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The Bison Range Project

Originally appears in the Summer 2016 issue

Two high school boys stood at the doorway of my second story art room guiding a life-sized bison sculpture over the fire escape railing and onto a pallet fork attached to the extended arm of a Bobcat. The bison’s final destination would be a biennial K-8 Art show at a nearby mall for which we had created a “sculpto-picto-rama” range land habitat installation in the larger-than-life style of American sculptor, Red Grooms. Our custodian laughingly interpreted the boys’ bison marshaling signals in order to ensure a safe landing for our papier mache animal onto the parking lot adjacent to the school while a handful of excited teachers and students recorded the event on their cell phones. When art mixes with heavy machinery there is simply a little more excitement in the air. As it turns out, it takes roughly nine months to gestate a bison in the wild AND in the art room.

An important purpose of art is to revitalize and celebrate the themes and ideas we think we already know all about. This project is based on the story of a herd nexus; a tale that many Native residents know about but is not widely known amongst the general local population. I didn’t know about it myself until I explored our school’s treasury of Indian/Bison-related books and found a children’s book by Joseph Bruchac called Bison Song and followed up with individual recollections and accounts from the Montana Writer’s Project compilation, I will be Meat for My Salish.

Montana is an inspirational muse with dramatic natural scenery, abundant Public Land and a storied past. It doesn’t take a lot of adjustment for students to experience their home state differently with each new peek through the classroom kaleidoscope. As the sole Art teacher in a rural public school in western Montana I pursue opportunities to tap into themes that underline what it means to be from our special place. I am fortunate that my fellow teachers are willing collaborators when it comes to enriching Science, English or History units. The following story is one example of an ambitious art unit where all of those subjects converged.

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Jennifer Ogden is an artist and K-12 Art Educator from the Bitterroot Valley in rural western Montana. She teaches at Victor Public School, the Missoula Art Museum (MAM) and SPARK Arts Learning. Jennifer recently co-taught “A Cabinet of Wonders” with naturalist, Lisa Hendricks at MAM, and is in the inaugural Montana Teacher Leaders in the Arts program for the Montana Arts Council and Office of Public Instruction. A Montana Natural History Center “Forest for Every Classroom” alumnus, Jennifer uses place-based education with her Victor School students, extending the classroom to include the abundant public land located in the Bitterroot Valley.