STEVENSVILLE – C.M. “Chip” Jones promised himself early in life that he would never be a starving artist.
But that didn’t mean that he could just step away from what made him whole.
Since he was a young boy, art had always been part of his life.
He, like so many others, worked a variety of jobs as he went to school, married his childhood sweetheart, raised his family and built a life.
But his heart was always in art.
When he went to the University of Montana, he helped them build their first kiln and forge. In their first home in Missoula, he set aside the attic for his studio. That studio grew when his family moved to Frenchtown.
“Art was always there,” Jones said. “It was always with me.”
In the early 1990s, his interest turned to metal work. He started buying and building forges and kilns while learning everything he could about metallurgy.
Along the way, he developed a love for sculpting and a fascination with the properties of different metals.
Now, in his newest and most expansive studio space ever, Jones is combining those two passions to create artwork with his own unique process that he calls splash bronze.
“As far as I can tell, I’m the only person in the world who does this,” Jones said.
The resulting artwork is a combination of carefully sculpted centerpieces that are surrounded by abstract shapes and textures that Jones creates by dropping molten metal onto the piece.
“I played with the idea for three years before I finally got it right,” he said. “There were a lot of issues that I had to figure out to make it work.”
That challenge is part of what pushed him forward.
“For me, it’s all about the process of growth,” Jones said. “I love trying to figure something out.”
Art lovers across the globe have responded. Jones’ artwork has found its way to nearly every state and numerous countries.
It’s not something that just happened overnight.
"People say that I have a God-given talent,” Jones said. “A God-given talent will take you only so far. It takes a lot of practice to get good at anything. I sketch every day. I sculpt every day.
“I tell people that it takes so many hours to create my artwork, plus 30 years,” he said.
It takes him 16 steps and at least three weeks to finish a piece.
He hopes that when he’s done, the people who stop to take a look will come away with some sort of emotional response. To ensure that happens, he’ll often frame his pieces in antique frames.
“People want to buy more than just a piece of artwork,” he said. “They want to buy a story. Adding a frame that’s 140 years old adds to that story.”
When he’s done, Jones hopes that he’s created something that’s timeless.
“When people look at it, they don’t know,” he said. “It could be 80 years or 200 years old. I think it is part of the appeal.”
When Jones made the decision to make art his full-time passion several years ago, he knew that he’d need to find a very special place.
It all came together in the Bitterroot Valley just north of Stevensville.
The building he required needed to have a lot of space and be built with solid concrete floors that wouldn’t scorch when molten metal was poured over it.
He found that in a building just off the intersection of the East Side Highway and Ambrose Road, where farmers used to turn their potato crop into the hash browns they sold to restaurants in Missoula.
As much as he was interested in the building, it was the growing community of artists in the Bitterroot that helped him make his decision to move here.
“There are really a lot of high-end artists living here,” Jones said. “A lot of people may not realize that because you don’t always see their work here in the Bitterroot. I wanted to be part of that synergy.”
He plans to do what he can to help that grow.
Sometime this winter, Jones will host five other sculptors in his shop for a two-day session of brainstorming and working together to build on new ideas. In between, they’ll find time to enjoy the outdoors that makes the valley a special place to live.
There’s so much that can happen when creative minds come together.
“You can build off each other’s ideas and see things in a totally different way,” Jones said.
When Jones was little, he loved the western artwork of Charlie Russell. Last year, he was presented with the Most Distinguished Body of Artwork award at the Out West Art Show in Great Falls.
“That meant a lot to me,” Jones said. “All that time and practice had been recognized. That meant a lot.”
To learn more about Bigrock Bronze Works, go online to cmjones.net.