By Matthew Harris Summer Mellon Intern
This summer I had the chance to intern at the Colorado Spring Fine Art Center. Funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, I have spent the majority of my time focusing on art and culture in the southwest. Under the supervision of Michael Howell, I have sampled most of the things going on at a museum, creating condition reports, photographing objects, conducting research, assisting with incoming shipments and more. My inspiration for this blog came from a trip to Albuquerque and Santa Fe, New Mexico. There, we met with directors and curators of various museums. At the Museum of Indian Arts and Culture, a series of exhibits featuring Contemporary Native American Art drew me in and sparked a new interest in me. This has been my last week as a Mellon Intern and besides meeting with two art conservators I have spent it researching the collection of Contemporary Native America works. The collection itself is small, but contains some important pieces. I’m particularly interested in Kevin Red Star, a pivotal figure in the tradition.
The third child of nine, Kevin Red Star was born to Amy Bright Wings and Wallace Red Star on the Crow Reservation in south central Montana. Red Star was born and grew up in the small reservation town of Lodge Grass, only 20 miles from the site of the Battle of Little Bighorn. With his many brothers, Kevin would explore their family ranch, foraging for wild berries and drawing in inspiration from the landscape.
As a boy, Kevin spent much of his time drawing. He drew the mountain cliffs, trees, and chokecherries. His parents were supportive of all their children’s interests. Kevin’s Father in particular would go to flea markets and pick up western illustrations, mainly Charles Russell and Frederic Remington, for Kevin to copy and trace. Kevin showed much artistic promise in school and was frequently called upon by his teachers to draw posters, decorate rooms for holidays, or to work on sets for plays.
As he grew older, Kevin desired to expand his practice, he was skilled at drawing but wanted to explore other mediums as well. In 1962 he was awarded a scholarship to the Institute of American Indian Arts (IAIA) in Sante Fe, New Mexico. IAIA was a new school that aimed to blend a more traditional liberal arts education with native culture. Kevin was part of the first class, which had 150 students from 80 different tribes from across the country. They studied many artistic traditions and had resources to explore any medium or style that interested them. Some of the earlier staff and students involved with the school included Fritz Scholder, Lloyd Kiva New, Alan Houser, Charles Loloma, Earl Biss, and Dan Namingha. These figures found themselves at the forefront of the movement bridging historical native aesthetics with modern western sensibilities.
Kevin Red Star paints exclusively his people, the Crow. He paints warriors with shields, decorated horses, women in buckskin and elktooth dresses, and many other images of Crow culture. Red Star has been redefining Contemporary Native America Art in a prolific career spanning more than 30 years. He has been featured in more than 100 large exhibitions, including dozens of one person shows. His paintings are featured in galleries at the Smithsonian Institution, the National Museum of the American Indian, the Heard Museum, and the Eiteljorg Museum of American Indians.
Drawn from his time at IAIA Red Star had this to say about his decision to depict the life of his own cultural upbringing, “Indian Culture has in the past been ignored to a great extent. It is for me, as well as many other Indian artists, a rich source of creative expression. It is taking a new direction today with many exciting happenings. An intertwining of my Indian culture with contemporary art expression has given me… greater insight concerning my art. I hope to accomplish something for the American Indian and at the same time achieve personal satisfaction in a creative statement through my art” (A Taste of Life in New Mexico, August 2017).
This piece, Pipe Carrier, 1978, lithograph, depicts a Crow war leader in traditional attire. Red Star uses close up portrait style compositions in his art, forcing the viewer to acknowledge the figure depicted, as well as the tradition represented. In doing this he is bringing light to a cultural history forgotten by nearly all. At 73 and still creating, Kevin Red Star is a well-respected figure in Contemporary Native American art and continues to inspire generations of young artists.