The Moon-Randolph Homestead called to her. It was less of a choice and more of a pull or tug from a place steeped in history — history that Claire Compton would find includes her own family, three generations back.
The writer and artist has been spending time on the property north of Missoula since spring, exploring death and decay through the Open AIR program. She applied for the residency at the homestead location after randomly coming across the book “Curated Decay” for a class.
“Turns out, the woman who wrote that book was the original archivist at the homestead. It was really this place that kind of called to me,” said Compton, who is a graduate student at the University of Montana studying English teaching.
On a recent hot, sunny day, Compton worked on one of her mixed media pieces under an aged tree next to the Moon Cabin at the homestead. Around the corner, a shed sat midway between standing and fallen, its mangled wooden siding creating a creepy upside-down staircase. Down the road, a tree and a farming plow had become one, as nature took its course around what man left behind.
“The human and the non-human world are kind of implicated in each other and have a shared story here. A lot of my work is really about that kind of meshing,” she said.
Her art intertwines human objects with natural materials and explores the stories she sees in the history of the landscape. The property is strewn with treasures and artifacts from a bygone era where life was simpler, but a lot tougher.
One of her pieces looks like a wooden display box. The inside is lined with a Missoulian front page featuring several headlines relating to COVID-19 and the coronavirus pandemic, which she stained using rust dye she made by letting old nails soak in vinegar.
“So (I’m) integrating decay in the actual process of making art,” Compton said, adding she was inspired by one of the walls in the Moon Cabin, which is covered in old, ragged newspapers. A flat piece of rusted and decaying metal she found on property sits atop the newspaper as the centerpiece.
A smaller work features a painted rodent skull resting inside an empty Copenhagen tobacco chew can on a bed of green felt that resembles moss. She borrowed the chew can from her partner after finding several old and rusted “Days Work” chew cans from homesteaders past.
“I love wild places, but this is really cool because it is both settled and wild, so it’s kind of like that in between space that is so much a part of what decay is too,” she said.
Part of Compton’s exploration around death and decay relates to how death has become taboo and has been commodified in today’s society.
“When I was painting that skull of the mouse, I was really thinking about that and thinking about, how do we honor not just human life that’s passed, but also non-human life as a valid entity?” she asked.
But she’s not sugar-coating anything in her work either.
“I would love for our bodies to just go back into the earth and have this very kind of earth-goddessy thing, but that kind of narrative really leaves out a lot of violent deaths and deaths around COVID,” she said. “I’ve had friends that have died in horrible ways. How do you reconcile this idealized lovely earth-goddess thing with the terror and the hardship and the violence that comes with so many deaths?”
In addition to her art, Compton is also writing, which she says she usually does in the morning in the Moon Cabin, which houses the archives.
One day early on, while paging through old National Geographic magazines in the cabin, she discovered she had possibly been drawn to the homestead for reasons she can’t explain. She noticed a name she recognized under one of the photographs.
“So this is actually my great-aunt,” she said, pointing to a photo of a woman standing in a garden courtyard in England in one of the magazines. “And this is my grandma.”
She’d happened upon photos taken by her great-grandfather, Clifton Adams, one of the original color photographers for National Geographic.
“Having that kind of personal connection, there’s so much here about heritage and about what we save and what we don’t save and so a lot of my writing right now has been focused on kind of excavating this family history,” she said, adding the question she keeps coming back to is, “What is this place asking for?”
Taylor White, a local writer, is also in residence through Open AIR at the Moon-Randolph Homestead, and while she and Compton aren’t directly working together, they applied for the location under the same idea of exploring death and decay.
White observes the homestead through a historical lens and said she’s been overwhelmed by the inspiration there while on property.
“It has this organic, constantly dialoguing history — an unfolding past, present and future. The resourcefulness and resilience are literally growing out of the box elders there,” she said. “Writing isn’t something that I want to relegate to a dark room and I think the homestead allows me to say, 'I’m going to write in the orchard today among some of the oldest apple trees that still bear fruit in our country.' It’s just so incredibly generative.”
While she had planned to mostly work on her novel, she’s found herself starting a completely new project, given everything that’s happening in the world beyond the homestead’s borders.
“We applied to study decay before a world pandemic of proportions unknown to our generation broke out across the globe, so the irony and the difficulty of two women kind of rolling up their sleeves and saying, 'Let’s dive into everything we’re afraid of,' and then the universe saying, 'OK,' and kind of pouring water on that grease fire, has been incredibly generative, but also challenging,” she said. “It’s made me take a step back from my own work and my own ego and approach this subject with more humility and more compassion.”
White is looking into the untold history of the property that predates any homesteader’s arrival. The historic migratory path that leads through Hellgate Canyon continues on and runs adjacent to the homestead. While reading “Butterflies and Railroad Ties,” a book about the homestead’s history, White learned there was a natural spring on the property.
“There’s kind of this hinting of, maybe it was a campground,” she said. “We’re pretty sure, but the name has been lost.”
The project is in its early beginnings, but she’s reached out to the Séliš-Ql̓ispé Culture Committee to see if she can help facilitate a more accurate representation of the land’s history, which would have included the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes’ ancestors who were pushed out of the Bitterroot and Missoula valleys and onto the Flathead Reservation.
“I would just be so excited if we could add a name to the sign at the Moon-Randolph or supplement a plaque,” she said. “My deepest hope with my time up there is to get it out of 1889 to include a longer, more truthful narrative.”
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