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Fence Art

People driving down rural roads who see odd metal objects on fence posts probably shouldn't be alarmed. Chances are, they are seeing examples of an art form started by a Havre artist earlier this year - fence art.

Delmer Ruff, who farms and ranches west of Havre, said he noticed a metal sculpture sitting on a fence post on his place one day. Soon he and his family were noticing more, north of Havre, on the way to Great Falls, pieces just popping up here and there.

"So now we kind of look for them," he said. "It's kind of weird but it's good. It doesn't hurt to decorate the country."

The artist is a Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway conductor with a penchant for welding scrap metal into art.

Cory Holmes, who lives on Badland Road northwest of Havre, said he started making his sculptures for fence posts in February or thereabouts. Since then he has made 265 pieces of fence art and put many of them up across the countryside.

"I'm doing it 'cause it's fun," Holmes said. "I get a big kick out of 'em."

The fence art had a more useful purpose in the beginning, he said. A massive piece of uncompleted art, a life-size bison, takes up much of the floor space in his workshop. Holmes said the bison is the first of three pieces he was commissioned to make for the Town Square park on First Street in Havre.

He had to clear a space to work on the bison, and "I found myself filled with scrap iron I couldn't bear to part with," Holmes said. "And yet I had to make room in my shop."

So, "Voila," he said, fence art was born.

The fence sculptures cover a wide range of subjects: people, animals, insects, abstract and impressionist pieces. A piece still in his workshop, a montage of metal including a bent railroad spike and twisted angle iron, is titled "Permitted Outrage" to reflect the enormous force required to deform the metal. "Vast Delight," a sculpture of a girl jumping rope, was put up south of Havre on Wednesday.

Some of the fence art includes motion, with pieces mounted on swivels or chains to move in the wind. He originally didn't include much information on the metal base he puts on the pieces. Now he puts the name of the piece and its number, his initials, "Havre," and the date on each.

His wife, Charlotte, has gotten used to the idea of the new sculptures, he added.

"She didn't understand fence art at first," Holmes said. "But now she's putting up some."

Suzanne Huston is one of the people who has mounted his fence art outside of Montana. She also has two mounted on fence posts near her home near Havre and has another inside.

Huston said she got a piece of fence art to take to Illinois, where it is mounted at Blandonsville, about 70 miles east of the Mississippi River.

"I took it to a friend who has rather eclectic taste in art. She was delighted to get it," Huston said.

A relative of hers - New York sculptor Tom Otterness, who has had pieces commissioned for places ranging from the federal courthouse in Sacramento, Calif., to Los Angeles to Cleveland to the New York Metropolitan Transit Authority to Munster, Germany - discovered a piece of fence art posted near his summer home west of Havre.

Otterness, who was at a Paris art show, said in a phone interview Wednesday that the fence art took him by surprise the first time he saw it.

"It was as if something had landed from the moon on this fence post," he said.

He said the sculpture seemed to be modeled to fit the location, and it seemed to be sending a message.

"I assumed a friendly one," he said.

Otterness said he eventually tracked down Holmes as the artist, and the two have kept in touch since.

"It's really great. I really love his stuff," Otterness said. "I think it's pretty sophisticated in its way."

Huston, who also is an artist and has been working on the hand-appliqu quilts made by the Hi-Line Quilting Guild in recent years, said the fence art has been catching a lot of attention.

"Cory does a really great job. I have had quite a few calls since mine went up," she said.

Holmes said he has put up most of the 260-odd pieces now on fence posts around the country himself, but several other people have asked him for the sculptures.

"People say, 'We're going here, we're going there and we need some fence art,'" he said.

So he gives them pieces. Holmes, who sells other metal sculptures, said he doesn't charge for fence art. A farmer from Iowa visiting relatives here took one piece, and a woman from New York contacted him over the Internet for another, he said.

He said his fence art is also up in Utah, Idaho and North Dakota.

It is now posted in a wide area of Montana, including the countryside around Havre, Fort Benton and Choteau. It can be seen along a road near Helena. Another piece is on MacDonald Pass and another is near West Yellowstone.

Holmes said decorating the posts seems like a nice thing to do. It should be a pleasant surprise for some farmer who has driven a tractor around the same field at 8 mph, seeing the same scenery for years, "then one day there's fence art there," he said.

"There's a lot of places, let's face it, driving mile after mile in Montana it gets pretty damn boring," Holmes said.

He said he doesn't promote what he is doing. On pages about his art on the Internet, he wrote that the pieces are "free art erected on fences semi-anonymously."

"It's sort of like eco-art terrorism," he said this week.

He could contact the property owners in advance and ask if he could post the fence art, Holmes said. But he decided not to.

"It's easier to sidestep all this and if they don't like it they can take it down," he said.

Ruff said he doesn't mind the fence art going up on his property.

"It's kind of a neat job they're doing," he said, adding that it's obvious that a lot of time and work goes into the sculptures.

"I'm sure nobody's taken any down," he said.

On the Net: the art of Cory Holmes:


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