By Ashley Oliverio EBS Contributor
BIG SKY – During the last week of July, Montana-born artist Katie Lee gave the mountain town she loves a permanent art installation that has locals talking.
Lee’s hand-painted teepee was years in the making, inspired by her personal spiritual journey guided by Native American friends and punctuated by stirring encounters with earthly and otherworldly beings.
The daughter of Big Sky homeowners Merrilee and Randy Brown, Lee felt the ideal spot for her artwork would be near her parents’ home in the Brownstone Loop across Highway 64 from the entrance to Lone Mountain Ranch.
The 18-foot-high teepee reflects Lee’s lifetime obsession with the effect of light and vivid color on human perception. Lit from within at night, the vibrantly painted canvas shows off its celestial themes as if interpreting the star tales unfurling each clear night overhead.
A self-taught artist with works adorning the walls of homes and businesses in Montana and across the Midwest, Lee had previously painted images of teepees. But she had never thought of painting on an actual Native American lodge until four years ago, when a Big Sky family asked her to make one to display in their yard. Pregnant with her first child and not physically up to the task, Lee turned down the project, but the idea never left her.
Ultimately, she purchased a canvas from Custom Canvas Design in Four Corners. Based on a mix of Cheyenne- and Sioux-styles, the canvas was the product of consultation between the company’s co-owner Judy Feldman and Native American elders. Lee brought the semi-circle canvas home to her Grand Forks, North Dakota, studio and began contemplating ideas while waiting for inspiration.
It came with the total lunar eclipse of September 2015.
That eclipse received widespread media coverage because of its rarity during a “super moon,” with our lunar neighbor appearing larger than usual during its closest approach to Earth. Internet rumors dubbed it a “blood moon” with apocalyptic meaning.
“I realized through personal experience how humans and their emotional energies are connected to the phases of the moon, especially women,” Lee said. “This rare event was the beginning of a string of impactful events in my life, and I decided to incorporate its symbolism toward the very top of the teepee.”
Her research into the ancient art of teepee painting revealed that Native people would often create their work based on visions they experienced during meditation or dreams. Lee also learned that the “teepee ring” of rocks on a bluff overlooking a river on her parents’ western North Dakota ranch was actually a medicine wheel—a place where tribal people would gather to worship and gain spiritual enlightenment.
Drawing from a spiritual predawn experience of her own at the site, Lee selected the medicine wheel as one of her teepee’s primary symbols. And as a result of her medicine-wheel experience, Katie was invited to a sweat lodge ceremony led by descendants of Sitting Bull’s Sioux tribe from South Dakota.
“As my mother, my friends and I traveled to the sweat lodge in November 2015, we saw 10 bald eagles soaring and guiding us all the way to the ceremony. This led me to use an eagle for another of the teepee’s main symbols,” Lee said.
The last of the teepee’s three leading images is the bison skull shield, honoring the animal that provided food, shelter, tools and much more to High Plains tribes. From the elders at the sweat lodge, Lee learned that the people so revered the bison that they thought of them as ancestors sent to teach them.
“In retrospect, the three main symbols I chose for the teepee actually chose me,” Lee said.
On July 26, as a watchful hawk flew overhead, Jeffrey Feldman and his assistant John Peterka of Custom Canvas Design began the two-and-a-half-hour teepee raising by joining the three heaviest poles into a tripod that would mark north, south and east. After tying on additional poles, they draped the frame with Katie’s handpainted canvas and pushed it skyward.
A local shaman led a blessing ceremony with Lee and her family in attendance, along with a few Big Sky neighbors. With a door facing east to wake sleepers with the sunrise, the structure’s west wall shields the interior from the wind—all in keeping with the logical engineering style of High Plains teepees meant to protect families from the elements.
The utility of Lee’s artwork was put to the test just a few hours after the raising ceremony, when a windstorm blew through Big Sky, sending lawn furniture flying but leaving the teepee unfazed.
“Raising the teepee was the culmination of a journey I would have never expected and will never forget,” Lee said. “Although it seems the project has now come full circle, a big part of me feels this is just the beginning of something even greater.”
Visit gallerybykatielee.com for more information on Katie Lee and her work.
Ashley Oliverio is a freelance writer based in Big Sky and a writer/editor for the Wild Sheep Foundation in Bozeman.