Montana State University

College friendship is impetus to proposed MSU Native American Student Center

May 23, 2005 -- by Carol Schmidt, MSU News Service


Artist Jim Dolan, left, and architect Dennis Sun Rhodes, who first met more than 30 years ago in an MSU residence hall, have formed an artistic team that is the driving force behind a proposed new center for Native American students on the MSU campus. MSU photo by Erin Raley.   High-Res Available

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Bozeman -- The seeds of friendship are often sown in the most unlikely of people and so it was for artist Jim Dolan, and architect Dennis Sun Rhodes, who seemed an improbable set of friends when they first met in MSU's Culbertson Hall 35 years ago. Dolan was an affable and artistic sophomore ag-ed major from a ranch outside California's Bay Area and Sun Rhodes was a quiet and ambitious architecture student, a member of the Arapaho tribe from Wyoming's remote Wind River Indian Reservation.

But bond the two did, and the unlikely and fast friendship has developed into an artistic partnership that may help make a dramatic improvement to the MSU campus.

Dolan, a nationally recognized sculptor and artist, and Sun Rhodes, a principal in AmerINDIAN Architecture, a critically praised architectural firm based in St. Paul, Minn., are two of the driving forces behind a new MSU Native American Student Center proposed for the MSU campus.

This winter the Montana Board of Regents approved the proposed building, which is expected to cost between $6-8 million to be raised from private donors. The Montana Legislature this spring approved the university's request that the state provide maintenance and repair for the building, which is slated to be completed in August 2008.

MSU administrators say that the proposed center might not have happened were it not for the vision and drive of the two friends.

"The two MSU alumni and friends have been persistent in pursuing their joint vision of an American Indian Student Center and Sculpture Garden, a vision that is shared by MSU President Geoff Gamble," said Henrietta Mann, noted American Indian Scholar and special assistant to Gamble. "It is a great gift. It will be a culturally appropriate, academic home for all American Indian students, who also pursue their educational dreams at this institution.

"This is a contemporary and traditional give-away tempered with Indian generosity representing the spirit of the first peoples of this great land of 'shining mountains.'"

"We wanted to give back," says Dolan, whose works of welded metal are exhibited in public spaces throughout the world. His works include two of Bozeman's most noted landmarks - the geese flying from the ceiling in the Gallatin Airport and the elk at First Interstate Bank across from the Gallatin Valley Mall. "Montana has been really good to me. I can gratefully give back." Dolan graduated from MSU in 1970 with a degree in agriculture education and a master's in 1971.

"Bozeman is my second home," says Sun Rhodes, who graduated with an MSU degree in architecture in 1972. "I grew up here intellectually. I consider it something special because of that."

The building will reflect gifts and talents of both men. The design concept is based on a similar Native American Studies building that Sun Rhodes designed at Bemidji State University. Sun Rhodes donated the design and plans, eliminating seed money required for an initial proposal. He hopes to work with a Montana architect on the eventual design.

Dolan will design a sculpture garden next to the building and will contribute the garden's first sculpture.

The new building is only the most recent of collaborations for the MSU buddies, who actually met at MSU through a mutual friend, the late Robert Kingfisher of Lame Deer. In the last decade Dolan has designed and executed more than seven large pieces for buildings that Sun Rhodes has designed throughout the country. Dolan is currently working on a sculpture of canoe people for the Odawa Tribe casino in Michigan that will be housed in a casino that AmerINDIAN designed. Dolan is also designing a new line of furniture built of wood and copper tubing that Sun Rhodes is fond of using to furnish his projects.

"Working with Dennis has allowed me to be free to do a lot of different things with my art," Dolan said. "He forced me to think differently. It changed my work."

"I've never compromised in my design," said Sun Rhodes, whose work is marked by the symbols and meaning in the Native culture. For example, he is recommending that the great room in the MSU Native American Studies building be round, to reflect the importance of the circle in the Plains Tribes that historically lived in the area. He also recommends a mural that represents the history all of the tribes that once called the Gallatin Valley Home.

The two say that the partnership is all the more valuable because they had lost contact with each other for many years after finishing at MSU. Sun Rhodes first worked for a firm in North Dakota then moved on to a firm in Minneapolis, where his award-winning designs began to draw national notice. He moved back to the Wind River for eight years to serve as a member of council of the Northern Arapahoe Tribe, thinking that he would continue his practice from his home near Ethete.

"I never meant to leave architecture forever," Sun Rhodes said. "My intention was to resolve some of the enrollment guidelines for my tribe. But the move brought my career to a halt." A request by a client resulted in his return to Minneapolis 1992 to found AmerINDIAN, a firm of 14 people that has taken off with Indian and non-Indian projects throughout the country.

About a dozen years ago, Dolan was in Wyoming and thought he'd look up his old college friend.

"I just had wanted to see him so I went down to Lander and called Dennis' grandmother," Dolan recalls. "I'd learned we were both just trying to make a living, 300 miles apart."

"He was doing his art work by then and I could see he was way better than the average sculptor doing Western art bronzes," Sun Rhodes said. "I needed a sculptor to do some work for projects. We had a second meeting and hit it off."

Sun Rhodes adds that his and Dolan's collaboration is really a return to a classic relationship.

"Art integrated into architecture design is a great tool that I like to employ to make a project special," Sun Rhodes said. "It's really a return to a traditional relationship. In the old days, architects had artisans who traveled with them on their project. I think Jim and I have rediscovered that aspect in our work."

The Dolan-Sun Rhodes collaboration will provide a great impetus for the future students of the university, MSU Native Studies officials say.

"The Native American Student Center sends a message that native students belong on campus and are a part of the university community," said Walter Fleming, chair of the MSU Center for Native American Studies. "It represents a permanent and visible presence of native people and culture at MSU. Plus, the sculpture garden that will be designed by Jim will attract people to the building to appreciate the art and for quiet contemplation."

Contact: Walter Fleming (406) 994-3881