MISSOULA — A customer from New Hampshire just told Monte Dolack that she’s stopped by his gallery for years when he breaks the news.
He’s closing his showroom on West Front Street after 22 years and some 255 First Fridays, by his estimate.
She seems relieved when he explains that he’s going to focus on new works and sell his prints online and at other places around town. That’s when she realizes who he is.
“You’re Monte?” she said. “I’m finally meeting you after all these years.”
Even if fans don’t recognize Dolack on sight, they still refer to him by his first name.
His surrealist and sometimes whimsical prints and posters have reached far beyond the Montana landscapes they depict, to fans like this one from the East Coast.
So he’s quick to remind everyone that he’s not retiring.
“I want to devote time to my own work. I put a bit of that on hold over time, and I really want to get to it. I kind of noticed that there was more sand through the hourglass than there was left in it,” he said.
The decision was spurred by the 65-year-old’s intertwined concerns about family, health, work and time.
Dolack has been busy looking after his wife, Mary Beth Percival, since she developed dementia.
“I’m her primary caregiver, and I can’t keep that many plates spinning anymore,” he said.
Percival, an accomplished landscape artist, used to teach her husband about color, and he’s now found their roles somewhat reversed.
“She has kept making art, I try to help her with that,” he said, pointing to one of her newer works displayed at the gallery.
He said she’s delighted every once in a while when he points out one of her paintings, like a large canvas that hangs at Missoula International Airport.
Dolack’s own health triggered the final decision.
He had open-heart surgery several years ago, and had a stent put into an artery that’s nicknamed “the widowmaker.”
He had surgery again earlier this year, after doctors found it had become 90 percent occluded.
“I wondered why the lawnmower was getting harder to push,” Dolack said.
He eats right, exercises and isn’t overweight, and so is at a loss to explain it.
After the operation, he began to think about the last time he saw his friend and former teacher, the renowned Bonner artist Walter Hook, some 25 years ago.
Hook had dropped off some silk-screen supplies for Dolack. He mentioned that he was going in for surgery and that they’d see each other again soon.
“Well, he didn’t make it. And he was not that old. So you never know,” Dolack said.
He thought about how much of his own work he’d put off over the years, and decided it was time to focus.
“What I’d like to do is complete some commissions that I still have promised and then spend some time on new work without pre-assigning it to a specific museum or gallery, and see where that goes,” he said.
Dolack has produced a flurry of different projects in the past several years.
He has his commissions for environmental and conservation groups, whose causes align with his own beliefs. To mention just a few, they include both state and national Trout Unlimited, The Nature Conservancy, Defenders of Wildlife and Vital Ground.
He has his “Altered States” works, which use found-object sculpture and painting to comment on humans’ degradation of the environment.
He produces straight landscapes from his travels as well, and a backlog to work through.
“I try to always do paintings from travel. We were in Iceland and Holland, and I’m a little behind,” he said.
He’d also like to continue exploring his lifelong themes of nature, wildlife and humans’ relationship to them without tying them closely to a specific place or cause like the commissioned works do.
He’s proud, though, of the aisle-crossing audience that those environmental pieces have had.
“I’ve made art that appeals to both conservative and liberal people, that has statements that I really believe in. I hope some of the work reaches people and makes them think twice,” he said.
On July 3, Dolack will close the gallery and move downstairs. They’ve sold the building to a new owner, who will open a fabric shop and sewing school in the fall.
The basement will be home to Dolack and Percival’s archives, office and warehouse. They’ll keep the same phone number, and will be open to private viewings or the occasional special event.
Dolack.com will get a redesign so people can peruse the numerous bodies of work.
He emphasizes that the gallery was doing just fine financially, and he imagines the continued rise of online shopping will be in his favor.
“I think we all find ourselves doing it more and more. It’s online 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and it’s totally international,” he said. And local, too. Just the other day, he got a mail order via the site from someone in Missoula.
Locally, the Frame of Mind shop on Brooks Street will showcase his collection of prints, posters and cards.
He also plans on exhibiting in museums around the state, like the one in Bigfork next month, and perhaps seek gallery representation outside of Montana.
The Great Falls native and University of Montana graduate found his earliest renown through movie posters for the Crystal Theatre, back when it was an art-house cinema.
He once shared a space at the Warehouse Mall with a handful of other artists before moving into a former radio station studio above the Top Hat.
He didn’t ever really hold First Friday viewings, although sometimes he’d get guests.
“People would come up and visit – they would find their way there,” he said.
He has fond memories of painting in a space above a hopping music venue, a Northern Rockies Fillmore West.
“I’d work till midnight, come down and catch a set from the band and go back up,” he said.
His art continued to sell locally and at galleries on other continents, and he had a gallery’s worth of posters and prints to his name by the time the former insurance office across the street became available.
He and some friends carried the art and supplies over “like leaf-cutter ants,” he said.
His gallery director warned him that the first 12 months would be tough. He and Mary Beth hoped to make it five years if they could.
Milo Miles, a friend of Dolack’s going back to the early ’70s, said there were a lot of artists at the time who didn’t want to go the academic route or through established galleries.
Dolack, he said, always wanted the independence of his own shop.
“All sorts of people do things like that,” Miles said. “Few end up having a permanent gallery that goes for decades that they end up owning, and show their work.”
The gallery had a successful gestation period, and also made it through a “touch-and-go” five-year stretch during the recession.
Miles said it’s a credit to Dolack’s business sense and work ethic, which not all artists have.
Dolack moved into shipping and framing, and kept diversifying his offerings, for instance.
“He’s one of the few that actually made it happen,” Miles said.
Dolack said it feels poignant saying goodbye to both First Friday events and a public presence downtown.
For a while, the monthly art walk tired him out, but the feeling passed.
“I thought, anybody who walks in the door, that cares enough about the work to want to walk in the door, I want to be there,” he said.
Tom Bensen, executive director of the Missoula Cultural Council, said Dolack’s gallery has been at the forefront of the city’s thriving art scene for as long as he can remember.
Indeed, it’s one of the oldest – if not the oldest – gallery in Missoula.
It contributed to the origins of the city’s now-expansive art walks, which can include upward of 35 openings at galleries, businesses, museums and shops.
“It’s going to be a big loss, but I think in general the gallery scene is very healthy,” Bensen said.
And part of that reason is “what Monte’s done.”
The Dolack Gallery was also rare in that it showed art only by its co-owners.
“To rely solely on your own stuff is a challenge, but I think he’s done well with that challenge,” Bensen said.
Dolack is quick to credit his staff, who keep the operation running while he paints from his studio at home.
“Look at this. I didn’t make this,” he said, while gesturing around the smartly arranged showroom.
He doesn’t believe artists ever really retire, and even as he discusses the gallery’s closing, ideas for exhibitions pop up in conversation.
“Something I would love to do is hang them all in a big room someday: 1975 to now, 40 years’ worth of making all these things, and see what they look like,” he said.
Maybe in chronological order, he said.
“I’ll need a big room.”
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