The 12-foot, cast aluminum gazebo “Crabapple Ridge” glares in the bright sunlight outside the Missoula Art Museum.
The sculpture is the centerpiece of this year’s Art Park exhibit “In the Garden,” featuring five sculptures and two paintings by Bozeman artist Clarice Dreyer.
“I love the material because it transcended the natural form,” Dreyer said Friday afternoon. “It gave it a universal, dreamlike quality.”
Dreyer started casting aluminum in the 1970s, choosing the metal not only because of its artistic quality, but also because it was light and easy to come by — important things for a young artist working by herself.
The metal made it possible to cast pieces like “Crabapple Ridge,” which is made up of several separate cast columns, doors and a roof.
“Physically, I just couldn’t make this piece in bronze because of the weight,” Dreyer said.
She also chose aluminum as a deliberate break from artistic tradition, noting that nobody was casting aluminum sculptures when she started, viewing it as a lesser metal than bronze.
Dreyer remembered being one of the few women in her metal casting class in college, choosing this strange metal and using it to cast delicate flowers and vines.
“I kind of defied,” she said with a smile.
Metalwork came to Dreyer at an early age. She grew up in Missoula, with a welder for a father. She and her brother would melt down lead to make their own toy soldiers, “when my mother wasn’t home,” Dreyer recalled.
She also loved the natural world, and has gardened her entire life, drawn in by the meditative aspect of tending to the plots. Her works use birds, tree bark, branches and leaves that wrap and envelop birdbaths, birdhouses or the gazebo as though the garden has overgrown its boundaries.
“I see in nature what I see in myself — complexity, simplicity, strength, weakness, beauty, joy and anguish,” Dreyer is quoted saying in a Yellowstone Art Museum exhibition book from 1999. “Birds, stones, plants and imagery of human-made objects help define daily experiences for us all. It is this feeling of harmony between humankind and nature that gives life and vision to my art.”
Dreyer achieves the ultra-realistic casts through using those organic materials to make her molds.
The process for “Crabapple Ridge,” made in 1993, involved making molds with trees, fruit, branches and vines, which were then put into a kiln for two to three days, which burned off that material while solidifying the mold.
Then, the mold was packed into sand to keep it from expanding and breaking before pouring melted metal inside. All of that for one of several sections of the gazebo structure.
The whole thing took around three months to complete.
“That’s why I’m not doing it anymore,” Dreyer said.
Later in her casting career, Dreyer did pick up bronze, using the same process as with aluminum to create ornate leaf-wrapped birdbaths.
“A Summer’s Garden,” made in 2001, features rhubarb leaves on the birdbath’s column and an assortment of vegetables, from peas to peppers, overlaying the basin. Dreyer used vegetables and leaves from her garden to make the molds.
Her pieces are laid out in front of Adventure Cycling, near the Portland Loo, and in front of the Art Museum, alternating between bronze and aluminum.
“They’re really beautiful in a more natural setting,” Dreyer said. “I think they hold their own.”
Brandon Reintjes, the Missoula Art Museum senior curator, said Dreyer was one of the first artists to come up when they came up with the Art Park idea.
“Her work lends itself so well to both a museum and an outdoor setting,” he said.
Aside from the garden sculptures, Reintjes pointed out a cast aluminum cart inside the museum lobby, “A Place Without A Name,” along with two newer pieces, a pair of stark paintings that also include metallic touches.
He praised the diversity of her work, as well as the delicate detail Dreyer is able to bring out in her casts.
“A lot of people said, 'Do you get a tree and spray-paint it?'” Reintjes said, pointing to the bark cast on “Crabapple Ridge.”
“No, that’s metal,” he explains.
“They each have such distinction and character,” he said. “It’s only five pieces. I wish it was more.”