Childcare options were already limited in Lander when COVID-19 forced some centers to close, leaving more than 100 families without reliable childcare. So a few locals got together to create a new option and—with LOR's help—expand their facility to accommodate more kids. Read more
The public artwork in Libby, Montana, could not be more conspicuous. Cruise into town and you’ll see a 1957 Nash Ambassador mounted on a pole 20 feet high. Hang a right onto the main drag, and you’ll pass under an archway with a massive bald eagle atop; it’s one of many large, metal birds adorning the “City of Eagles.” You’ll see murals, too, depicting loggers, ranchers, wings, and wildlife. And if you look carefully, you’ll see sasquatches painted and sculpted all over town.
Much of this work was born from the mind of Todd Berget, who worked more than 30 years as an art teacher and ended his career teaching at Libby Central School, an alternative learning environment for high schoolers who haven’t found success in traditional educational settings. Berget helped students tackle these ambitious, quirky, and prominent art projects and encouraged the students to participate in public art projects that created both civic and individual pride.
In 2017, Berget retired, and two years later he died from complications following a severe stroke. His death shocked Libby. More than 500 people attended his memorial service, and high school students gave him a raucous salute by revving chainsaws in the air at a Loggers football game shortly after. Residents wondered who would carry his legacy forward.
Heather Robertson, an artist and educator who had been working at Libby Central School, stepped into the role as the lead art teacher—first as a volunteer, and then taking on the role full-time in 2019. She worked, as Berget had for three decades, to inspire budding artists. “Todd was a big man with a big heart. He was so incredibly creative and had his fingers on everything in town,” Robertson says. “He touched so many kids’ lives. I had big shoes to fill.”
For the first couple of years, Robertson says the art program was well-supported by the school district. “But it got to the point where [money for supplies] was coming out of my pocket,” she says. “Which was fine until I couldn’t afford it anymore.” She started asking around town to see who might be able to help, and city officials pointed her to the LOR Foundation, which had established a presence in Libby in June 2022.
Robertson reached out to Tabitha Viergutz, Libby community officer for the LOR Foundation. Viergutz listened as Robertson explained her idea for reinvigorating the art program with new supplies as well as bringing professional artists into the classroom to lead clinics for students. “Heather was so passionate about working with the students, and she was also trying to preserve a history of creating art in Libby,” Viergutz says. “The community impact was clear, and it was something LOR was excited to get behind.”
While Robertson was nervous that pursuing a grant would be overly complicated, Viergutz guided her through the easy process and in December 2022 LOR made a $10,250 grant to Libby Central School, allowing Robertson to purchase supplies like paint, dye, resin as well as wood burners, safety equipment, and sewing machines. “We have all the equipment and supplies we need for at least the next two years,” Robertson says.
Already, that new equipment is being put to use by students like Hunter Gonzales, a senior at the school, who credits the art program with helping him refocus on school. “I want to improve myself. That’s part of my goal in school,” he says. “And Heather is so patient; she’s helping me achieve that goal.”
This fall, Gonzales and seven of his classmates began creating another visual reminder that in Libby, Montana, public art is part of the town’s identity. The senior class started painting a mural—which will depict the Kootenay River flowing through town—in the pocket park (recently named Peace Officer Park) between the police station and the Timberline Auto Center. Gonzalez knows it will honor the legacy of art in Libby when it’s completed in the spring. “I will be really proud of that mural,” he says. “Just knowing you were part of something—that’s everything. That’s big.”
In keeping with a Libby tradition established by Berget, a new set of metal wings will also be erected in front of the mural when it’s finished, ensuring that—as predictably as the Kootenai River itself—art will flow through Libby for many more years.
If you’d like to learn more about Libby Central School or support its local art projects, you can visit the Libby Public Schools website for more information.Contact Libby Schools
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