Waldazo’s long journey to Fire Pit Park and the community that made it possible
By Mira Brody EBS STAFF
BIG SKY – More so now than ever, Big Sky has become a haven for recreationists and families from all over the country and world in search of a quieter pace of life among the mountains. Perhaps an apt symbol of this collective migration and its formation into a sound community, is Waldazo, the iconic bison sculpture who calls Fire Pit Park home.
Waldazo is the centerpiece to many visiting family photos. It is made from a hodge-podge of metal parts and stands, unmoving, against gale-force winds, mountains of snow and the beating sun. It represents the success of the Arts Council of Big Sky’s public arts program as well as the skilled craft of local artist Kirsten Kainz. Waldazo’s story, however, began with Steve Johnson in San Antonio, Texas.
Johnson was a teacher of history and sociology as well as the founding member of the Chain Gang, a motorcycle club who devoted their time in retirement traveling all over the U.S. while volunteering their time to those in need. When they weren’t riding, they were serving food at local homeless shelters and heading up fundraisers to benefit local family-oriented charities and single mothers.
After his daughter, Katherine Johnson, relocated to Bozeman in 2008 with her family, he’d make the trip to visit whenever possible. After a Stage 4 cancer diagnosis in 2016 left him with limited time, Katherine says her father made the decision to move to Bozeman to spend his final days with her family.
“When we moved up here that was really hard because I was the only child,” said Johnson of her father. “He would come visit sometimes. He definitely liked to be off the beaten path. He would tell people that he came up here to die—he wanted to spend his last time with us.”
After he passed, Johnson was left cleaning out her father’s garage. He was a collector—Johnson has vivid memories of her father scouting out old tire weights on the side of the road—and the garage was filled with rusty chains, tools, screwdrivers, piles of scrap metal and furniture.
“My dad would find value in everything, things that seem useless to other people,” she said. “He used to joke about how he could fix a VW with a tuna can. Most everything was just things he found value in and would save.”
While perusing the selection at the Architect’s Wife in Bozeman one day with her husband, Johnson spotted a light fixture made of reclaimed metal by Kirsten Kainz. She contacted the artist to see if she would be interested in some of the “junk” left by her father. Kainz, who had already been commissioned by the Arts Council to build a public art sculpture, came by with a truck to collect what she refers to as “treasures.”
“Katherine had reached out to me and let me know she had a whole lot of treasure from her father when he had passed away, and wanted to see it go into a beautiful structure because she had seen my work,” Kainz said. “It’s a great process. I’ve been scouring junkyards for 35 years because it’s so satisfying just going through mounds and mounds of metal and I look for items that have a magical tone to me, a shape or texture. Those become my palette and when I’m building and it’s going really well, the right pieces find the right place.”
After Kainz finalized the sculpture, finding a home on the corner of Ousel Falls Road in Town Center, the bison needed a name. They settled on “Waldazo,” Steve Johnson’s pen name when he’d write poetry.
Waldazo was on loan for two years, and following a successful fundraising campaign led by Arts Council volunteer Patty Rhea, they were able to raise a total of $55,000 so the sculpture could remain in Fire Pit Park permanently.
“We at the Arts Council are so glad that Waldazo is now a permanent fixture in Big Sky,” said Megan Buecking, education and outreach director at the Arts Council. “It is one of our most beloved sculptures and I think this piece in particular embodies what public art is all about. The fact that the local artist didn’t just use donated tools to create the piece, she captured the personal history and meaning behind each tool and tied it all together with the donor’s namesake is a powerful reflection of the artist’s skill and the legacy the donor has left behind.”
The Arts Council’s public art program, as well as the purchase of Waldazo, was made possible entirely by the community in which it resides. Buecking says donations poured in from individuals ranging from local children who contributed pocket change during the farmer’s market, to major donations from generous patrons. The generosity of Waldazo’s permanent existence in Big Sky, she says, is reflective of the value the community places on art, artists and culture.
“I’m super happy that it’s staying there and that it’s kind of an iconic thing for people to really rely on it always being there,” Kainz said. “I think it’s really fun for visitors, I see a lot of good energy there. It’s part of the experience being in Big Sky.”
Johnson says she and her family like to stop by and say hello to her father’s memory when they come to Big Sky to ski on weekends.
“It was really awesome to go up afterwards and see,” Johnson said. “It was cool to walk around and see all these things put to use. It was really cool to find out that it was going to stay there. He would definitely think it’s super awesome that it’s like this community attraction sort of thing.”
Waldazo will have an official unveiling and dedication in December during which they will also designate the sculpture a birthday: Oct. 10—the same birthday of Waldazo the poet.