Montana Museum of Art and Culture Director Rafael Chacón, artist Rudy Autio’s daughter Lisa, and Autio’s longtime friend and co-creator Hugh Warford are working to rebuild Autio’s sculpture “Signal” in metal after the original, made of a soft cement, degraded over time. The sculpture will anchor the outside plaza of the new MMAC building and has so far received one-third of the needed $60,000 in donations. Autio’s daughter has spent several years monitoring the health of his public works, commissioned by clients ranging from churches to banks, in an effort to preserve his creations. The original “Grizzly Bear” sculpture remains an iconic piece of UM’s campus.
As highlighted by the University of Montana News, there are two sculptures that tell a tale of two different fates. One is the iconic “Grizzly Bear” sculpture that has been a staple of UM’s campus since 1969, while the other is the lesser-known “Signal” sculpture, which was constructed of a cement not made to last and has since been removed from display.
Both sculptures were the work of venerated artist Rudy Autio, who was the head of ceramics at UM for many years, a professor emeritus, and one of the country’s preeminent ceramicists. The “Grizzly Bear” sculpture has been a beloved piece of UM’s campus for generations of students and alumni, while “Signal” has been buried in Autio’s illustrious portfolio of work until now.
For more than five years, Autio’s daughter Lisa and the artist’s longtime friend and co-creator Hugh Warford have worked with Montana Museum of Art and Culture Director Rafael Chacón to determine a better future for the deteriorating “Signal” sculpture. The original sculpture was made of a soft cement that degraded with time, and after it was put into storage in 2019, it was clear that it could not be repaired again.
Chacón explained, “So the question became how do we bring back a significant piece of public sculpture without necessarily rebuilding it. We decided we’d do what Rudy originally wanted to do and that was to create ‘Signal’ in metal.” The three are now collecting donations to build “Signal” anew, and UM grad Nick Chaussee has been commissioned to build it. So far, they have tallied about one-third of the needed $60,000 to build the sculpture, which will eventually anchor the outside plaza of the new MMAC building.
Lisa Autio has spent the past several years monitoring the health of her father’s public works, which were commissioned by clients as far-ranging as churches and banks. She said, “After 50 years, people lose track of who the artist was. I like to make sure they are in good condition for the next 50.” Warford, who first met Rudy Autio in the 1960s, added, “It’s so important to keep these works alive. They’re a part of our cultural history.”
The new “Signal” sculpture will be made of metal, fulfilling Autio’s original vision for the piece. It will be a significant addition to UM’s campus and a tribute to Autio’s legacy as a master ceramicist. The sculpture will join the ranks of the “Grizzly Bear” and other public works of art that enrich the campus and serve as a of pride for the UM community.
To wrap up, Autio’s “Grizzly Bear” and “Signal” sculptures have two different fates, with one being an iconic piece of UM’s campus and the other being a lesser-known work that has been removed from display. However, with the help of Lisa Autio, Hugh Warford, and Rafael Chacón, “Signal” will be reborn in metal and join the ranks of other public works of art that enrich UM’s campus and serve as a testament to Autio’s legacy as a master ceramicist.