When Kevin Red Star was asked if there was something significant that he wanted to produce on canvas, the celebrated Crow painter thought of Crown Butte.
His family has a ranch close to the foothills of the Pryor Mountains and its buttes.
“They’re significant, but they’re hard to reach,” he said in a phone interview about his new painting, “Crown Butte,” which will be auctioned off for the In the Footsteps of Norman Maclean Festival.
It’s a destination for “people who want to find spiritual direction, pray and fast” for days, whether seeking a spiritual connection or “peace from everyday life.”
The butte is lined with trees and bands of rock, against a pure red sky. (He said there’s “Certain times of day you can capture that, with the sunset or the sunrise” or outside after a storm.)
In the foreground, he painted a grouping of four tepees, whose nestling of poles draws the eye upward to the sky. In the distance, horses of all colors roam freely. “Every family has a horse that lives in the country, like ourselves,” he said.
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He envisioned it as a family’s outpost, “depicting our way of life back then,” he said.
He’s the sole purely visual artist participating at the festival this year, whose subtitle is “Public Lands and Sacred Ground: Western Writers Bear Witness.”
Red Star said conservation-related themes resonate with him going back to his childhood. His father raised them not to hunt or fish for more than they needed, and especially not to waste.
Red Star works out of a large studio in Roberts, north of Red Lodge, where he paints “pretty much every morning.” He walks his dog, returns to the studio and does research in the collection of books he’s amassed over the past 40 years.
He’ll set up paintings on five or six different easels. If he reaches an impasse in a piece, he switches to another.
“Throughout the years, I’ve found ways of getting better about my production, my direction,” he said. “This is my art life, and boy I really enjoy it.”
That sense of enthusiasm is shared by the art world. Red Star’s work is held in the collection of the Smithsonian. One of his works by him was recently titled selected for a group exhibition at the National Museum of the American Indian, “Stretching the Canvas: Eight Decades of Native Painting.” He’s the subject of a book, “Kevin Red Star: Crow Artist,” written by Daniel Gibson and published in 2015. He was honored with the 2018 Governor’s Arts Award. And this month, he’s showing a range of work at the Dana Gallery in conjunction with the festival, a somewhat rare chance to see a large selection of his art in Missoula.
Red Star was born in 1943 in Lodge Grass on the Crow Reservation. He was interested in art, and he and all of his siblings took music lessons from him. Creativity was part of the family — his father played in a Western band called the Reservation Hotshots. When he was older, Red Star even played drums with his brother in an all-Crow band, The Maniacs. That was fun, he said, but eventually he wanted to focus more on his art.
When he was 16, he was to attend the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, one of the first students selected in the now widely celebrated school.
At IAIA, I studied under James McGrath, who exposed them to art and craft from Scandinavia to Japan and contemporary creators like Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg and Claes Oldenburg.
“All that knowledge, then you see something — the composition is there, the balance is there, too. It’s just fascinating, but I think I just pick up pieces here and there from books and teachers, professors,” he said. “If you open yourself, if you find a direction, it’s usually there.”
One crucial point came when an instructor told them: “OK, now that you’ve seen all of these other artists from all over the world, take some images from your culture and expand it, do what you can with it.”
Red Star said he’s pleased to have been able to be part of the then-new movement of contemporary American Indian art. At the time, he said, no living artists ever got into museums or galleries.
“So we did that,” he said. “A core of us. We pooled our money to go have shows in Kansas, Oklahoma, Scottsdale, Phoenix, wherever there was a little show, a gallery that wanted some different art. That’s how we got out there.”
“We shared knowledge, we shared our collectors, but it was fun,” he said. “We didn’t know where we were going, but we were doing it. No paycheck, we just went by faith, our creativity. You work hard at it and the universe has a way of pulling us through.”
His show at the Dana Gallery includes work spanning years. In one piece, a scout with a full headdress peers through the grass, rendered in a wide patch of deep black. He said these scouts were watching over the camp at set distances; they might only be watching out for other traveling parties to signal that the area is occupied but they’re welcome to pass through. The grass below him is deep black, eventually transitioning into splatters and green. The sky above is white, matching the vertical lines of paint on his subject’s face.
While his style is contemporary, with expressionist brush techniques and textures, and a modern way of rendering lines, he’s diligent in depicting his subjects and their cultural signifiers accurately.
He said research and those details are important to him, since the designs vary by tribe, from the headdresses to the design elements within them.
“It has to be from that particular tribe,” he said. “And they’re symbols that we have to use. It’s just like anything else. From Scottish to Irish to English, you mix that up and they’ll get upset.”
During the pandemic, he largely stayed to his routine of studio work like many artists. Now he’s looking toward new projects as well.
When he was younger, Red Star explored collage work. He’s planning on doing more for a show at the Autry Museum of the West, something he’s been thinking about for years.
While they’re going to be recognizable as his own, he said “I’m going to have some fun from now on.”