After few minutes spent viewing art student Jennifer DuToit’s senior thesis — an earthy mixture of dirt, hair and nostalgia — it’s clear that as her academic experience at the University of Montana draws to a close, her heart is still buried safely in the soil of her hometown of Butte, America. Five years of working and playing in the Missoula Valley haven’t led her to dig it up quite yet.
“I’m trying to incorporate the history of mining, childhood and collecting,” DuToit said. “This idea of ‘kids playing around in the dirt.’”
And these kids have left some interesting things on her shelves, including a mallet with a head made of hair, a locket half-submerged in earth, a rusty pick-axe and several dozen catalogued glass jars, also filled with human hair.
“It’s a historical narrative. I’m curious about the collecting and the objects we choose,” said DuToit, who took direct influence from memorial art found throughout the United States and Europe throughout the 15th century. “I’m using hair and the history of art to connect with the history of Butte.
“It’s beautiful and it’s fun to work with, but it’s also repulsive, she said. “And I think that’s exciting.”
DuToit is on hiatus in the Missoula Valley to pursue her artistic goals through academics at UM. It’s easy for her to transport herself as she talks about her hometown and its impact on her art. She recalls a formative Butte memory — a walk with her grandmother to Acid Lake.
DuToit recalled a day when she and her grandmother traveled through the twisting and maze-like roads of Walkerville, a Montana town with a history and location so closely intertwined with Butte that a visitor would consider them one in the same — and eventually came to the edge of a cliff to gaze upon what locals call “Acid Lake.”
As they traveled closer to the lake, known as the Berkeley Pit, there were few plants and other types of life to be found.
“The water and surrounding area is a beautiful teal and aqua color,” she recalls. “But despite what mining has done to the surrounding area it still possesses a strange sort of beauty.”
DuToit is very much aware of the amount of negative attention scientists, historians and other artists have given Butte’s mining history and its enormous environmental impacts. The Berkeley Pit is an infamous old copper mining pit that is slowly filling with highly acidic, chemical-infused water.
“My work is meant to be sympathetic to the people of Butte, not the disaster,” she said. “I don’t want people to forget that there’s a rich history in this town. Regardless of what the landscape looks like now, there’s still a community making a life there. I want to uplift them.”
DuToit spent much of her four years learning the craft of printmaking, but for her senior thesis she decided to use a mixed collection of found items and “soft” sculptures, an artform which molds cloth, fabric or hair, rather than wood, stone and clay.
“Sometimes it’s really difficult to put your ideas into words, and I think, with this project, I just had to go with my instincts.”
DuToit recently landed a job assisting with a photograph and archiving project for the World Museum of Mining in Butte. Anyone with the opportunity to view her senior thesis in the social science building knows that this is an endeavor DuToit has already begun.