Tippet Rise is bringing large-scale art and live music to a massive expanse in Big Sky Country.
By Rachel Syme
Photos by Alexis Pike
May 2, 2016
In 1967, working as a box boy at the IGA store in Absarokee, Montana, Jim Baken helped a 67-year-old woman carry a bag of groceries to her car. He remembered her, he would later tell the Billings Gazette, because she was a Johnson woman, one of three “eccentric” unmarried sisters who lived together on a 6,000-acre ranch. They inherited the ranch from their parents, Albert and Irene, Norwegian immigrants who had come to settle on the banks of the Stillwater River after winning a patented land claim from congress in 1897. Like all homesteaders who had only ever experienced the vastness of the West in their minds, the Johnsons arrived expecting an arable Arcadia, full of milkweed and honeycomb.
They expected the land to open itself up to its new owners with gentle give, like chicken falling from the bone. Instead, they found that their land was designed by an invisible hand to repel them, set on a tectonic rise that caused water to flow underneath instead of over the property when it rained. And it always rained. Montana has one of the most fickle environments on Earth; in the winter, blizzards can arrive without announcement and bring everything to a sudden halt. The spring is all water and wind, often working in tandem, so that storms become weaponized, high-speed gusts rattling windows and licking the shingles off barn roofs with a sandpaper tongue. The airless summer heat on the Stillwater rise cooks the dirt to a caramel color, the crickets sing so loudly it sounds like a fire alarm. The Johnsons had no idea what they were in for.
Montana is a one-two punch: the beauty overwhelms, the pain comes later. The empty West is, as writer Gretel Ehrlich put it, a “geography of possibility,” and there are prices to pay for all of that unchecked, untapped potential. The open space gives its inhabitants the gift of hope, the ability to see constellations, the first morning light over a ridge blanketed in wildflowers, the perpetual chance of a new crop, a new run of trout in the river. But in exchange it also takes. It demands toughness, lonesomeness, the feeling of being infinitesimal. A ranch hand told Ehrlich that the West is “all a bunch of nothing—wind and rattlesnakes—and so much of it you can’t tell where you are going or where you’ve been and it don’t make much of a difference.” Montana offers revelations but bargains hard for your sanity; days melt into nights which melt into strange visions. When I was up on the Johnson rise, alone at night, I thought I saw a silver wolf skulking outside my window, waiting for me. In the morning, it turned out to be a chrome gas grill. I understand why the Johnson sisters might have wanted to stick together, using each others’ bodies and minds as beacons of reality out on the ranch, surrounded by miles and miles of no one else. But I also understand how this decision turned them into Absarokee folk tales. Three women up there, by themselves, bracing against the elements, wearing men’s overalls. The kind of women you remember when you bag their groceries.
I came to visit the Johnson ranch, outside the town of Fishtail, in March, because it is becoming something different now, something completely new. For the first time since the Johnsons took over the deed 120 years ago, the public will get the chance to walk the land. This summer, the Johnson property, along with the remaining parcels of a few other family ranches, opens to the public as Tippet Rise, an 11,500-acre “arts center” dedicated to the intersection between visual art, music, and the land. If this description sounds vague, that is because Tippet Rise began as a vague, shimmering dream in the mind of its benefactors, philanthropists Peter and Cathy Halstead. The Halsteads, whose fortunes come from a legacy of American entrepreneurism (Cathy’s father was the billionaire alcohol magnate Sidney Frank, famous for importing Jägermeister and dreaming up Grey Goose vodka; Peter comes from a line of bank chairmen and oil executives), searched across the country for a patch of land big enough to accommodate their vision—an immense refuge for art and classical music in the middle of nowhere. Peter is a classical pianist who collects Steinways and has traveled to the great concert halls of the world in search of nirvana in the form of perfectly calibrated acoustics. Cathy is a painter who fell deeply in love with the idea of hulking, grandiose sculptures jutting out of unexpected settings. “Tippet Rise is the dream we’ve been dreaming for so many decades,” Cathy tells me. “Art and music were deeply in us even before the two of us were together.”
The Halsteads looked at Colorado, and then Hawaii. But they were waiting to feel the magic they felt when they stepped onto the Johnson property. “We thought of every beautiful place in the world we had been,” she says. “But we were looking for that place where we could feel it in every cell of our bodies.”
“We wanted rolling hills,” Peter adds. “We wanted them usable for walking, hiding pieces of art. This land for us has become a metaphor, a sourcebook. We wanted to build a space where a person could have an overwhelming experience with art, if they chose to make the journey.”
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The poignancy of building a new sanctuary dedicated to the private experience of art on the very place where the Johnson ranch stood cannot be lost on the people of Stillwater County, who now know that Isabelle Johnson, the old woman from the grocery store, was one of Montana’s most significant painters of desolate landscapes. They only know this now, because for the most part, up until her death, which ended the Johnson bloodline, in 1992, she worked quietly and alone, choosing to put the backbreaking work of tilling the land ahead of shopping her en plein air watercolors to the great museums of the world. But she had been exposed to great art, and also to the world. Albert and Irene Johnson ensured that all four of their children went to college, that they all had an escape route. They knew that sometimes what allows people to embrace their origin story is a chance to leave it all behind.
This priority already made the Johnson family sui generis; most homesteading families who make it past their first season remain rooted in place for generations. Isabelle, however, was given the freedom to roam. She went first to New York City, where she earned a master’s degree in history from Columbia. She returned to Montana to teach high school in Billings, but spent her summers studying art in distant locales—Los Angeles, Paris, Rome, the bohemian Skowhegan School in Maine. When she started painting in earnest in her 30s, she decided that her main subject would be, and should be, none other than her family’s ranch. It contained more than enough material: the story of hard work, of immigrant hopes, of excess beauty, and of crushing solitude. She painted trees the way Cezanne painted fruit—each cottonwood had its own little life story of graceful decay. Her trees bend and bow against a lavender sky. One critic wrote that Isabelle’s trees “seem to dance with life, even though bare of leaves.” Johnson once said that the artist’s life, at least the way she lived it, was a “lonely business.”
Johnson taught art at MSU Billings from 1949 to 1961, rising to become the head of the department when women were barely breaking into academic life. But she chose to retire early, at 61, in order to live out her final act on the ranch with Grace and Pearl. She lived another 30 years, out there with her sisters, spending every moment she wasn’t turning the soil turning their lives into art. She passed away at 91, leaving her land to the Montana State University Foundation for educational purposes. Eventually, the foundation sold it to a couple with money who promised to uphold the legacy of those who had walked on the fields before. They were outsiders, but they promised that they felt electric connection to the property—the same magnetic pull that had brought Isabelle back from Europe every summer.
In November of last year, the Halsteads underwrote the largest-ever exhibition of Isabelle Johnson’s work at the Yellowstone Art Museum in Billings. The museum showed 63 of her paintings, journals, and sketches, as well as the phonograph that was in her studio when she died. They commissioned a new essay collection re-appraising her work. Peter Halstead wrote in the book, “Not much has happened to Fishtail. But what really happened to Fishtail was that Isabelle Johnson went to Paris. She went to New York and Rome. And she brought home the light from distant worlds.” One must believe that Halstead sensed the irony of his own project, which aims to bring more than just light from distant worlds to the spot where Isabelle once lived. He wants to bring in major art, musicians, audiences.
Yet the aim of Tippet Rise—and this is still the part that might be difficult to wrap one’s head around—is to never feel like a mass tourist destination. The Halsteads built it two hours from anywhere for just this reason. They even want to limit the number of visitors that can walk around at any given time to 100 per day, so that it might be possible to be alone on the ranch with no one around you for miles. They have created—the way only truly unfettered philanthropic sums can—a space for privacy, where a person can go to feel like a solitary dancing tree. Montana locals know that this kind of peaceful contemplation comes at a price if you want to stay too long, that the land challenges and threatens settlers as much as it embraces them. Visitors who come will get to see the same landscapes that Isabelle Johnson did, but without any resentment or heartache. Tippet Rise turns Isabelle’s idea of the lonely business of art in the Montana high country into an art business that traffics in precious loneliness.
Tippet Rise is an ever-evolving idea, one that will keep expanding and refining its definition over time. Every single person I asked about the center gave me a different answer as to what, exactly, it was meant to be. But the basic idea is that it’s the world’s biggest sculpture park, which will also feature a world-class concert hall in the shape of a larch-frame barn designed by Laura Viklund of Gunnstock Timber Frames, a state-of-the-art recording studio, and several small cabins where visiting artists can stay. The concert barn will host some of the world’s best classical musicians when it opens on June 17; some will also play pieces out on the land among the sculptures. Visitors, who are expected to be both locals and those who come from great distances, will be encouraged to take long hikes and go exploring. There are no rules except to be curious, able-bodied, and interested in the collision of art, music, and nature in a setting so unworldly and surprising that it can feel like the surface of the moon. Concerts will only cost $10—and be free for anyone under 18—emphasizing the “non” in the Halsteads’ non-profit endeavor.
The property, which visitors can enter by driving 15 minutes outside of Fishtail, which itself is 65 miles southwest of Billings, is primarily self-sustaining. Over the past five years of development, contractors have built systems that harness that land’s geothermal and solar energy for power (the energy-storage facility is built underground, like a bunker, and then hidden from view to blend into the landscape). When visitors arrive at Tippet Rise, they will be chauffeured around to the sculptures in carbon-neutral electric vans. There is no traditional restaurant on site, but instead the food will be catered every day from a cherry-red food truck run by Nick Goldman and Wendi Reed, a married couple who used to own a quaint yellow bed-and-breakfast in Absarokee. Tippet Rise will also remain a fully working ranch—a veteran Montana rancher named Ben Wynthein has come in to oversee the animal population and to finally remedy the Johnson plot’s age-old water problem; he is digging deep wells into the earth’s crust to tap into buried water and make the land fertile again. He will allow herds of sheep and cattle to roam and graze freely on the property all summer long.
But what visitors will come from all over to see, the bold aesthetic gamble and true allure of the place, is the sculpture collection. Tippet Rise will open with nine pieces, with the intention to collect more every year. The sculptures, which sit miles apart from each other, are all mammoth in size—the tallest is 60 feet high, the longest is 100 feet across—but because of their placement in such an epic panorama, they can also look in danger of being swallowed up by the earth. This is the trick Montana plays with scale: Nothing feels big enough to contend with it. Instead, artworks so massive that they would not fit inside most museums look like toys the mountains have decided to play with. They don’t compete with the land; they give into it. In Montana, ego has little currency. Toughness has more value than bravado, instinct has more application than intellect. This creates nothing if not an interesting tension in which to showcase art, and particularly some of the largest artworks in the world.
Take Mark di Suvero’s “Proverb,” the tallest sculpture on the Tippet Rise property. It is a minimalist tower of Cor-Ten steel three stories tall, painted neon red, with a colossal silver pendulum hanging in the center. It is tucked into a canyon, and you can only view it if you drive 20 minutes from the entrance. “Proverb” was the crowning centerpiece of the Dallas Arts District, but doesn’t loudly announce itself in its new Montana setting. Instead, it playfully speaks to the cliffs on either side of it, looking like a landmark from the alien future. Near it, a rusted iron plow from the 1840s melts back into the land—Tippet Rise is full of artifacts of past inhabitants—a kind of cosmic joke that no metal thing can last forever in Montana. The sculpture, so formidible in Dallas, looks almost fragile here, like it will one day turn to dust.
“Do you think we’re crazy?” This is what Alban Bassuet asks me on our second day out on the rise, visiting three sculptures that a sudden snowstorm had kept us from the day before. Bassuet is the director of Tippet Rise, which means that he makes almost all the decisions—he, along with the Halsteads, picked the sculptors, the architect, the landscape designers, the contractors, the rust siding for the concert barn, and the placement of each artwork on the property. He liaises with construction workers and artists, local skeptics and international patrons, and now, the press. He is exceedingly charming—a Frenchman in his 40s with a heavy accent and the cool air of Belmondo, stomping around the ranch in a leather bomber jacket and aviator sunglasses.
A casting director could not have picked a better character to drop into the center of the Tippet Rise story—he comes from the Loire Valley, but spent most of his young life working in New York City for Arup, a design group that specializes in concert halls (he has built more than 200, he will often let you know). A trained classical pianist, Bassuet is a master of aural architecture, which is why the Halsteads called him in 2010 to consult on how someone might build a world-class music venue in rural Montana. He found the project intriguing, and put it on his long list of future developments. What Bassuet didn’t know is that Montana would pull him in completely. After only a few years of sketching out the idea, Bassuet decided to leave New York behind and move his wife and child to a small town outside Billings, devoting himself to Tippet Rise full time. “Montana does this thing. It gets inside of you,” he says. “I knew I would move here the first night. I laid down on the grass and looked up, and I knew.”
Bassuet talks about Tippet Rise in grand terms, about the redemptive qualities of art and music, about how they can make us feel whole. He talks about the land as if it was a temple, a place you must venture to out of some sacred compulsion. “To get here, you have to really want to get here,” he says. “It’s supposed to feel like a gradual leaving of the world.”
I was warned about Montana’s gravitational pull by Katy Martin, the plucky woman who owns the Fishtail General Store, the most booming business in town (population: 405). Within one day of my arrival, she was calling me “Rach” and offering to hand-deliver my postcards to the nearest post office. “Be careful,” she told me. “This place draws people in like a trap.” She’s not wrong: Montana is the kind of place that immediately makes you question your entire life and why you’re not spending it prowling free across the plains, growing strong and tan and weathered.
Some of the locals in town are not sure how to approach Tippet Rise and all of the new roads the Halsteads and Bassuet are carving into the hillsides. “Not everyone understands what we are doing,” Bassuet says. “We’ve spent a long time explaining this place to the community, and engaging the locals. We have brought many school children here to visit the sculptures and hear concerts. Look, this is our private property. The Halsteads own it, and we can do what we want with it. But the locals are important to me. If I have learned one thing, it’s that an art center is never really successful until its become vital to its community.”
He continues, “This project is hard to understand, because it’s unusual. It would be unusual anywhere in the world, but especially here. We hear some people saying, well, Montana has been like this forever, why do you want to change it? But of course, that idea is controversial. What Montana are they talking about? Settlers have been here 200 years, but Native Americans were here long before that. This was Native territory, then it turned into homesteads. And I think we are paying homage to that pioneering spirit, working with and not against the land.”
How local Montanans will respond to Tippet Rise when it opens and how many people will come from far-flung places to view the art remains to be seen. Bassuet has big hopes for the first season, especially as he is so proud of the site-specific art installations that one cannot see anywhere else.
The first piece built at Tippet Rise, which is also the first piece visitors see, is called “Daydreams,” a model of an 1840s schoolhouse that sculptor Patrick Dougherty covered inside and out with giant gnarled masses of twigs. The building looks like it is being attacked by nefarious trees (it is no coincidence that the schoolhouse sits only feet away from where Isabelle Johnson painted).
Visitors can glimpse “Daydreams” from the music barn, but the rest of the pieces require exploration, venturing out into the emptiness. Some of the sculptures are five miles apart. Some are tucked inside canyons. Some stand out on top of ridges in the distance. After “Daydreams,” a short drive leads to “Satellite No. 5 Pioneer,” by Stephen Talasnick, a hollow jungle-gym stucture nestled inside a soft bluff. This is one of Talasnick’s “nomadic wooden structures” (the first of three), inspired by the 1960s space probe project. Afterwards, visitors can venture to see three concrete pieces from Ensamble Studio, scattered miles apart higher up on the rise. Ensamble, a Spanish architecture firm with an office in Boston, made three works that blur the lines between sculpture and structure. The two “portals”—each made of giant slabs of concrete that were first poured into holes in the earth and then propped against one another using the largest crane in Montana—create picture frames through which to view faraway mountains. Their largest piece, “Domo,” is almost 100 feet long and will be a kind of cement tent, an above-ground system of crags and crannies. Bassuet says that musicians will play concerts inside the portals and underneath “Domo”; he also suspects that sheep will gather at these pieces to sleep in the shade. I tell him they look a little bit like a 2016 version of Stonehenge.
“Ah, well, yes,” he says, “We have talked about that a few times. These are markers of the edge of consciousness. Maybe people will encounter these in 100 years and wonder how they got here.”
The only music I wanted to listen to when I was in Montana was Mark Isham’s score for A River Runs Through It, a romantic ode to the state’s big rivers full of fiddles and mournful flute. Somehow it just felt right. I played it on Highway 78, the small back road that leads to and away from Tippet Rise, and I kept thinking about the last words in Norman Maclean’s book: “Under the rocks are the words, and some of the words are theirs. I am haunted by waters.”
Montana feels like a very haunted place. Even in Bozeman, you get the sense that the stories of that mining town go way back and the ghosts have no intention of being quiet about it. In Livingston, a small town I stopped in on my way to Fishtail, I stayed at the Murray Hotel, which has the distinct feel of The Shining. A desk clerk must take guests upstairs via a rickety manual elevator, and as I got off on my floor late at night, the old man on duty told me that my room was indeed full of spirits. Five minutes later, sitting stick straight-up in bed with all the lights on, I got a call. It was the clerk, saying that he was just joking. “In fact,” he said to me. “The actress Michelle Williams just stayed in the room for six weeks doing a movie. If your room is haunted, she didn’t complain about it.”
I barely slept that night, not because I felt a ghost, but because the wind was so loud it turned the windows into subway grates. When I think about women like Isabelle Johnson and her sisters, I wonder how they slept through the howling. After visiting Tippet Rise, though, I also understand how. Montana requires a surrender to the elements, and if you’re lucky, you’ll get to join them one day. Isabelle Johnson is everywhere at Tippet Rise, even as it becomes something new. Under some of the rocks there, even the hulking manmade ones made of concrete, are her words.