About this time two years ago, many in Butte were grieving.
On Nov. 28, 2016, thousands of snow geese landed in the Berkeley Pit. Though this event played out very differently than the die-off that occurred almost to the day in 1995, the 2016 occurrence was the second time flocks of geese found a fatal home in the toxic water in Butte.
Local artist Michelle Louis worked out her grief through art.
Born in Butte and a graduate of Butte High School, Louis is now a senior ceramics major at the University of Montana.
But she was living in Butte and working at the historic Clark Chateau in November of that year. She returned to school that January and began experimenting with making long-neck ceramic bottles. But as the bottles took shape in her hands, she realized their shape resembled that of snow geese.
She kept going with the concept and now has an exhibit of her work, called "Clean," housed at the chateau. (See info box.)
This isn't the first time local artists have responded to the Berkeley Pit through art. Nolan Salix, a University of Montana Western professor and artist, made a painting of dying snow geese using copper as part of his media in 2017. He was also responding to what happened to the birds two years ago. Flying late in migration season but ahead of a snowstorm, thousands upon thousands of snow geese descended into the pit. While the majority of the waterfowl did fly away, an estimated 3,000 birds died, despite 24-hour efforts by miners to scare them off.
The pit itself, a former open-pit copper mine now containing around 50 billion gallons of metal-laden, acidic water, has inspired art in the past. Kristi Hager, a Missoula-based artist, has held two dances, "Cool Water Hula" in 2000 and 2010, overlooking the Berkeley Pit.
Melody Rice, a local art therapist and grief counselor, said artistic expression of grief is not new. Art can be a tool to communicate deep sadness, she said.
"Art is a powerful voice," Rice said this week. "Very often saying verbally 'that's wrong' isn't enough. It doesn't last. But art lasts. It's super powerful, and it impacts people on such visceral levels."
Louis said that reading news stories about the snow geese over that two-week time period in 2016 "changed my view of this place I've spent so much time in."
"There are a lot of eyes on Superfund, and there's a lot more awareness and investigation of that area. I'm more invested in it. It's been driving the things I'm making. I keep coming back to it no matter what I'm doing," she said.
Louis's exhibit at the chateau now includes prints, ceramic bowls, and other media that explore themes such as memory, time, and stratification — all specific to Butte and its past.
With the long-neck bottles, Louis experimented with glazing, because in ceramics, the material to make the glaze uses metals.
"I acquired mine tailings and realized, 'Why would I use this other (ceramic glaze) material when I have a direct-source material?' It's more linked to place and toxicity."
But the raw mine tailings she gathered in Butte didn't behave the same way as the ceramic glaze and proved to be "pretty volatile" in the kiln.
The result is a gaggle of elegant, white ceramic bottles speckled with a little bit of dark granular material, as if something clean has been stained.
"Art is a way of marking history, of saying, 'These are the losses we've had,'" Rice said. "Humans have this drive to create something to honor or memorialize or acknowledge 'this thing happened.'"