Art of the State: Montana artists well represented in museum’s permanent collection
By Kelsey Dayton
Every work of art in the Montana Museum of Art and Culture’s 11,000- piece collection has a story.
Sometimes the stories are obvious and told in paint. Sometimes they are hidden, secured in history and legend. Sometimes the story is about the sculpture. Sometimes it is about the sculptor.
But when the best of the collection comes together it tells the stories of the histories of the museum, art and Montana.
To celebrate its 120th anniversary, the Montana Museum of Art and Culture is featuring an exhibit of 120 pieces from its permanent collection. Paintings, prints, ceramics, photography and tapestries, as well as traditional and contemporary Native American art and Southeast Asian textiles, are on display in the anniversary exhibit.
The show, divided into two galleries on the University of Montana’s campus, is meant to be a global experience, said Barbara Koostra, director of the museum.
Brandon Reintjes, museum curator, selected works that showcase the diversity of the permanent collection, along with works important to the museum.
MMAC is hosting a series of special events to celebrate the permanent collection’s 120th anniversary
Art of the State: Celebrating 120 years of the MMAC Permanent Collection
Show hangs through May 23 in the Paxson and Meloy Galleries in the Performing Arts and Radio/Television Center at the University of Montana. The museum is open to the public during the academic year from noon to 3 p.m. Tuesday, Wednesday and Saturday and noon to 6 p.m. Thursday and Friday with a $5 donation. For more information call 406-243-2019 or visit http://www.umt.edu/montanamuseum.
- Free talk ““Predilections and Possibilities: the Virtues of a Teaching Collection” by art history and criticism professor Rafael Chacon 7 p.m. March 3 at the Performing Arts and Radio/Television Center at the University of Montana.
- Family treasure hunt day 1 to 3 p.m. March 7 in the lobby of the Performing Arts and Radio/Television Center at the University of Montana.
- Docent tour of the exhibit focusing on European and American masterworks, 5:30 to 6:30 p.m. March 19.
- Display of two tapestries 7 p.m. March 19 in the Masquer Theater at the Performing Arts and Radio/Television Center at the University of Montana
- Docent tour of the exhibit focusing on contemporary and modern art 5:30 to 6:30 p.m. April 9.
- Family treasure hunt day 1 to 3 p.m. May 2 in the lobby of the Performing Arts and Radio/Television Center at the University of Montana.
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Homegrown Guitars: Pieces of Montana provide perfect instrument material
By CORY WALSH
Photos by KURT WILSON
To build instruments that reflect a sense of place, Sean Kochel hunts down the materials other people are casting aside.
The wood from a barn a farmer planned to burn down. Refuse most hikers would ignore, such as spent ammunition and elk bones.
He knows there’s a surfeit of guitar-makers out there, and the vintage Montana look these materials provide helps the Potomac resident stand apart in the crowded marketplace.
“I was trying to stay with this Montana image – with Montana being kind of rustic” he said.
He doesn’t want his guitars to look too pretty, and doesn’t spend hours on a sparkly finish.
- View a video of musician Lou Shields playing a Kochel Guitar
Take one of his electric resonator models, which appears to have been squirreled away “in someone’s basement for 100 years,” he said.
The body and the neck are hand-crafted from wood he salvaged while tearing down an 1864 barn at the far end of the valley.
He’s collected an entire stack of reclaimed boards in his shop.
The Shelby native has used wood from torn down buildings in Toole, Pondera and Glacier counties, such as a 1903 commercial dairy in Cut Bank or a dilapidated 1895 railroad icehouse in Conrad.
Kochel saved the galvanized metal used to patch the barn to craft the pickguards. To accentuate the already weathered look, he rubs the scraps raw and pours acid on them, resulting in a rusted finish ribboned with bright oily tones that contrasts with the aged metal.
The nut, the small strip that separates the neck from the headstock, is carved from Rocky Mountain elk bone.
“When I first started doing this I saved all the bones when I went hunting. I boil ‘em up and then cut ‘em up,” he said, and then shapes them into an instrument-ready form.
The eye-catching tone and volume knobs originated with a special request from Josh Peyton, who leads an Indiana roots trio called Reverend Peyton’s Big Damn Band.
The Reverend didn’t want standard knobs, which are typically utilitarian plastic or metal parts.
He wanted shotgun shells.
“Once people saw that, everybody wanted it,” Kochel said. It’s been standard on all of his designs since.
The frets, too, are marked not by ivory inlays, but the ends of spent ammunition.
He fires off those shotgun rounds himself. After all, the full-time, 60-instrument-a-year Kochel outfit is a one-man operation.
“From tearing it down to ripping the stinky elk hide off the bone,” he said.
He’s collected old beer cans from Highlander, Carlsberg and the like and makes them into old-school, dirty blues microphones.
There are limits to the Montana-made aspect. He works with Rio Grande, a high-end boutique pickup company in Texas.
Lately, he’s been using resonators from a defunct Tennessee factory owned by Dobro legend Tut Taylor.
However, Kochel recently bought a computer-controlled cutting machine, which will enable him to cut reclaimed metal into his own intricate designs.
Kochel has a handful of standard models, but each instrument is made to order with customized options available.
He has a Telecaster-like design, although the artificially aged finish looks striking compared to a glossy new factory Fender. To further stand out, he makes a resonator model as well.
The Tele, which he calls the “406,” has been a hit with customers in England, who’ve inquired about the area-code marker on the pickguard – he likes to tell them it’s the brand of Montana.
Kochel has many overseas customers – Italy, Germany, Australia and New Zealand – far-flung places that are home to many roots music fanatics – blues fans that can rattle off obscure trivia about their genre of choice.
“They have this admiration and knowledge that I think most Americans don’t seem to have,” he said.
He also makes acoustics, which are more time-consuming, and more obscure instruments such as a banjo uke, a hybrid instrument that has the scale and strings of a ukulele with the body, neck and tuning of banjo.
He said the instrument was popular in the vaudeville era, and disappeared along with it.
Kochel inherited his love of history from his father, Larry Kochel, who worked for Montana Power Co. for 35 years.
When Larry passed away in 2004, Sean took refuge in history-related, process-heavy hobbies. He taught himself the exhaustive techniques of wet-plate collodion photography – both he and his father admired the photos of Darius Kinsey, who documented Northwest loggers at their remote worksites. Kochel taught himself the archival process and he has since led classes on the art form, which can take 20 minutes to make a photograph.
He’d carved wood since he was young. When he’d mentioned that he wanted to start making guitars, his brother Rian forwarded him an email about cigar-box models.
After early success selling guitars at Missoula farmers market, he worked his way up to a production level of 60-some per year.
As more guitar-makers flooded the market with cigar-box models, Kochel decided to branch out into full-fledged six-strings.
Using old blueprints, online tutorials and much trial and error, he honed his craft to the axes he makes today. He estimates he’s built 1,700 guitars to date.
Through his regular booth at the Saturday art market and his website, the instruments have caught the attention of touring musicians who want a rootsy sound and visual sensibility.
Artist and blues musician Lou Shields picked up a cigar-box guitar at the market when a tour brought him through Missoula.
“Kochel Guitars hit all of my senses at the same time,” Shields said. “As a visual artist, I was first taken by the look and feel of his guitars and his inspiring designs.”
The musician was tired of “cookie-cutter” designs and rigs built overseas, and Kochel represented the direct opposite.
Then there was the sound: “vintage, dusty, earthy and doggone good,” a match for the roots and pre-war blues Shields favors.
He’s taken it all across the United States and used it on studio recordings.
Peyton, meanwhile, is a self-described guitar obsessive who happened upon Kochel’s work online.
He had his six-string custom-built with a few special requirements, such as a neck the size of “baseball bat” that could accommodate unusually heavy .016-gauge strings.
“Kochel did a great job making sure that it had all the things I wanted, and it was customized with things that really make it feel like mine,” he said.
“That comes across to me in the mojo of the thing,” he said. “I truly love it.”
Peyton takes his Kochel guitar on the road with him – including gigs across the United States, Canada and Europe, and played it on several tunes for the Indiana trio’s latest recording, “So Delicious,” which was released in February 2014 on Yazoo Records.
In addition to the sound, there’s the look.
He said it’s as much of a piece of “folk art as it is an instrument.”
And like all folk art, it’s tied to a particular time and place, down to the barn wood maple.
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