Connected by Water

by Kurt Dehmer, artwork by Monte Dolack

Angling art is a niche genre. Those folks who enjoy, purchase, or collect it are most likely anglers, or at least fish enthusiasts. However, there is one “angling artist” that everyone in Montana is familiar with, whether they know it or not, as this particular angling artist is the creative force behind several fish- and river-focused Montana license plates. Allow me to introduce you to Monte Dolack. Monte is the artist responsible for the iconic Montana Trout Unlimited license plate as well as the Montana State Parks plate. Recently, I was fortunate enough to catch up with Mr. Dolack in between projects in his winter studio.

Kurt Dehmer: So where did you grow up, and what did your folks do?
Monte Dolack: I was born and raised in Great Falls. My dad worked in the Anaconda Smelter, and my mom was a homemaker.

KD: How and when did you get into wildlife and fishing art, and who were you biggest influences? 
MD: I don’t remember a time when I wasn’t fascinated by rivers. My uncle worked for the highway department out of Craig, and every chance we got, my dad would take me down there fishing and camping. I think it was on these trips where I really started to feel that connection with the fish, the wildlife, and the water. I think that the river itself is a huge influence. Of course, my dad and my uncle were the ones who exposed me to that world. As far as my art is concerned, I’d say that Charlie Russell was a big influence, mainly because I could just go walk around his place as a kid and get a feeling of how he saw things. I’ve also drawn inspiration from Winslow Homer, Russell Chatham, and Robert Bateman.

KD: What is it about wild things and wild places that influences your work?
MD: It’s hard to say. A river is always moving, always pushing, like a beating heart. So, as the river flows, life flows along with it. I remember fishing the Blackfoot late in the evening one time, and watching a black bear amble along the bank, I was thinking about the connection that I had with that bear, and the waterfowl, and the fish. All of us were there, in that place simply because of the river. I think that is why rivers and water are influential in my work—they have this ability to connect everything.

KD: Where is your favorite place to fish, and what is your favorite species to fish for?
MD: I love fishing in Montana. In my opinion Montana is the birthplace of waters and in that way those waters are special to me. I don’t target specific fish anymore. Unless I need a photo for a piece I’m working on, I will often just clip my hook off and fish with a hook-less fly. I get a lot of joy out of the take, especially on a dry fly. But I guess I’d have to say that my favorite fish are those scrappy native fish, like cutthroat, that manage to survive in the most unlikely of places. And in all honesty, when I’m fishing, I will oftentimes set my rod down and grab my camera—sometimes I’m fishing for images and inspiration, as much as I am for actual fish.

KD: In regard to your angling art, which is your favorite piece to date?
MD: That’s a difficult question. I’m pretty excited with my Blackfoot River piece that ended up as the Montana TU license plate. A lot of folks enjoy that, and it helps fund the resources and fish that inspired it.

KD: In closing, do you have any thoughts on the present state of angling art, or angling in general?
MD: A lot of my work is “funky”—trout, or bears, or ducks being in places that they shouldn’t; but then, there they are. Sometimes I feel that way about how we utilize our river resources: lots of people enjoying that resource, but in a lot of ways not understanding the impact they are having.

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