Kevin Red Star | Artist and Historian

Grandchild s First Dance [1999], oil, 48 x 60. painting, southwest art.
Grandchild’s First Dance [1999], oil, 48 x 60.

By Norman Kolpas

One of Kevin Red Star’s most deeply personal works of art went on sale at Martin-Harris Gallery in Jackson Hole, WY, last December. Using as his canvas a 3-foot-tall wooden rocking horse built by a local craftsman, the renowned Crow artist painted it dappled gray and white after his oldest daughter Merida’s beloved quarter horse. He wrapped the black tail with a leather thong, tucking a hawk’s feather into the binding. He tucked another feather into the mane. Blue, red, yellow, orange, and gold stars decorated the horse’s sides and underbelly. On the rockers, painted purple like the Montana evening sky, jagged orange lines represented the Bighorn, Pryor, and Beartooth mountains that surround Red Star’s home near Yellowstone National Park. A blue stripe along the bottom evoked the Bighorn and Yellowstone rivers.

Bird Fisher Medicine [2000], acrylic, 44 x 48. painting, southwest art.
Bird Fisher Medicine [2000], acrylic, 44 x 48.

Amid all these vivid details, an even more riveting detail stood out: tiny red handprints on the rocking horse’s rump. These, however, were not applied with the artist’s brush.

On November 3, Red Star became a grandfather for the first time. And before completing the work, he carried Merida’s child, his grandson Mason Christopher Red Star Miller, into his studio. There, Kevin gently dipped the infant’s hands into red pigment, then pressed them onto the horse.

“When a warrior won a hand-to-hand skirmish on his horse and took his enemy’s club or lance, he would decorate the horse with his handprints as a way of counting coup without killing his enemy,” Red Star explains. And so this newborn began life already a compassionate champion, thanks to a work that his grandfather lovingly titled Dusty Path’s Little War Pony, using Mason’s Native American name.

Thus a creative life comes full circle for Red Star, whose works have earned places in the permanent collections of such prestigious institutions as the Whitney Museum of Western Art, the Heard Museum, the Denver Art Museum, and the National Museum of the American Indian. Early in his career, back in 1973 at the Southern Plains Indian Museum in Anadarko, OK, he exhibited a work done in collaboration with his mother, Crow artisan Amy Bright Wings: a teepee decorated with his bold painting and her intricate beadwork. Now, once again, the spark of inspiration passes from generation to generation in a most talented family. And Red Star feels a deep pride he no doubt anticipated in his recent painting Grandchild’s First Dance, in which two Crow grandparents steady their small granddaughter as she anxiously gets ready to participate in her first tribal ceremony.

Little Otter [2000], oil, 46 x 44. painting, southwest art.
Little Otter [2000], oil, 46 x 44.

In his own childhood, growing up on the Crow Reservation in the town of Lodge Grass, MT, early glimmerings of Red Star’s artistic talent always found support. “I had a pencil and a sketch pad with me all the time,” he says. “My dad made those tools available to me and gave me the freedom to go forward.”

His father, too, was a creative man. Chief game warden for the tribe and a federal police officer, in his spare time he played Hawaiian steel guitar, avidly read old western novels, and collected Remington and Russell reproductions he found in flea markets and second-hand stores. Wallace Red Star also shared with his children a love of nature, taking them hunting, fishing, and hiking in the majestic Beartooths, Bighorns, and Pryors. “He loved anything western,” recalls the artist, who caught his father’s passion for bygone days and the Rocky Mountain West.

Vestiges of the Old West still lingered on the reservation during Red Star’s childhood in the years following World War II. “I’d see the old guys with their braids and reservation hats and buffalo coats, hooking up their wagons and going downtown,” he says. “That was so neat.”

Midnight Riders [2000], oil, 22 x 30. painting, southwest art.
Midnight Riders [2000], oil, 22 x 30.

Rich and nurturing though his early environment was, life on the reservation could take Red Star’s budding talent only so far. But the flair he showed in grade school for winning poster contests and painting theatrical backdrops brought him recognition when he was invited, in 1962, to join the inaugural class of 150 students from 80 tribes nationwide at the Institute of American Indian Art in Santa Fe. “Their dream was to create an environment where young people fresh from the reservations would get the best tools and the best instruction,” he says. “It was so exciting to be able to do what I really wanted to do, and to study my cultural heritage and how Crow design compares to Sioux, Cheyenne, Hopi, and other tribes.”

Three years in Santa Fe led, in turn, to his admission to the San Francisco Art Institute. There, Red Star dived into the social and cultural foment of the late 1960s. “I incorporated my Crow elements into what was happening,” he says. “I would squeeze tubes of white and gray onto paint can lids, do collages of newsprint and canvas and horse hair cut from a push broom to create buffalo hides. I had fun.” He also attended openings at galleries and museums, gaining a more serious taste of the professional art world.

Along the way, out of a kaleidoscope of influences a deep knowledge of his own Crow culture, serious studio classes in Santa Fe and San Francisco, a growing appreciation of such modern masters as van Gogh and Gauguin, and an appreciation for the mixed-media works and bold graphic lines of such ’60s stars as Robert Rauschenberg and Andy Warhol—there emerged a personal style that was distinctively Kevin Red Star’s.

You can see it in the iconographic images and vivid, saturated colors that dominate his canvases. The strong features of Crow faces are captured in a few sure, fluid strokes. Teepees jut toward the sky like snowcapped mountain peaks. The moon and stars shine in the nighttime heavens like spiritual forces. Ponies stand proudly, manifesting the passion they evoke in Red Star all the more strongly since he moved home to Montana in the late 1980s and eventually settled on his own ranch. And in virtually every piece, authentic Crow details abound, from clothing and beadwork to drums and feathered headdresses.

In recent years the faces of the Crow people, more than anything else, are what absorb Red Star. The thrall in which they hold him, and by extension anyone who views one of his works, stems from an influence that has won Red Star a reputation as a rare breed of tribal historian.

“My older brother, Wallace Jr., who’s now a cattle rancher, was chief game warden after my dad, and he was able to make a copy for me of the Crow Indian rolls that go back probably a hundred years or more,” Red Star relates. “The rolls gave me the names of people who are no longer with us, and if a name would fascinate me I would ask around about that person.” Red Star’s “asking around” led him to assemble an outstanding archive of photographs and written records from the Crow tribe. (He also captures as much living evidence of tribal life as he possibly can, attending powwows to record dances and ceremonies with his camera.)

Names and research together have resulted in some of his most striking recent canvases. Buffalo Ribs, for example, came about simply as Red Star’s imaginative incarnation of a moniker that invariably raises a smile. “That name really got me,” the artist says. “I liked it and thought: What would he look like to be given a name like that? He’d have to be a warm person, and very humble.” In similar good-humored yet respectful fashion, Red Star envisioned Little Otter as “a big guy who probably got his name when he was a little kid. I actually found a photograph of him to go with the name on the tribal rolls.”

Works like Bird Fisher Medicine, by contrast, tap a deeper, more serious vein that captures the timeless nobility of the Crow and their brethren tribes. Red Star adds further depth to its meaning with his explanation of an element in the painting that many would label simply a war bonnet. “To create a bonnet,” he says, “each feather is earned, not just for winning in a battle or hand-to-hand combat, but also to honor a person for being benevolent or a healer.”

Images like this bespeak an artist at the pinnacle of maturity and accomplishment. Certainly, Red Star feels he has reached a point of rare perspective, no doubt enhanced by his recent milestone. “I feel fabulous about becoming a grandfather,” he says. “My grandson is going to learn how to walk in my studio. I’ve got lots of space here.” And that’s a particularly appropriate personal goal for an artist who sums up his professional credo this way: “I just hope that, through my efforts and my actions, I’ve helped somebody—young or old—to rediscover themselves through the arts.”

Photos courtesy Kevin Red Star Studio & Gallery, Roberts and Billings, MT; Martin-Harris Gallery, Jackson, WY; Ventana Fine Art, Santa Fe, NM; Big Horn Galleries, Cody, WY; Sutton West Gallery, Missoula, MT; Shared Visions Gallery, Boca Raton, FL; and Wilde-Meyer Gallery, Scottsdale, AZ.

Featured in February 2001