arc (nicknamed The Noodle) has become emblematic of the Montana State campus, drove out to the site of Bleu Horses and left amazed by it.
Bates likened Bleu Horses to other multiple animal installations that Dolan has done, like the elk in front of First Interstate Bank on Bozeman’s Main Street and College and the flock of geese at Bozeman Yellowstone International Airport.
“I looked at the horses all individually at Jim’s studio, but they really made sense once they were installed,” Bates said. “It’s his best work. There’s something about his instinct for the way animals move and their relationship to each other—that herd culture. At about half a mile away, you’re convinced it’s a herd of horses. It was a triumph taking all the individual elements and making them into a whole.”
Dolan didn’t grow up with art, and he graduated with a master’s degree in agriculture.
“My folks had a ranch, but really art was what I wanted to do,” he said.
He’s already donated four sculptures to the MSU campus, but this project was a little different. It was for everyone in the state, not just the university, and he hopes Bleu Horses will be a catalyst for inspiring others to think about giving back to the people of the state as well.
“Giving is in my nature,” he said. “My great-grandfather built a church in his hometown of Nebraska. It wasn’t gigantic, but it set a precedent for our family.”
After 43 years as a sculptor, he’s made a name for himself, but that’s not the most important thing.
“I can’t believe how blessed I am,” he said. “I’m able to make a living doing what I love.” ■
Photos by MSU photographer Kelly Gorham
Editor’s note: While accompanying MSU Mountains and Minds photographer Kelly Gorham to take the photographs for this article, artist Jim Dolan discovered that three of the horses in his sculptural herd had been rustled. Dolan reported the theft to authorities, and the theft generated national publicity. Two days later they were found in a field south of Townsend by a rancher checking on his cattle. The horses were reinstalled and reinforced quickly after.