The Blaine County Journal News-Opinion - We've Got The County Covered

South of Border in the Sweet Grass Hills


April 10, 2019

Coltan and Lon Hoppe pose next to a bass violin sculpture they created. This piece was on display in Twisp, Washington last year. Twisp is a small community with an active arts program. The town is located on the eastern slope of the Cascade Mountains. Lon Hoppe grew up in Shelby and has done a number of metal art pieces in collaboration with his son Coltan. The artist now lives in eastern Washington and has a number of pieces on display in the public arts program of Coeur d'Alene, Idaho.

Column No. 7

Columnist's note: Travelers headed north from Shelby on I-5 may have seen the 'standing elk' on the east side of the interstate just before the exit to Oilmont. The elk is in a slight depression on the edge of a grove of small trees (really the only trees next to the interstate for several miles). If travelers see the elk, the view is brief, especially at 80 mph.

I first saw the elk when my wife and I were headed north to Whitlash from Shelby. About a 100 yards past the site of the statue, I turned to my wife and said, "I think I just saw an elk on the side of the road." She scoffed.

I mentioned this to one of the longtime residents of Whitlash. They assured me I was not hallucinating but what I saw was "a statue of an elk, not a real one." I wanted to learn about the elk and asked a lot of questions about who made the statue, what the point was and when it was set in place.

To find the creator I asked about the artist at the Four Corners Café, at the Oilmont exit. That's when I first heard the name Lon Hoppe, who made the elk sculpture. I then talked to Bill Doughty about Hoppe's possible whereabouts. Doughty owns a repair shop in Oilmont where the elk statue was fabricated. A Whitlash resident thought Lon Hoppe was "somewhere in the Spokane area making lawn sculptures with his son."

I located W. Lon Hoppe in Wilbur, Washington, a farm community on U.S. Highway 2 about 50 miles west of Spokane. Hoppe was happy to talk about his art. Here's some of what I learned about the elk statue and the artist.

The artist and the statue

W. Lon Hoppe was born and raised in Shelby and graduated from Shelby High in 1968. He worked a variety of jobs in the area, some as far north as the Sweet Grass Hills. Mostly he did carpentry and construction work, working a couple of years "for a guy who was laying pipeline." He did projects for several people in the Whitlash area and for the local school.

Asked how he got the idea to build the elk statue Hoppe said, "I was visiting Manitou Springs, Colorado (a town at the base of Pikes Peak) where I saw several large dinosaur sculptures. I got the idea of making sculptures of the major North American big game animals." That was the beginning of an idea to create the elk sculpture and subsequent pieces.

While the statue's construction is not readily apparent from the interstate at 80 miles per hour in a vehicle, the elk statue is made of barbed wire. Hoppe explained, "I used rebar to make the frame for the elk, then wrapped barbed wire around the frame to give the elk shape and form." Shop owner Bill Doughty said, "He must have worn out three or four pairs of leather gloves wrapping all that barbed wire."

Hoppe explained how he acquired the barbed wire. "The wire was mostly used," he said,

"I asked ranchers and farmers if I could have it and they gave it to me. I had about two miles of barbed wire." Some of the wire was so "old and brittle" that he couldn't use it.

Hoppe believes the sculpture was completed and set in place around 2000. The artist said the statue weighs about 800 pounds. Doughty's shop truck, with a lifting boom, was used to set the sculpture in place. Lon said, "I had no particular place in mind to set it, but thought it would look good in the field where it currently sits. Each spring, before Lon moved from the area, the statue would be moved to a different location in the field.

Hoppe pursued his idea to build more large game animals and produced "white tail and mule deer and more elk." He was commissioned to create an 1l00 pound buffalo, as well as some horses, for a client in Valier. He added, "I used a different medium than barbed wire. I pretty much learned that was a tough way to do sculpture."

Lon Hoppe's art

career blossomed

I first discovered Hoppe's work displayed in an ArtsCurrent brochure, a publication that lists and pictures current works of art on lease for the city of Coeur d'Alene's public art program. Started in 1999, a portion of public funds (1.33% of the cost of a qualifying public works project) is set aside to lease and buy for display in the Idaho city.

It took a few years for the public art fund to grow to a point where there was sufficient money to lease and buy art for display in the city's public spaces. The city pays a stipend to artists whose works are chosen for the annual display. Those pieces are also for sale with proceeds to the artist. A 25 percent sales commission to the city helps support the public art program.

Hoppe has two pieces in this year's brochure of leased or purchased art. The artist explained, "I've had art pieces in the program since it started and the city has purchased my pieces for its permanent collection as well." Lon's son, Coltan, has a shop where the two create the pieces. Lon said, "Coltan collaborates on the larger pieces and he is a much better welder than I am."

Lon Hoppe's art invokes a message beyond our region

Lon has not limited his art to only large, outdoor sculptures. He said, "I've got art pieces all over the U.S. and Canada, everything from the large sculptures to wall hangings for interior spaces." Hoppe added, "I've run into truck drivers from all over who say they've seen the elk statue outside Oilmont."

Describing his art, Hoppe wrote in an artist's statement, "I've always tried to invoke a message in these sculptures as a song sounds to the listener, a feeling...something!" For those travelers fortunate enough to see the elk statue alongside I-15, thank Lon Hoppe for creating and sharing that "something feeling."


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