Artist Kevin Red Star

Painting a Culture...

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The hamlet of Roberts, Montana, counts roughly 400 souls. Sleepy horses on sunny pastures dreamily lift their heads as I drive by.  Ranch houses sit well away from the road and blend into peaceful country scenery. Mountains line the horizon.  Red Lodge with its gift stores, galleries, banks and restaurants, is safely 13 miles up the road. Here in Roberts, nobody is in a hurry. I slow the car. The old man on the porch across the road smiles, waves. I can feel the spirit of history in this place as I lower the car window and smell warm sage brush. Of course, this used to be Indian country. Crow territory, to be precise. Sacred hunting grounds of the Apsaalooke. Would I hear their drums if I closed my eyes? Turning corners, I look for Kevin Red Star’s studio. 

Kevin Red Star.  My first experience years ago of being confronted with a “Red Star” is still vivid in my memory:  a group of dancers that seemed to be alive and ready to leap off the canvas into the gallery room. The decorations on their costumes were gorgeous, their faces intent, expressive.  I did not want to stop looking. Since then I have come across other Red Stars, and there is never any doubt of what I am seeing. Kevin’s style is unique. Traditional patterns of the Plains Indian’s way of life as well as universal and familiar elements of human characteristics are usually present. However, a provocative color or a symbol conveying a message gives any particular Red Star piece its own distinct personality. We find ourselves not only admiring the image as a piece of art but we realize we are having a relationship with it. 

The tall energetic figure of Kevin Red Star crosses the distance from the back of his studio. He flashes a big smile as he walks around an almost life-size horse in the middle of the floor, its smooth body covered with a collage of vivid scenes and symbols representing the Crows’ traditional and spiritual life. As we wander through the large studio, we are surrounded by a number of paintings mounted or leaning against the wall, a few in various states of completion. Some I recognize as precursors to later more evolved works, such as my favorite, Big Thunder. In addition, this warehouse-style studio with its 25-ft high ceilings houses a Corvette, a drum set Kevin used in college, as well as large tables with brushes, empty canvasses, and easels with paintings in progress. Sunlight streams through high windows. There is space here. Lots of it. Space to set your spirit free.  

“When did you first discover your talent?” is a question that Kevin has been asked a lot. “It has always been with me,” he says without hesitation. “I was always creating things, even as a young kid. When we went swimming, I created little figures of mud by the river. I always had a thing for the arts. I would create conical shapes of tipis and man and woman figures or animal figures, right there on the banks. Even before I went to school, at home I was always surrounded by art. I saw sketches on the kitchen table of the designs my mother created. That made an impression on me as well.” 

Kevin was born on the Crow Reservation in Lodge Grass, Montana in 1943 to Amy Bright Wings and Wallace Red Star, who gave their child the Crow name of “Running Rabbit”.  Running Rabbit would grow up as the third child of nine. From an early age, the Red Star children were exposed to rich cultural tradition and art.  Mother Amy was a noted designer of powwow costumes. Father Red Star played the saxophone and Hawaiian steel guitar, and also liked to draw. He would bring home old Remington and Russell prints from secondhand stores. Reservation life provided a connection to traditions and customs for Kevin. At Crow Fair, the yearly powwow, intricate dance costume designs and whirling dancers fascinated him and he started painting portraits, making a name for himself at a young age.

“In school, I was always the one they picked to paint the background for plays. And I would usually take first place at the poster contests.” He laughs. “That encouraged me.” When he was nineteen, Kevin was selected to attend the newly created and experimental Institute of American Indian Art (IAIA) in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Here is where his formal art education began. Kevin was exposed to various mediums and expressions of art. In 1965, Kevin won a scholarship to the San Francisco Art Institute, where he experimented with mixed media and collage, challenging the boundaries of the traditional surface of painting.  

In 1967, Red Star cut a tendon in his hand on broken glass, which put his schooling on hold for a while. He returned to Montana, helped his parents around their house and started drumming again with local bands, gradually regaining the use of his hand. He recovered and had his first one-man exhibition at the Museum of the Plains Indian in Browning in 1971. Three years later, Kevin returned to IAIA as a participant in their artist-in-residence program. While in Santa Fe, he expanded his techniques to include stone lithography, serigraphs and etchings, and produced superior work in an atmosphere charged with the celebratory energy of a group of young and extremely talented artists. “I was around people who thought like me and had aspirations like myself. That made a lot of difference – makes a lot of difference.” 

Red Star’s career in western art took off in earnest. One-person exhibits across the country followed as well as participation in group shows in Paris, Tokyo and China. Residences included a month in Russia, where he was impressed by similarities between the Russian country life and his own childhood home. Back in the US, and while working at his studio in Santa Fe, Kevin returned to Montana every summer. Rocky Mountain College in Billings conferred an honorary doctorate on him in May of 1997. Finally, in 1998, he moved back to Montana. After a few years in noisy Billings, Kevin returned to Roberts to be at peace in the slow and ancient pace of the country and to continue his artistic journey surrounded by quiet simplicity. “There were just too many houses in Billings,” he says. 

Kevin enjoys a close relationship with his three daughters and his son. “I am going to set up a sweat lodge with my son tomorrow,” he continues. “I am looking forward to that.” Tradition and spiritual connections are important to Kevin. “I always pray before I paint. I cleanse myself. When you purify yourself, the flow of energy is tremendous. Unexpected things happen.”  

What does he think draws people to his art? “The people who collect my work are very knowledgeable and educated in the unique differences of various tribal groups in this country,” Kevin says. “They know that I am a Crow Indian and that I live in Montana. It gives me great satisfaction to know that I as an artist am looked upon as somebody whose work is really thought out, that all the tools I apply are used properly. Some collectors follow an artist for ten years before investing in him. I think, my work moves people... perhaps with the color or the flow of the piece and the message that it has. The animals in some of my pieces may attract them, too.  For instance, people love horses. The horse is universal. And the bear, the eagle, the hawk – these animals are magnificent, powerful, even spiritual symbols. People understand that.” 

Kevin tells me of a couple who bought a painting from him some time ago. Recently, the husband told Kevin of his wife’s battle with cancer. “What she likes most these days is just look at that painting. It gives her such peace and pleasure. I am so grateful for that painting.”

“Big Thunder” is my favorite Red Star painting. The warrior’s body is as red as the sky behind him. His eyes, partly hidden in the shadow of his gorgeous feather-studded buffalo cap glow like hot, dark coals. The fiery sky seems to fill him, his body, his mind, his soul. Yet despite the intense glow in his eyes and the fire in him and around him, Big Thunder seems calm and resolved. He looks directly and boldly. A Blackbird medicine bundle hangs across his chest. The bird seems to tie Big Thunder’s soul to earth and sky, to tradition and myth. 

“The name impressed me greatly,” Kevin says when I ask him about the painting. “My brother was a game warden. He’s got the Crow Indian rolls from the agency with the old names. All my images have original Crow Indian names. That’s how I picked him out. The whole image came about by finding his name. When I heard it, I knew that this person had to be very significant. I wanted him to look powerful. Not menacing, but powerful, with a presence.” Asked about the red color, Kevin explains that the Crow men would put red clay on the exposed skin of their bodies in the Summer to protect them. “It’s like sunscreen,” he says. The red sky he added for drama. “Selecting a color is a very personal choice for me.”

Red Star exhibits his work through the Merida Gallery in Red Lodge, managed by his daughter, Merida Red Star. The “Painted Pony Gallery” in Big Sky is presently showing Kevin’s work as well. In 2005, the Yellowstone Art Museum in Billings hosted a special show with pieces spanning more of thirty years of Red Star’s work, including outstanding paintings from private collections. Among the museums holding Kevin Red Star originals in their permanent collections in the US are the Smithsonian Institution, the Institute of American Indian Art in Santa Fe, the Denver Art Museum, the Heard Museum in Phoenix, the Whitney Museum of Western Art in Cody, Wyoming, and the Eiteljorg Museum of American Indian and Western Art in Indianapolis. Internationally, the Pierre Cardin Collection in Paris as well as museums in Belgium, Germany, China and Japan hold Red Star originals.

Would Kevin Red Star still be an artist if nobody bought his work? Without  hesitation, he answers: “Absolutely. I feel a deep need to create art. Needless to say, I would have to work in another job to pay for my brushes and pigments, but, yes, I would always produce art. It’s for my own enjoyment.” 

Kevin Red Star has become a historian, recorder, and ambassador for his native Crow nation and culture. His work captures the culture of the 19th century Northern Plains Indians in stunning detail: There are dancers in full regalia, war parties on horses slinking through the night or returning victorious and glowing with pride. There are young women and old men, chiefs and scouts. War bonnets, shields and feathers, and dresses decorated with beads and elk ivories. Tipis are a recurring theme: tipis in the snow and tipis on a starlit night. “They signify home, life and the people’s place in the universe,” Kevin says. And then there are horses, lots of horses: the pride and measure of wealth of the Plains Indians, the animal that profoundly changed the lives of the nomadic hunter. “Even though I am not always objective with what I portray on canvas and in graphic form, for the most part I include parts and bits of the Crow culture – colors that they use, or the four directions for instance. Symbols and designs that are very important to the Crow are implied in my work.” 

Red Star’s desire to exhibit the rich culture of his Crow heritage has been inspiring him for almost forty years. The results are paintings so vivid, so full of brilliant colors, so full of drama and beauty that you cannot help but be fascinated by them. His exaggeration of the anatomical features and the haunting eyes captivate the viewer. Kevin draws from his Crow culture for his subjects, combining the universal with the unique. Through his extraordinary talent of observation and imagination, Red Star has created and developed a very sophisticated style that exposes the viewer to the depth and long history of the High Plains Indian culture and its rich traditions.  He has mastered the art of capturing the Crow people’s spirit on paper, canvas and fiberglass, in oil and acrylic, in paintings and drawings, collages and lithographs. And he keeps creating more as if there was yet a new angle to be exposed, a detail not yet shown, a story still waiting to be told.  And thus, Kevin Red Star has moved into the position of the foremost Northern Plains fine artist. 

~ Susi Sinay, free-lance writer and manager of Yellowstone Safari Company in Bozeman, followed her heart from Europe to Montana 13 years ago. She loves the wild country, the wildlife, and the rewarding experiences and insights gained every day from living in the Greater Yellowstone ecosystem. Susi and her husband, Ken, live on the Bozeman Pass with their llamas, cats and black lab, Cody.

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