If you are traveling on Highway 287 north of Interstate 90, you are in for a treat. On the west side of the highway, three miles north of Three Forks, Mont., you will first see dark specks. You next realize a herd of horses are grazing on the hillside. When you get up close, you see that instead of horses, an arrangement of metal sculptures depicting horses has been artistically placed there.
Whatever the season, the different groupings of the 39 horses with tails and mane swaying in the wind provide a sense of wonderment. The sculptures are placed so that viewing from either the north or south provides optimum enjoyment.
Artist Jim Dolan of Belgrade created the Bleu Horses scene.
Dolan fell in love with Montana as a teenager. He was determined to attend college at Montana State University. When he arrived in Bozeman from California in 1966, he learned tuition had doubled for out-of-state students after the last catalog was sent out, and he wasn’t monetarily prepared for that.
He went before a committee to request in-state tuition. They asked why he would deserve such a reduction. He answered he liked Montana so much that he was going to stay in the state to make a living after he graduated.
They accepted his request.
While attending school, he worked as a dishwasher and in summers worked fire crews. He has always felt grateful, wanting to repay Montanans for their generosity. At that time, he didn’t know how he was going to do it.
While at the university, Dolan took a welding class. He had always been artistically inclined and liked to draw, but with this class, he saw how he could put the two together to make bigger than life metal objects for people’s enjoyment. He’s been doing exactly that since 1972.
He has created animals, such as the geese exhibited at the Bozeman Yellowstone National Airport and the elk grazing on the lawn of First Interstate Bank in Bozeman.
He is famous for the fisherman in the circle at Ennis, but he has also made metal sculptures of Albert Einstein, Black Elk, Abraham Lincoln, Jeannette Rankin, and Walt Whitman.
Interestingly, Dolan placed a copy of Leaves of Grass inside the Whitman sculpture on the Montana State University campus just before he sealed the piece.
Originally Dolan had planned to name the hillside arrangement Blue Horses, like the blue roan horses that are not really blue but gray. The metal horses are painted blue with some white stripes, to create depth. Dolan discovered that someone else already had “blue horses” for an Internet domain, so he decided to use the French spelling, bleu, and the sculptures became Bleu Horses.
Once he decided on making the Bleu Horses, he had challenges. He hadn’t received a commission to do the horses, so he was on his own financially. He didn’t know where he was going to locate them. About that time, the economy plummeted, and no one was buying art. That meant that he also didn’t have commissions from other projects to help pay for making the Bleu Horses. For two years he didn’t pay himself.
To develop authenticity, Dolan bought polyester rope to use as the mane and tails, and it needed to be unraveled. He found that REACH, an agency that employs adults with disabilities, would unravel the rope that had previously been cut to the correct sizes.
They said it was a nice diversion from the work they normally do. Dolan took a horse to their facility, so they could see how the rope would be used. “I enjoyed working with this group, and I‘m relying on them to help with my next project that includes a panorama of buffalo sculptures,” said Dolan.
Thirty-nine is the magic number of the bleu horses. The number was determined by the space to store them during the project’s creation. Getting to number 39 and having created horses in many different poses, he decided, “The project was fun because it all came from my imagination, but it was time to say the project was ready to install.”
The next challenge was finding a place to locate them.
One day he stopped at Wheat Montana and was telling owner, Dean Folkvord, of the dilemma. Dean suggested Kamp Hill, just north of Three Forks, on land farmed by his family. This was a native grass hillside. It turned out to be a perfect location.
September 2013, right after Dolan had spoken with Folkvord, the artist was ready to install the horses. It turned out to be one of those wonderful fall days when the sun was just warm enough and the wind had dissolved into a gentle breeze. Each horse weighed from 250 to 400 pounds, and many were eight feet tall at the shoulder.
A crew converged on Kamp Hill with tractor and fork lift. Using jackhammers and pounding metal posts, the crew arranged the horses in groupings under Dolan’s direction.
“I have seen that horses have preferences to other horses,” said Dolan. Some are lying down while others are grazing or looking off to the foothills of the mountains. To the spectator, the horses look natural.
Several months after the installation, thieves stole two horses and a colt. Dolan visited the site, realized they were gone, and called the sheriff’s office in Broadwater County. Word got around quickly. A farmer located south of Townsend found them in a snow-covered field. Dolan took his pickup to retrieve them.
Very little was damaged, so the horse sculptures were quickly reinstalled. Word of the horse “rustling” was included in the Montana newspapers, a Seattle paper, and five European papers —marketing that Dolan could have never financed.
Commissions for horses soon came in from places such as Pullman Wash., the Flathead, and White Sulphur Springs.
Dolan goes up to Kamp Hill every couple of weeks to straighten and untangle the horses’ tails and manes. Occasionally one needs a touch of paint.
He invites others to walk among the horses.
North of the scene on Highway 287, take Hill Top Road to the west, and then turn left at the next road. That will bring you to the Bleu Horses.
“I decided not to put a sign next to the highway,” said Dolan. “I thought a sign would spoil the first impression of the horses.”
For allowing him to attend Montana State University and for providing him with work, so he could live in and enjoy Montana, the Bleu Horses are Jim Dolan’s gift to the people of Montana. MSN