Kevin Red Star (Crow/Absaroke, b. 1943), Crow Indian, 1975, oil on canvas, collection of Diane and Sam Stewart
Since February and continuing through August, the Utah Musuem of Fine Arts will be exhibiting Bierstadt to Warhol: American Indians in the West: a collection of paintings, drawings and sculptures that portray the Native American experience, including works by natives and non-natives. The collection features paintings by Kevin Red Star, who came to speak on Thursday about his experience as an artist. Red Star was born in Lodge Grass, Montana, on the Crow Indian Reservation, and currently lives in Roberts, Montana. His works are featured in numerous galleries that span across the globe, and depict common scenes of the lifestyles of the Crow tribe at the turn of the century.
Growing up, Red Star had almost no artistic mentors beyond the encouragement of his family and friends, along with an art book by C.M. Russell (a popular cowboy artist of the old American West), whose paintings he would mimic. Although Montana didn’t offer much to promote his talent, his friends and family nurtured his passion for drawing. Art and music flowed through his families’ home: his father made sure they learned how to play a few instruments (Red Star stuck with the drums, and dabbled in a punk band called “The Maniacs” while in Santa Fe), while his mother designed costumes for dancers. Red Star and his family didn’t travel much outside of the reservation, and he spent most of his time roaming free, riding horses and fishing in the Big Horn River.
His first time on an airplane to travel outside of Montana was to Santa Fe to attend the Institute of American Indian Arts, upon recommendations from his teachers as recruiters visited the reservation. Red Star noted that this “opened [his] world up.” It was here that he attended school with other Native Americans from around the U.S., and through hard work and discipline he learned a wide variety of methods and tools to create his art.
After his time in Santa Fe, Red Star moved to San Francisco for a couple of years on a scholarship to the Art Institute. It was here that he learned the more technical aspects of being an artist, and his teachers encouraged him to go to as many museums, galleries and showings as possible. Red Star felt inspired by the multitude of people that he associated with whom he was able to bounce ideas off of, and his inspiration continued to expand as he was exposed to more artists. When asked if there were any artists that particularly stood out to him during his time studying, he responded by naming Robert Rauschenberg, who inspired him by using ordinary objects that he found on the street and incorporating them in his works to create something beautiful. This inspired him to create a crow shield starting with a hub cap, to paint on a buffalo hide, and to experiment with other forms of art beyond the typical painting on a canvas.
Looking at Red Star’s paintings, feelings of romanticism for the culture of his tribe grew. Red Star’s images are a relic of his heritage with a contemporary flair, and he paints his scenes with bright, popping colors that draw your attention in immediately, while using flat, two-dimensional shapes to give an animated look to the characters. Most of his work pictures Crow Indians during their hunting and gathering period, and includes many portraits, horses, shields and teepees. These are the things that surround him, what he sees all the time, and when asked for further interpretation of “Night Ponies,” he said, “I loved them. We’re alive, and this is what I’m showing you.” Red Star’s view of art is pretty straightforward: “Work at what you love and goodness comes out.” It is this directness that makes his paintings accessible and inviting, while maintaining a bold, confident balance.
Red Star returned to live in Montana and works from home. While he stated that there still are not a lot of opportunities for artists on the reservation to study and work on their craft, he hopes that the Crow culture and language will be preserved and cultivated in the younger generations. Furthermore, he expressed his gratitude for the state of Montana for recognizing him as an important figure in their state, and for their respect as they support his position as an artist. His enthusiasm for painting is evident as he continues to produce more works, which he dedicates now to his daughter, Merida Red Star, who passed away in 2008.
The exhibit can be seen until August, and I have no doubt that it will inspire the viewer. Visit the UMFA's website for more info. Make sure to look for Red Star’s paintings!