Layers imbued with meaning

By Sarah Gianelli EBS Contributor

BELGRADE – Ben Pease does not hold himself exempt from the complex, and often controversial, questions about cultural appropriation that tumble from his mind onto the canvas in layers as literal as they are figurative.

The 27-year-old Belgrade artist is of Crow descent, a tribe of Native Americans who historically lived in the Yellowstone River valley—a region that extends from Wyoming, through Montana and into North Dakota—and have since been relegated to a reservation south of Billings. Pease spent much of his youth on the Crow reservation and considers it home.

As is the way of his people, nothing in his multi-media creations is arbitrary. Every layer, every mark, every image, every choice, holds significance and meaning, whether symbolic or purely representational.

Pease often creates a base layer on his canvases out of antique ledger paper—historically used in record or bookkeeping—sometimes sourced from the oversized, cloth-bound tomes stacked in the corner of his studio. These include issues of The Anaconda Standard newspaper from 1910, real estate assessments from 1887, warrants and bonds from Deer Lodge prison, and a petty cash account book from a Bozeman-area boot and shoe maker.

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Pease’s ‘Wealth of a Nation’ won the People’s Choice Award at the Out West Art Show in Great Falls in March 2016. PHOTO COURTESY OF CREIGHTON BLOCK GALLERY

Not only do the pages he incorporates into his work provide an aesthetically pleasing visual depth but, more importantly, contextual depth. They are specific to a pertinent time and place, and pose questions about rights, ownership and monetary value—themes that reoccur in Pease’s imagery and are significant not only for the Crow, but for all Native Americans.

Ledger art is also a specifically Native American art form, emerging in the 1860s when, as Pease explains, hunting rights were restricted and, in turn, tribes no longer had hides on which to paint and chronicle their dreams, visions and war stories. What they did have access to was the disposable paper used by U.S. government agents.

And this is just the first layer of works that fuse drawing, paint and decoupage techniques into powerful, visually and conceptually compelling compositions. Pease paints over the ledger papers (or other official documents—in one case a $1000 Great Falls water bond), often leaving them only faintly discernible. He then overlays them with enlarged black and white photographs of his ancestors, prominent tribal figures and provocative imagery that ask more questions than Pease can answer.

In “Medicine Lodge,”one of five pieces hanging in Big Sky’s Creighton Block Gallery, Pease has respectfully rendered a Crow teepee—with the minimum requirement of 18 poles; and stakes carved with the number of bands that would denote it as his family’s domicile—over 1887 linen ledger paper from Butte’s Silver Bow County.

But affixed on the bottom of the teepee is graffiti-like and to Pease, offensively co-opted native imagery—a skull adorned with a feather headdress, a man in traditional dress holding a machine gun—all of which were created by non-native artists. Pease’s reclamation of this imagery for use in his own art gets down to the fundamental questions constantly rolling around his head.

“It’s taking shots at cultural appropriation,” Pease said. “Do they get to do this? Do I? Is it right? Is it right for the people they’re portraying, for the tribes? Who sets the boundaries for that; who gets to say this is right and this is wrong, and why? It boils down to questions of misuse and misuse can oftentimes lead to a disrespect. And disrespect can lead to discomfort.”

Pease gives the example of walking into a white-owned gallery specializing in Native American art and seeing an artifact that, in his culture, would have been used in a death ceremony.

“That makes me feel uncomfortable,” he said. “Like I’m not welcome, like I shouldn’t be here, that I shouldn’t be around this, and it makes me ask questions like ‘Why do you get to do this?’ Why should you do this and why should you want to do this?”

Pease’s art—while posing difficult, racially charged and perhaps unanswerable questions—is not angry or aggressive. And being of mixed blood himself, Pease applies these questions to himself as much as anyone else.

Is he participating in cultural appropriation by selling his work to the oftentimes-white collectors wealthy enough to buy it? Was he encouraging the objectification of women, Native American and otherwise, in a vintage movie poster he altered to depict a scantily clad white woman wearing a headdress, for which he was shamed into taking off his website?

“Isn’t this why art is created? To bring issues to light?”

“It’s a constant line that I have to walk, a barrier that I’m always working against and with,” Pease said. “Do I try to continue to be a Native American artist or an American artist or just an artist? Who am I speaking to? Who is it for? Could I explain [my art] to someone if they asked?”

At one point Pease was nearly paralyzed by questions like these, but was able to move through his existential crisis by taking a more exploratory approach to art-making—allowing his work to reveal its own nebulous answers and making peace with the questions.

“Isn’t this why art is created? To bring issues to light?” Pease asked. “It’s a reconciliation. It’s a projection, a conundrum; it’s asking questions I don’t have the answers for, but the answer isn’t any more interesting than the end of a magician’s trick. It’s the questions that propel us forward.”

Ben Pease is the featured artist at Creighton Block Gallery in Big Sky from Dec. 15 through Dec. 30. An opening reception for his show, “Visions: an Indigenous Retrospective,” will be held at 6 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 17, in the Creighton Block contemporary gallery in Town Center. Pease’s work can also be found locally at the Emerson Center for the Arts and Culture in Bozeman and online at benpeasevisions.com.