In the northeast corner of the Oval on the University of Montana campus is a welded steel sculpture titled “Teepee Burner.” The university commissioned artist John Vichorek to create the piece in 1970.

You would think, considering the title of the piece, that the artist was influenced by something Native American. But the title actually refers to a massive cone-shaped industrial furnace, and is an abstraction of the “teepee burner” commonly used by Montana lumber mills to burn their waste. The byproduct of the process used by the mills resulted in mass pollution and left nearby communities with some of the worst air quality in the West.

The use of teepee burners went out of general use around the time Vichorek was commissioned to do the piece, but Missoula at the time was still plagued by chronically bad air quality and to some the piece represented the glorification of something not worth glorifying.

In 2006, after 36 years of exposure to the elements, the massive sculpture had rusted and become discolored and structurally unstable. It was therefore dismantled and removed for restoration in January of that year. Over the subsequent months, a new concrete base was created to provide increased stability, rust was removed, and additional protective coatings were added to the surface to resemble the original sheen. It was reinstalled to its current location then.

I’m always fascinated to learn the history and muse of pieces of art, especially art very familiar to me. I have taught in the Liberal Arts Building on campus off and on for 20 years, and so have probably walked by “Teepee Burner,” oh say 1,000 times. Not knowing the title of it and having no context at all other than my own reaction to it, I must say it always reminded me of Medusa. Vichorek’s smoke and pollution spewing from the top of an industrial furnace conjured up, for me, the image of the live snakes that donned Medusa’s head. Come and see what it evokes in you.

The sculpture is part of UM’s public art, a collection curated by the Montana Museum of Art and Culture, and one of over 60 artworks throughout campus. A campus artwork map is available through the MMAC and on the website umt.edu/montanamuseum that takes you on a self-guided tour which represents works by artists with fascinating stories and backgrounds, their inspirations, subjects and media equally diverse.

Vichorek’s "Teepee Burner" is part of the Montana Museum of Art and Culture’s permanent collection and can be viewed on the Oval between the L.A. Building and the University Center at the University of Montana. MMAC is celebrating 120 years of the MMAC Permanent Collection through 2015.

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