Kevin Red Star, 74, has been making art for 50 years. That’s not quite long enough.
Red Star just finished a showing with his daughter, Sunny Sky Red Star, at the Ryniker-Morrison Gallery at Rocky Mountain College. This week, he donated a 20-by-20-inch portrait called “Thunder Bear” to the college.
In remarks at the unveiling, Red Star said he has had lots of fun over the years in the art world.
“We’re in our 70s, and we’re still doing it,” he said.
The new portrait is of a fictional Crow Indian in war bonnet and with piercing eyes. The Seven Sisters of the Pleiades shine above his right shoulder. He wears what Red Star called a typical Crow breastplate. The feathers in the war bonnet represent not only deeds of valor in war but also other deeds and good works. Long streaks of paint stream down his face.
But the eyes are what draw the viewers’ eyes.
“It’s the eyes,” one observer said. “You can tell the heroism in his eyes.”
Red Star said the eyes are meant to convey something about the man’s character.
“He’s not stoic,” he said, “but he’s confident. He can tackle anything.”
Mark Moak, an art professor at RMC, said, “It’s a powerful piece.”
Moak, who also plays in the popular Midlife Chryslers band, said that at practically every fundraiser the band plays, a work by Red Star is offered as a prize.
“You honor us with your show,” he said.
In an interview after the unveiling, Red Star said he still would like to donate a larger piece to RMC. The college has not yet decided where to hang the work donated this week.
Red Star, born on the Crow Indian Reservation in 1943, took an early interest in art. When he went swimming with his friends, he said, he would shape the mud on the bank with his hands. He came by an artistic bent naturally. His father, Wallace Red Star, was a musician, and his mother, Amy Red Star, created regalia for traditional Crow ceremonies.
He was in school in Lodge Grass in the 1960s when he was invited to attend the experimental Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, New Mexico. The school, founded under the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs, provided a thorough grounding in all periods and aspects of art, Red Star said, including still life, photography, drawing, water colors and oils.
The idea was to give students a thorough grounding in everything so that they could then draw on their own backgrounds to incorporate their culture into their work. For Red Star, that meant mastering the cultural details of the Crow Tribe, from warriors to tepees. He also still works on landscapes, the female form and on pictures of animals such as bears and horses.
It took awhile for the work to catch on, but the Indian art movement had strong support from former Secretary of the Interior Stewart Udall and his wife, Ermalee. The counterculture movement of the 1960s also fueled a growing interest in the original American art. It also helped, Red Star said, that early graduates of the art school formed a tightknit group who helped each other succeed.
In his early days, Red Star said, he would sell his art for as little as $35. But he was young and prolific and slowly built a career. A recent piece at the Autry Museum of the American West sold for $35,000.
The success of the movement also helped spur efforts to preserve Crow culture, encouraging the preservation of the language and the reintroduction of traditional dances.
“We almost lost it,” Red Star said.
Over the decades, Red Star’s work has been shown at the Smithsonian Institution, the Denver Art Museum, the Whitney Museum of Western Art and dozens of other venues. His work has been shown in more than a hundred large exhibitions and is currently on display in the “Masters of the American West” show at the Autry Museum of the American West in Los Angeles.
He also was the first artist in residence at the Institute of American Indian Arts. In 1997, he received an honorary doctor from RMC, and at Tuesday’s unveiling, he and his daughter were awarded RMC baseball caps.
Sonny Sky Red Star works with her father at their studio in Roberts. Despite his reputation, she said, his kindness keeps her from feeling intimidated by his work. She just tries to paint from the heart, she said, without losing sight of the fundamentals.
It is paying off, said Kevin Red Star, who also keeps a place in Pryor and a small place in Santa Fe. At a recent exhibition, he said, she sold four pieces of art, and he sold none.
Red Star said he continues to believe in a thorough grounding in the fundamentals of art. Although computer technology has brought a range of new techniques to the art world, Red Star said it still takes a lot of studio time to make an artist.
“You have to work at it,” he said. But he also said the effort has been worth it.
“I love my art world,” he said.