Preserving cultural integrity through art

By Sarah Gianelli
EBS Associate Editor

ROBERTS, Mont. – Behind an unassuming storefront on a pot-holed side street in a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it town north of Red Lodge is the grand studio and private gallery of one of the nation’s preeminent Native American artists, Kevin Red Star.

Inside, the walls are adorned with the largest number of Red Star originals amassed in one place. These works—portraits and scenes depicting traditional Crow life with a contemporary, stylized aesthetic—are part of the artist’s personal collection and while not available for sale are often lent out for museum exhibitions.

Their quiet power evokes a hush. One knows they are beholding something visually arresting but senses that the full extent of their significance might prove forever elusive. A similar aura surrounds the humble artist himself.

Red Star’s daughter and artist assistant, Sunny Red Star, guides me to a cavernous warehouse space adjacent to the foyer, where Red Star stands before two large works in progress, paintbrush in hand.

One of them was inspired by a photograph taken of a Crow man by the prolific Edward S. Curtis in the late 1800s. Red Star was captivated by the stark tonal contrast when he came across the image and is reimagining it freehand with graphite and diluted acrylics, although most of his recent work is in oils.

Although still in its early phases, it is already “distinctively Kevin.” His style defies rigid categorization—a single painting may combine impressionistic, realistic and design elements—but as Sunny said, “you know when you have a Red Star.” You should also know that the utmost attention and care has been spent on the rendering of every detail.

“I try to be as accurate as possible when portraying Crow designs,” said Red Star, who takes his role as a visual historian with great responsibility. He spends as much time researching his people’s culture in libraries and museums and studying artifacts as he does painting. “If I am painting a Crow teepee—it has to be all Crow. The design, the dress, the hairstyles, it all has to be taken into consideration. I am portraying who we are, like in a book, like a photograph—in doing so it keeps that integrity there for the young people.”

Although Red Star and his work have travelled the globe—his paintings have permanent homes in all the major museums of Western art including the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of the American Indian—and the artist has a second residence in Santa Fe, he cannot stray too far, for too long, from his Crow roots.

Growing up in Lodge Grass, Red Star had never been more than 50 miles from the reservation until he was 16 when, having demonstrated artistic talent, he was recruited to be among the inaugural high school class of the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe in 1962.

“I didn’t know where it was going to take me but I loved what I was doing. Even back then,” Red Star said.

IAIA provided an immersive, comprehensive art education and the tools, encouragement and instruction to launch a lifelong career in the arts. Today Red Star is recognized as the first professional artist to emerge from the Crow people. He lived and worked in New Mexico, California and New York, and traveled extensively abroad before returning to permanently reside near or on the reservation in 1987.

“I miss it when I’m too far away,” said Red Star. “I’m family oriented. I gotta have the mountains and my rivers … the Yellowstone, Big Horn and Arrow Creek.” In times when work and life have taken him for extended periods elsewhere, he would seek out ceremonies, sweat lodges, pow wows or drum circles for a fix of the traditional and culturally familiar.

Red Star still generates a childlike enthusiasm for the arts. Painting has enabled him to find personal satisfaction and pure enjoyment while serving a larger purpose. His advice to anyone with a dream—artistic or otherwise—is to stay true, whatever the pursuit, and remain dedicated.

“It’s like being a scientist,” Red Star said. “It all pays off in the end if you’ve found something that can help all of humanity—like my art. It teaches and gives to the young people of the world, not just the Crow or Native Americans but to all indigenous people everywhere.”

This is the second part of a three-part series spotlighting artists participating in the Arts Council of Big Sky’s fifth annual art auction on Thursday, March 23 at Moonlight Lodge from 6 to 9 p.m.

To see more of Red Star’s work visit kevinredstar.com or visit Creighton Block Gallery in Big Sky.

For more information about the auction, including details about opportunities for VIP ticket holders to meet Red Star at an artist luncheon and reception, call (406) 995-2742 or visit bigskyarts.org, where you can view a full catalog of artists featured in the auction.