Gillian Harper

Gillian Harper, a sculptor who works with found objects, is a resident artist at Home ReSource. 

To a sculptor who works with found objects and is worried about the environment, Home ReSource can be a sculpture garden.

They’ve “created this ability to keep things out of the landfill, which I think is a creative solution to some of the issues that we're facing,” Gillian Harper said.

For the past five weeks, she’s been the resident artist at the nonprofit materials resource center, where she has a studio space upstairs and access to all of the recycled building materials you could hope for.

“I don't think I could make anything without having this environmental focus now,” she said. It’s a way of “combining my concerns with my practice.”

The site’s huge selection of recycled doors, some with appealing vintage window designs, will go toward a landscape photography project. She’s designed a model for a life-size figurative sculpture with roots and branch motifs, and fleshed out ideas for a river-themed project involving falling water.

Harper, a candidate for a master of fine arts degree at Louisiana State University, has visited Montana before and was searching for residencies when she found one online through Open AIR (Artist in Residence).

The nonprofit places artists at locations and with hosts like Home ReSource in Missoula this month. In July, another round of artists will arrive at sites to create work free from the distractions of day-to-day life, and also immerse themselves in the particulars of their site, including ones in the broader area. They’ll give artist talks and tours of the sites that are free and open to anyone.

Besides Montana being a draw, it helped that Open AIR provided a stipend — five weeks is a long time for a student to go without income, Harper said — and arranged a house where she has been able to stay with other artists who also have an environmental leaning in their work.

She applied for Home ReSource because of a minor “artist crisis” in her work.

Her primary medium is sculpture incorporating found objects. She would “break apart old cast-iron tubs and melt them down,” she said. She and a collaborator built a furnace for their casting work, using scrap aluminum donated from LSU construction projects.

That process is a form of recycling, and Harper says casting is “an amazing art form” in terms of preservation, leaving behind “relics for future generations.” But it’s also not very energy efficient, which has become a concern for her and others in the iron community.

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'Play every day'

Part of the purpose of the residencies is to give artists time away from the demands of day to day life and work and lay the groundwork for future projects.

As a sculptor, Harper often feels pressure to physically produce a small piece by the end of a residency, but having “the chance to narrow down the thousands of things running through your head can be just as helpful or even better than having one little sculpture made,” she said.

While here, she’s creating a smaller-scale maquette of a figurative sculpture — an upright body formed from branching roots, with yet more branches sprouting upward in place of its head. (She welded it on campus through an arrangement with the University of Montana School of Art.) She imagines the completed piece would be life-size, and the plant species on the brand will reach out over the viewer.

She’s spent much time on research — her studio has stacks of books like “The Well Gardened Mind,” and “The Sculptural Imagination,” along with printouts and photographs of the human circulatory system and the watersheds of the United States. She’s especially curious about how the Missouri River eventually flows down from Montana to the Mississippi and the Gulf Coast, where she’s from. She’s made small assemblage sculptures, too, out of plants and woodblocks from the center’s burn pile. Those are just working out visual ideas and nothing more — a break from conceptual problems.

“The best part of your job as an artist is you get to go into the studio and play every day,” she said, adding that “sometimes you just need a little reminder, so to make some stuff that doesn't mean anything is really helpful.”

Another potential project is based on the idea of the “atmospheric river,” or the water content of the air around us, and the river systems in the U.S. She’s still thinking about the geographic scope and engineering, but she thinks one could visualize the concept through a metal plate cut with a silhouette of the river system. It could be hung from a ceiling and water could flow through and fall onto a platform in the shape of the river. LSU has a fabrication lab and sculpture professors that can help her work details about its design and construction.

About those doors — they’re all different colors at the moment, with varying styles. But the size of the glass in the door ranges from a full plate to zero, to symbolize the progression of “ideas of creative solutions to get to a point where we’re living sustainably.” She picked six total, to symbolize the eras of mass extinction, including the present one.

She envisions taking them with her on the road and photographing them in different environments, where they can mark a dualism (doors opening or closing), or modern humans’ alienation from nature. It’s not all worked out yet — it’s a residency — but the colors could have different symbolic weight. They could be pinned locations along the river system.

“I put a lot of research into my work and the representation of things,” she said. “And I actually have found that I enjoyed that,” adding that art and time in the studio can be a way to “go into the studio and just play and learn about a totally different subject.”