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Owen Powell's Bird Tail Butte artwork celebrates family history


January 10, 2018

Owen Powell, a 2016 CHS grad, is studying welding and metal fabrication at Helena College. He made this piece of art for his grandparents, Ted and Annette Powell who live just south of Chinook. The piece depicts Bird Tail Butte where the Powell family first ranched. Other items on the piece are significant to the history of the family and the uniqueness of that part of Blaine County. Ted Powell is pictured with the art.

Owen Powell likes to build things, especially using his welding and metal working skills. I first met Owen a couple of years ago, while he was still in high school, when he and a friend, Justin Kellam, built some custom bumpers and headache racks for their pickups. At that time the two friends got sticker shock when they went bumper shopping and decided they would make their own, which they did. They said at the time, "We like to build stuff."

Owen was looking to use his skills with metal to make a unique gift for his grandparents, Ted and Annette Powell of rural Chinook. Owen said, "I wanted to make something that would have real meaning to my grandparents." The 2016 Chinook High grad is currently a student at Helena College University of Montana studying welding and metal fabrication.

After some thought about the present for his grandparents, he came up with the idea of using his metalworking skills to create a work featuring Bird Tail Butte as the focal point. The Bird Tail Butte area in south Blaine County was where the Powell family first ranched when grandfather Ted was growing up. Owen said, "It was a natural choice as the butte is very recognizable and made a nice centerpiece for the work."

He added in lines and lettering to identify special features like Cow Creek and Grandma Powell Road. One section of the scene shows four livestock brands unique to the Powell family with a cow-calf pair above the brands. Another part of the scene depicts an elk. There's even a yucca plant, part of the unique flora of that part of Blaine County. Taken as a whole the piece gives a snapshot of the history of Owen's family and the country they came from.

Creating the art piece

Owen said once he had the overall idea and some of the features in mind he wanted to include, he was ready to design and make the piece. Beginning with a solid five by 10 foot sheet of 10 gauge mild steel he used a CNC table with a plasma torch to cut out the specific features of the piece. A CNC table (Computer Numerical Control) allows machining tools to complete tasks guided by a computer program. Owen programmed a plasma cutting torch to cut out the landscapes, brand symbols and other parts of the art and used flame temper to add color to the piece.

Asked about the time it took to complete the project, Owen said, "It took about two days to get the art how I wanted it and to write the computer program that would run the cutting torch. It took another half day to cut the piece, do the tempering work to add color, grind and polish the piece." He added, "It actually took only about 15 minutes for the plasma cutter to complete the cutting process." He used equipment at the college to make the piece.

Response to the

Bird Tail Butte piece

Ted and Annette Powell were enthusiastic when I asked about coming out to see the piece. It was sitting against a wall in the living room. The size, detail and color all immediately catch the eye. I asked about the durability of the piece assuming it was designed as an entrance road sign. Ted said, "I'm not sure we're going to hang it outside. We might display it inside the house. If we do decide to use it outside, we'll have to experiment with some similar metal to see how it does in the weather."

It was obvious the senior Powells liked the work. They each spent time pointing out specific features about the butte itself as well as the significance of Cow Creek and Grandma Powell Road. Ted especially enjoyed recalling and describing the significance of the four brands displayed on the piece.

Annette was impressed with the image of the yucca plant. She showed me a painting in another room of a yucca plant in bloom done by Olive Robinson, one of their former neighbors in the south country. Annette said, "You won't see those yucca plants anyplace else in Blaine County. Owen definitely captured the special place the area holds in the hearts of his grandparents.

Owen Powell poses next to one of the "barb wire" themed bumpers he and Justin Kellam made for their pickups while the two were still in high school. Powell is completing his second year of the Industrial Welding and Metal Fabrication program at Helena College. He will graduate in the spring with an Associate of Applied Science. He recently fabricated a metal artwork as a present for his grandparents, Ted and Annette Powell.

As to the function of the piece, Owen said, "I made it thinking it would be something to hang in the house. It turned out rather large so we might have to think about using it outside." He went on to say that wet weather would cause the metal to rust and the coloring would be affected by weather as well. For right now everyone seems comfortable just enjoying the piece where they can look at and enjoy the detail.

What's next?

Owen Powell didn't share any ideas for new things he's contemplating to build. He's working construction during the holiday break from college and will be completing his second and final year of the Industrial Welding and Metal Fabrication at the college. Helena College uses hands on experiences for its students and in the case of the welding and metal program, the latest technology is incorporated into the curriculum.

Asked about career plans, Owen said, "I'd like to work as a pipeline welder, that's my goal." He went on to explain that would likely mean working in North Dakota or Texas. He added, "There's definitely a demand for welders who can do that kind of work." One has to think with the creative streak and skills he's already acquired Owen will do well. His future is likely full of opportunities to "build stuff," it's what he likes to do.


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