When does a person become a legend? If he or she is an artist, is it when their work is found in museum collections around the world and in the homes of hundreds of art aficionados? Is it when their reputation is known far and wide— when they are the subject of films, articles, and books? If those are the criteria, Crow Indian painter Kevin Red Star is a legend. His art celebrates his Crow heritage, but his story is one of a great arching journey from humble roots, some strokes of luck, hard work, and the power of education.
Born in 1943 and raised in the tiny town of Lodge Grass, Montana, his artistic interest and basic ability were evident in his childhood. However, as he notes in the book recently published about his life and art, Kevin Red Star: Crow Indian Artist, there were challenges: “As I grew older, I got frustrated. I could draw, but … I didn’t really know what I was doing. I needed more training and skills, to be taught how to do it properly—what brushes to use, what paper or canvas, and so forth. I was saying to myself, ‘I have to go beyond this.’ But I had no idea, whatsoever, how to get deeper into the process.”
It was his opportunity to join the first class at the fledgling Institute of American Indian Arts (IAIA) in Santa Fe that provided him the springboard he would use to dive into the pool of international fine arts. IAIA was initially established as a residential preparatory school, and later transformed into a degree-granting college. It is hard to overestimate its influence on Red Star, his contemporaries, and subsequent generations of Native American artists. It launched a new era in Indian education that encouraged Native expression rather than its suppression, and its list of alumni and faculty reads like a who’s who in the field today.
In the fall of 1962, Red Star arrived for his junior year of high school. He’d never been more than 50 miles from home and like many of his fellow 140 students, he was homesick and dazed with culture shock. But, as he relates in his biography, “It was full of other students like me, fresh off the reservations. Some were from major cities, urban Indians, and they were really hip, you know. That first year we were shown a lot of international films, European and Japanese, and we had art history courses looking at American, European, and other international art.” Studying alongside him were painter T.C. Cannon (Caddo/Kiowa), sculptor Doug Hyde (Nez Perce/ Assiniboine/Chippewa), ledger artist George Flett (Spokane), and others who would become leading lights of the contemporary Indian art scene—all being taught by the likes of sculptor Allan Houser (Chiricahua Apache), Fritz Scholder (Luiseno), textile and apparel designer Lloyd Kiva New (Cherokee), and Charles Loloma (Hopi). At that time, Red Star wrote in a letter, “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.” More than 50 years later, it’s clear his ambitions have been realized, though not without clearing some significant hurdles. Asked to what he attributes his success, he cites many factors, including his artistic family’s encouragement. He is also very disciplined. He explains that at IAIA they had to leave their studios spotless after a session, so the next class or student could begin work as soon as they walked in. Today in his studio in Red Lodge, Montana, large jars of cleaned brushes await him. Canvases are arranged in a circle on easels that he moves between, his jars of paint meticulously set up. And here he comes almost daily to work, not awaiting some mystical inspiration.
“We (the IAIA students) produced a lot of art to get our names known,” he related in a 1990 article in Southwest Art magazine. “We proved the saying, ‘The more you practice the luckier you get.’ Work, work, and more work can make things happen.” He also notes he has an optimistic nature. In a catalog for his 2005 exhibition at the Yellowstone Art Museum in Billings, Montana, he noted, “I always feel my next piece is going to be my best; I can do better. And you can’t be concerned with critics—you’ll always have them.”
And, he encourages any artist to be brave and to make the effort. “I’m here to say, you can do anything you want to do. But you have to have some goal— just try! It’s okay if you fail, but try! That’s what it is all about.”
Daniel Gibson is the former editor of Native Peoples magazine and author of Kevin Red Star: Crow Indian Artist.
Gibson, D., & Leaken, K. (ed. of photography) (2014). Kevin Red Star: Crow Indian Artist. Layton, Utah: Gibbs Smith. Swanson, J.A. (1990, July). Kevin Red Star. Southwest Art, 82-86.