Stephen Glueckert's affection for machinery seems obvious in his art: He's known for incorporating moving parts—springs, wooden levers, strings and repurposed wire hangers—and other kinetic features. His tactile, mobile designs trace back to his childhood working on Montana farms and in laundromats. During the summers, he and his eight brothers traveled to fields near their home in Great Falls to buck hay bales and help their father fix equipment.
"We'd get $10 a day," Glueckert says. "We would stay out all week at the farm and they would pay us every couple weeks, but they'd feed us every day. We'd stay in a bunkhouse or wherever and we would work from 6 'til 6 every day. My dad thought it was great, not having us in town chasing girls."
When they were in town, the brothers spent their time at laundromats—the National Laundry and Ideal Laundry—where they shook, washed and folded sheets by day and helped their father repair the machines at night.
"I don't think there is anything he couldn't fix," Glueckert says of his dad. "People always ask, 'Who were your mentors?' and I really think my parents were amazing teachers. They might not have been the most educated people in the world but they worked really hard and they had a conscience. They taught us to work with our hands. I think sometimes their conservatism overwhelmed uswe didn't always understand it—but as far as the nuts and bolts of life, they were pretty great teachers."
Glueckert served as the Missoula Art Museum's curator for 23 years until he retired in 2015, and he's been making art throughout his career. This month, he'll show at three exhibits, each of which offer a different window into his work. For First Friday, the 709 Gallery inside Montana Art and Framing displays 40 new works by Glueckert, all of which he's created since his retirement. (He's been busy: He also exhibited 20 entirely different works earlier this year at Radius Gallery.) The 709 pieces show Montana landscapes and paintings of various animals—hens, monkeys, snapdragons and bison—each accompanied by dictionary clippings strung on moveable wire. The painting of a bird, for instance, features the definitions for "four-score," "four-some," "fourteen" and on down to "fowl." It's not all so straightforward, however. The painting of a goose is paired with the definition of "canoe," though when you crank the lever it sounds like honking.
"I like language," Glueckert says. "In thinking about the landscapes I don't want to overcomplicate it. I want to keep the object and language simple."
On the second Friday of the month, Sept. 9, MAM will host an entirely different exhibit, All Mixed Up, which is a survey of pieces carefully chosen by museum staff from 40 years worth of Glueckert's work. It includes handmade games, films, collages and interactive sculptures, and the subject matter touches on social ills and human behaviors like the 1991 beating of Rodney King, Wall Street opulence and Christian televangelism.
All Mixed Up will travel to the Yellowstone Art Museum in Billings and through Idaho and Wyoming. Outside of Missoula, an exhibit showing 20 of Glueckert's drawings will go up this month at Bozeman's Emerson Center for Arts and Culture. He also has a few pieces in Speaking Volumes: Transforming Hate, an exhibit where artists turned white supremacy literature into art and which has been traveling around the country for seven years. At one point, it showed in a space right across from the 1995 domestic terrorist bombing site in Oklahoma City.
"Sometimes people will call from a little newspaper in a small town wanting to get a comment about the exhibit," he says. "It's cool that art is reaching out and touching people."
Glueckert is a teacher at heart, which is why he got his BFA in art but a master's in art education. His work exemplifies learning: crank the lever on one of his pieces and suddenly you're engaged in his world.
"Having those moving parts does several things," he says. "I discovered this in the 1970s. First, it gives people permission to touch the artwork and people enjoy that, so they're engaged. It also positions a person from the point of view where you want them to see your work."
Glueckert says he has always made art with a story in mind, even if that story isn't clear to the viewer. The landscapes are created from the places he stacked hay. The renditions of the Missouri River come from memories he has floating with his wife, artist Bev Glueckert. Other pieces come from pop culture and the news, but they almost never deal with too many ideas at once.
"It's like a spider web from one intersection to another and you're stretching from one thing to the next," he says. "It's like a Kierkegaardian leap of faith. I think when I get into trouble is when I have too much going on in it. I try to limit the number of elements and metaphors to no more than three that are rubbing up against each other."
Of course, with three major exhibits and a lifetime of work on display, there's no escaping complexity. By now, Glueckert's web stretches far and wide, offering more than enough ideas to ponder.
Stephen Glueckert's Recent Works reception at 709 Gallery takes place Fri., Sept. 2, from 5 to 9 PM. All Mixed Up opens at MAM Fri., Sept. 9, with a reception from 5 to 8 PM.