Living Off the Land

Patrick Zentz ‘69

Patrick Zentz ’69 has lived off the land as a rancher and artist. Raised on a Montana plateau encompassed by mountains, he has passed most of his life in that sparse place, herding cattle, driving tractors and creating art that interacts with the natural world. His eclectic sculptures emerge from his environment, translating temperature and wind into movement, sound and design. “The pieces are simple conceptually but hard to explain unless you see them,” Patrick says. The art is purely personal, differing for every viewer. Photographs can’t capture the elements at play; the sculptures require presence for comprehension. Over more than 20 years, Patrick has compiled a lengthy list of commissions, exhibits and professional activities. He is best known for his large, public works, but he also creates pieces for galleries and small studio works for collectors and museums.

A biology major at Westmont, Patrick became seriously interested in art as a student. After studying kinetics, botany and zoology, he realized he was more intrigued with interaction between systems than in systems themselves — and with movement, an essential part of interaction. Professor Tom Soule encouraged him to embrace art to pursue this passion. After graduating, he and his wife, Suzie Hedley Zentz ’69, moved to Montana, where he earned a master of fine arts degree in sculpture at the University of Montana.

After six years of teaching, Patrick returned to his roots and leased a ranch close to his childhood home. Working the land provided profound inspiration for his art. One day, while he and Suzie were plowing, a flat tire forced him to shut down his tractor and wait for her to find him. “I noticed that the wind was blowing in such a way that it drifted the engine noise of her tractor away, but I could hear the cultivator shanks hitting rocks in the field,” he says. “It struck me that the plonking and plinking I was hearing was a translation of the landscape. The natural position of the rocks in the field was like a musical score that the moving cultivator was playing. I had been designing instruments that interacted with the environment in various ways . . . but this little epiphany with sound changed everything. Sound and motion are tightly linked. My work was set.”

One of his early pieces, Heliotrope at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, Alumni Center, illustrates his approach. The sculpture tracks solar phenomena (wind, temperature and seasons) and reflects changing conditions with light, sound and images. When a secretary told Patrick the sculpture let her know whether to put on sunglasses or a coat when leaving the building, he knew the piece had become a translator, bringing the effects of the environment inside. Later projects translate pedestrian motion on the street or movement through building hallways into the play of drums.

Patrick says ranching was a great way to raise his sons. “They learn what work is, what matters and the importance of ecology.” The youngest, a bareback bronc rider for the University of Montana, majors in geology and minors in ceramics, the middle son is a sportswriter in Boise, Idaho, and the oldest is a training coordinator for an energy services company. The Zentzes have five grandchildren.

Since he devotes all his time to commissions, Patrick no longer ranches, and he has recreated his land by reseeding it with native prairie grasses, carefully noting the ways it has changed. He hopes to hold symposia there to explore another interaction: the relationship between art, ecology and global geopolitics.

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