Poetry and Stone: The Arts of Brynn Holt

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MSN-Poetry and Stone: The Arts of Brynn Holt
Photo by Nann Parrett


You don’t ordinarily think of a poet wrestling massive rocks and lumber around on a daily basis, but Brynn Holt of Helena, Mont., is both a writer and a construction worker who specializes in moving and arranging architectural stone.

His career path has suited him: as a high-school student, despite his slight build, he was well-known as one of the strongest kids around, able to bench press far more than his body weight. Put that together with an instinct for art and aesthetics, and you end up with a contractor who has done some of the most stunning stone work in the Helena area.

The name of his business is Montana Art Works, and it was actually started in the 1980s by his father, Martin, with whom Holt worked for many years until Martin passed in 2011.


Like Father, Like Son

Martin also was a carpenter and builder, whose primary passion was art.

He was well known as a potter and maker of art films, but also as a master home builder and contractor.

Holt recalled helping his father from the time he was old enough to safely hold a hammer in his hand.

“When I was a kid, he’d pay me 25 cents an hour, pulling nails, things like that. But by the time I was 12 or so, he’d pay me wages.” At that time minimum wage was $2.50 an hour.

In 1980, Helena was devastated by a hailstorm with ice balls as big as tangerines, which wreaked utter havoc on roofs all over town.

“I remember I was 15 that summer, and I threw down a lot of roofs,” Holt said. “By the time I moved away from Helena at 18, I had pretty solid carpentry skills.”


Form and Function

Interesting things happen when artists and writers branch off into the building trades. Montana Art Works has built or remodeled many Helena homes, and the many properties Holt has landscaped with natural native stone contribute to the enduring character of Helena’s various neighborhoods.

One example is a house on Fifth Ave., listed in the National Register of Historic Places as the William C. Crum Family Residence. It’s an old Victorian home set on a steeply sloped property that now has curved, dry-stacked retaining walls containing terraced garden beds.

Holt’s two-man crew offloaded 10-thousand pounds of slate for the project. “We unloaded the truck in 17 minutes,” said Holt. “We timed it, just to see how fast we could do it.”

He noted the Crum House as a perfect example of starting a project with a blank slate, where terraces create flat, usable areas for steep yards originally considered unplantable.

“The home owner had an existing granite wall, but she wanted raised beds for more plantings, to have more color and more plants around the front,” he said.

Holt’s eye for design melds form and function. The curved shape of the retaining walls adds an elegance that matches the home that sits behind them.

“The curved linear shape is what we call ‘the beautiful curve,’” said Holt. He explained it has to do with the proportion of the curve to the length of the wall.

“You can’t just put a curve in the wall and have it be beautiful. Otherwise, it just looks squiggly,” he said. “I think we got the beautiful curves just right on that one.”


Superior Dry-Stacking

Holt noted another project he’s particularly proud of: a flat-slate patio and pathway he laid for Betsy and Larry Nordell.

He was tasked with transforming an old slate path supported by rotting railroad timbers.

“It was basically out with the old and in with the new,” said Holt. “We removed sub-standard work that was nice at one time—for a minute, before it failed.”

The challenge for that project was to create a curved pathway connecting a side patio to the front entryway. Between the path and house, he constructed a retaining wall for a flower bed, which ran adjacent the path and curved to meet the entrance.

“We didn’t want to stack stone against the post, so we cut the post and had it land on an upright stone,” said Holt. “The wall was all dry-stacked. Getting everything to come out right was kinda fun.”

Dry-stack walls are something of a signature mark for Holt, and his projects are easily identifiable as you drive through Helena neighborhoods. These are comprised of somewhat flat, stacked stone, and they stand solid without the use of mortar.

“If done correctly, it’s the superior way to build in this northern climate where you have a frost heave,” he said.

Dry stacks allow for movement, which is ideal for Montana’s fluctuating temperatures throughout the year.

“That’s why so many mortared walls fail,” said Holt. “They expand and shrink, moving around all the time.”


The Unconventional Office

Holt collects materials for his projects at his “office,” which is far from conventional. Its walls are made of stone, and its roof is the sky.

His office is a quarry near Mount Ascension.

“It’s my sandbox where I play with my Tonka toys and blocks,” he laughed. “My blocks are architectural granite from the 19th-century buildings in Helena that were demolished in the 70s during urban renewal.”

Holt’s vision for his quarry is a privately held space, available for public functions.

Through the years it’s been a site for weddings, memorials, concerts, dances, experimental theater performances, fund raisers, and more.

Even a few pianos have played their last notes before being set aflame on an occasional solstice evening.

Holt said the quarry is open to anyone who has a great idea for an event that the community would enjoy.

Some might consider the concept a bit eccentric, but Holt is quick to counter that idea.

“I don’t really think of it as eccentric,” he said. “I think of it as normal art business.


Hometown Poet

When he isn’t slinging a hammer or muscling immense stones from one place to another, Holt spends quality time with a pen and notebook, writing poetry. He’s a rather well-known poet in his home town, having been a longtime participant at the Naked Words series of readings that Bedrock Books began hosting in the early 1990s.

Holt was a fixture at that series, giving readings that often edged into theatrical performance.

Bedrock Books owner Bill Borneman explained, “Brynn Holt has a strong, declamatory style. He can read his own stuff, or recite others’ poetry, in a way that is sometimes abstract and even occasionally obscene. It’s performance art as much as poetry reading.”

Around 2000, Holt joined with Borneman and musician George Pruden to form a performance art troupe, called States of Matter. They rehearsed every Tuesday evening at the quarry for several years and gave dozens of public performances.

Their performances consisted of Borneman playing guitar with Pruden accompanying on flute. Meanwhile, Holt recited or improvised poetry in a style that has been described variously as passionate or frenetic.

The approach was often experimental, said Holt, with each member improvising on his instrument.

“A lot of the experimental stuff really worked well,” he recalled. “Sometimes the experiment didn’t really work, but the results were always interesting.”

Borneman noted Holt’s improvisational skills. “He was all the time scribbling lines on bar napkins and carrying around a sheaf of material he had not integrated into poems yet, and he would draw from that material on stage.”

Much of Holt’s poetry, on the other hand, is more carefully composed and remains as familiar as good song lyrics to those Helenans who’ve witnessed some of those States of Matter performances.

A great example is his poem “Land of the Blind,” which contains a satirical passage about a popular local dive bar.

Fools, anarchists, slanderers, licentious and daft/ with grimaces full of cinders / brood nonchalance in vitro / on cannibal night at Swiller’s Grave.

Some of his other poems are more straightforward, conventional works. They are lyrical and moving in their simplicity. A good example is “Love Waits.”

Life is to live / Love to give / Time to share / Touch to hold / Time still / When touch / Is gone / Love waits.

Borneman noted a feature of the poem that helps generate its powerful drive. “Every word in that poem is a one syllable,” he said.

Like stones fitted together and stacked into a wall, each word connects to every other, making a pattern that is flexible, yet solid, in structure. Not only that, it’s pleasant to read.

Somehow it makes sense that a fellow who understands how to work large rocks into the landscape around a house, thereby turning it into a home, would be adept at arranging words on a page in a way that turns a fleeting thought or feeling into an enduring poem that resonates. MSN

Visit www.montanaartworks.com for more information.