Competition-winning art installations debut Aug. 29 in Asbjornson Hall

Thursday Aug. 29th, 2019

A recent Montana State University graduate who won a student competition to install art in the new Norm Asbjornson Hall will debut his work at a public reception set for 6:30 p.m. Thursday, Aug. 29, on the first floor of the building.
Holden Roberts’ “The Human Collective,” a multimedia installation of painting, video and sculpture, will be displayed for three years on all three floors of Asbjornson Hall. Roberts, who graduated in May from the School of Art in the College of Arts and Architecture, was the winner of the MSU Norm Asbjornson College of Engineering’s Asbjornson Hall Student Art Contest. The engineering college and MSU Honors College are both housed in the building, which opened in December.

“It has been a wonderful journey to see Holden Roberts’ original proposal come to life in the building,” said Rob Maher, the MSU engineering professor who coordinated the eight-member selection committee composed of representatives from both the engineering college and the College of Arts and Architecture. “I really admire his ability to craft each and every element of the artwork, tying together the three panels in the heart of the building.”

As the winner of the competition Roberts won $30,000 to cover costs of the three 10-by-20-foot installations and an additional honorarium of $7,000.
Roberts has been working on the installation since he learned he won the competition in March. Maher said 16 contest submissions were narrowed down to four finalists. The committee sought work that was “innovative and captivating, utilizing the three separate spaces in an effective, coherent and compelling manner.” Roberts was “the unanimous choice,” Maher said.

Roberts’ core idea for the piece, which was his senior thesis, was installed in March on the third floor of the hall. It is composed of 120 small color block acrylic paintings – six rows of 20 paintings -- inspired by pedestrians on MSU’s Centennial Mall. Each pedestrian is represented in a painting by the colors of their clothing.

The idea is amplified by more recently completed installations on the lower floors. The second-floor piece includes a short, motion-activated video loop, which Roberts also shot, of four students standing on MSU’s Centennial Mall. Students randomly walk through the four posed students in the video. The colors worn by the students in the video are represented by color block paintings. Also, a pair of portraits attached to wooden chains mounted to the right of the video alternate as the chains rotate. Roberts said the installation, was inspired by the paintings of abstract expressionist Mark Rothko and the films of Wes Anderson.

The first-floor installation is like the second except the video shows students maneuvering through a large rock field in Hyalite Canyon. Roberts hand-cut the pieces of the wooden chain on the first floor, which is also slightly larger than the similar operation on the second floor.
Roberts said that the works are inspired by the relationship between two- and three-dimensional space as well as the connection between people and space.
“They are a snapshot of time and space, as represented through color,” he said.
Roberts said that when he was growing up in Whitefish, he thought he would study architecture at MSU. But he changed his mind when he enrolled in an Honors seminar called “Radical Creativity” that was collaboratively taught by art professor Sara Mast, former MSU physics professor Nico Yunes and Jessica Jellison, a Bozeman architect and instructor in the School of Architecture. The class, a mix of art and science, was “a huge step forward in deciding where I wanted to go” with a career, he said.

Maher said Roberts’ work is an excellent example of the student art wall concept he proposed to Brett Gunnink, dean of the engineering college, in 2018.
“The idea was to have some aesthetic aspects of Asbjornson Hall be permanent, such as the artwork in the Montana Room and elsewhere in the building, while other aspects would change over time, just like the progression of students, faculty, and staff,” Maher said. He said there will be another call for proposals in about two years for a project to replace Roberts’ work in 2022.

In addition to Roberts' installations, several other pieces of art have been permanently installed in Asbjornson Hall, and additional artistic works are under consideration, Maher said. Hanging in the Montana Room, a large meeting room on the third floor next to the Honors College, is a 5-by-8-foot oil painting by artist Paul Waldum, “Spring Along Knox Ridge Road - Missouri River,” which depicts the stretch of river near Asbjornson’s hometown of Winifred.

“Unbeknownst to Mr. Waldum, Norm Asbjornson surveyed the landscape as a teenager and immediately recognized the landscape with great fondness,” said Ilse-Mari Lee, dean of the Honors College.
Waldum is an MSU graduate and Honors College instructor whose work has appeared in galleries and shows throughout the country. Lee said Waldum gifted the painting to MSU. His two children are both currently MSU undergraduate students.
Also installed in the Montana Room is a large, illuminated bronze relief Montana map by Bozeman sculptor Mitch Billis. Billis’ work has been displayed in galleries throughout the world, and his father, Mitch Sr., was a math professor at MSU. The hand-crafted conference table in the Montana Room was donated by Martel Construction, contractors for Asbjornson Hall. And, a bronze bobcat, a smaller version of bobcat statue on Alumni Plaza, north of Montana Hall, also is installed in the Montana Room.  The sculpture was created by artist and storyteller Bob Stayton, a 1951 graduate of Montana State, with the casting provided by Jack Muir, a 1970 graduate.

After Thursday’s reception, which is free and open to the public, Roberts said he and his girlfriend plan to travel the country before they enroll in graduate school. He hopes similar installations will be in his future.
“This is my dream of what I want to do,” Roberts said.