Hide and Seek 

How Montana artists found success in “hair sculpture”

The art that adorns a community’s airport says a lot about how that community chooses to see itself—or, more accurately, what it would like to have you think. They say that if you want to write a book about a foreign country, you either have to do it within your first month of living there or wait ten years. A delightfully skewed cultural history of the United States could likewise be compiled without ever leaving its airports.

When you fly into a big city like Chicago or New York, often the first thing you see hanging on the walls in concourse and debarkation areas are temporary or permanent installations of the type that suggest civic unity born out of dizzying pluralism: odes to the pageantry and open-boat togetherness of city life in canvas and acrylic, mixed media and bomber-style spray paint. The visual equivalent of Kenny G trading high-fives with Ice-T. Uptown, downtown. A visual account of this ethnic experience and that one in the polyglot beehive of the big city. The concrete jungle of the inner city and the glass-walled canyons of Skyscraper Flats.

When first-time visitors see the works by David Blake that hang in Missoula’s airport—right around the corner from a gift shop crammed with buckskin and buckles and every conceivable type of Montana-themed tchotchke—there’s no mistaking the message: You’re in Big Sky Country now, friend. The Hungry Horse artist’s work pairs time-honored, abundantly Montanan materials with new ways of manipulating them: an indigenous tradition of painting on animal hides, and an Old World tradition of bas-relief.

Blake fashions “hair sculptures”—eagles and elk and bears shorn into hides that once belonged to some of the very animals portrayed. He created his first one—an eagle—some four and a half years ago and has more recently been employing the services of fellow Hungry Horse artist Monica Short to paint backgrounds on the shaved parts of the hide. Reached at his home, the affable Blake talks enthusiastically about his biggest recent work: a 62-square-foot museum piece in buffalo hide.

“The sculpture is an Indian on horseback hunting buffalo with a spear. Then Monica painted the background scene: the rest of the herd, a teepee village across the canyon, two more Indians off in the distance, one on horseback and one off starting to skin a buffalo, and there’s a white buffalo in the clouds.”

It was a custom order for a Native-run casino back East, Blake says, but there was no written contract and the casino eventually backed out of the agreement. After a little scouting, the artist finally found a good home for the work at the Best Western Outlaw Hotel in Kalispell—quite a relief, that, since Blake reckons he and Short put a combined 100 hours of sculpting and painting into the scene, not including the “rough work”—the tanning, the cleaning and shaving it down. The finished product, along with an elk, an eagle and a whitetail deer, can be seen in the Outlaw’s Ace Powell Gallery.

Blake has been tanning hide for about 19 years. His methods are a closely guarded trade secret, but he concedes that he does them the good old-fashioned way (“Probably outdated by the 1800s,” he guesses). He says he first hit on the idea of hair sculptures while fashioning clothing out of elk hide.

“Whenever I made vests and high-top boots, I had to shave strips into the hide so that the stitching wouldn’t get tangled up in the hair, and I started noticing the different colors you get from shaving off the tips of the guard hairs. The eagle was the first one I did. I just kind of saw an eagle in there and did it. A couple of artists talked me into copyrighting it, and I’ve been off to the races ever since.”

Montana’s foremost hair sculptor, who estimates he’ll complete close to 70 hides this year, says he sells a lot of work through ads in national magazines and wholesalers in four states, but he’s still considering other avenues of exposure.

“I haven’t even pursued the art world,” Blake says. “But lots of people are telling me it’s a mistake not to.”

Regardless, business is booming. Blake and Short are currently working long hours on a limited series (ten each) of bullrider and bronc-buster hair sculptures to bring to National Finals Rodeo in Las Vegas the first two weeks in December.

“I’m getting pushed pretty hard,” he gripes good-naturedly. “If I get pushed much harder, I’m going to have to train somebody to do the tanning work so I can concentrate on just the artwork.”

And Blake isn’t bothered in the least by other, arguably lesser-talented sculptors plying a similar trade in animal fur.

“There’s all kinds of people doing it, lots of people copying me,” he says with polished modesty. “But so far everything I’ve seen is just complementing my work.”

It might come as news to many that there would be any sort of competition in the field of shorn-pelt sculpture, but ain’t that just Montana? Next time you pick up visiting relatives at the Missoula airport, be sure to point out Blake’s work. You don’t see this kind of thing just anywhere.

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