Dean Leeper, originally from Wisconsin, found himself stopping on his morning bike rides to and from the University of Montana campus to stare at the mountains.
Not uncommon, even for those who grew up in Missoula. When the sun catches a mountain ridge just right, or the larch trees hit that perfect shade of yellow, it can bring everything to a halt. Leeper, though, set about to recreate many of those moments through sculpture.
“Narratives of Place,” Leeper's MFA exhibit, presents various looks at the mountains surrounding Missoula, taking a poppy ceramic look at many well-known elements, like the inversion, burn scars or alpenglow.
“There’s something about the consistency of the mountains,” Leeper said. “It’s always familiar, it’s always different in small ways.”
One series has four ceramic chunks of hillside side by side on a shelf, each glazed and finished to reflect the slopes of Mount Sentinel through each season. Fall starts dark and sketchy, with actual brown grass inserted into the piece. Winter is white and bright, sandblasted to give the piece a rough texture. Spring is, of course, deep green while summer brightens to that well-known yellowish-brown, also with grass wedged into the side.
“Eastward” visualizes Leeper’s morning commute across the Van Buren bridge, with the metal scaffolding screwed to the wall behind brightly-glazed, dark green and burnt yellow ceramic cylinders. A huge wedge of gray clay with a swirling, glassy aqua topside stands in front.
Like a chef deconstructing meals to give the diner a new perspective on classics, “Eastward” breaks down a popular Missoula Instagram spot into its essential elements, reimagines them in different shapes and mediums, then reassembles them into an eye-popping diorama.
Leeper’s sloping ceramic slabs are precisely glazed to capture the exact color or shadow lines he sees on the mountainside. A piece focused on burned areas uses graphite to give the sculpture a dark, textured exterior.
He made two of almost everything, to ensure he got the exact look he wanted. When combined, the exhibit makes a complete picture of the mountains' many moods, observed by Leeper through the years.
“Each one’s kind of its own little narrative.”