Local artist has work featured in new state building in Butte

Bernie Sundell poses with a piece of his triptych he finished recently for the natural resource building at Montana Tech in Butte. The painting was commissioned by the state of Montana. Photo by Greg Lemon

When you walk into the new natural resources building at Montana Tech University in Butte, you’ll see a prominently displayed triptych painting by Bernie Sundell of Ennis.

Sundell’s paintings, entitled “Serenity” were shipped and installed in Butte on Tuesday.

Sundell was one of six artists selected to create works for the new building, but his project is the largest and will be displayed on a 32-foot wall just inside the entrance to the Montana Tech building, which houses the Bureau of Mines and the Petroleum Engineering school.

The project was big for Sundell, who has been painting nearly his whole life and owns River Stone Gallery in Ennis with his wife Lexi, who is also an artist.

“We had never tried anything like this before,” he said.

The paintings were commissioned by the state of Montana as part of the Percent for Arts program, said Kim Hurtle, Percent for Art Manager with the Montana Arts Council in Helena.

The Percent for Art program was established by the 1983 Montana Legislature to devote up to one percent of the budget for any new construction or remodel of a state building to the acquisition of art for the building, Hurtle said.

The notion behind the law is that the state of Montana has an obligation to provide the public a place and method for experiencing art in their buildings, she said.

The selection process for the natural resources building at Montana Tech was fairly extensive, Hurtle said.

Artists applied through an open process. The guidelines for the project were fairly broad, she said.

Out of the 34 applications, a committee selected the six finalists and where their work was to be featured.

Sundell’s submission was more of an idea featuring work he had done in the past. The pieces he sent to Butte Tuesday were unique paintings created just for this commission.

Sundell has a long running obsession with fly fishing and fish and it’s reflected in much of his work. He is famous for his trout and outdoor scenic paintings. Like “Serenity,” much of Sundell’s work is highly detailed.

“Serenity” is a shallow water scene of a fall stream. The painting is a triptych, which means it is comprised of three separate paintings that make up one continuous scene. Each of the three paintings is seven feet wide.

Once he was selected for the work, Sundell created drawings that were approved by the committee and then began the actual painting in February.

Unlike most commissions, working with the government meant getting approval for a variety of things like colors, materials and finishes, he said.

Once he began painting, Sundell was obsessed. Sometimes he’d wake up in the middle of the night with an idea and have to run down to the studio to get it on canvas. It was an exhausting and difficult process.

“Doing one takes a huge amount of energy and time,” he said. “I got really, really highly focused on it.”

Working from a sketch really can only go so far. Once the painting began to take shape, it really began to have it’s own heartbeat and personality, he said.

“It’s really hard to duplicate in your mind, you know, the cracks and cleavage on each stone,” Sundell said.

Standing back from the painting, you can notice the obvious things – the rounded cobblestones, rippling water and fall colors. Look closer and the finer details begin to emerge – small mayflies, hiding trout and dragonflies.

“I couldn’t resist putting a few little trout in there,” Sundell said. “They’re not obvious, but for people who want to find them, they’re there.”

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