Ben Pease says “Last Good Man,” his many-layered portrait of Crow Chief Plenty Coups, is his signature piece.
It is the richest expression of a style of painting he calls “American Indian Narrative,” in which a portrait sits in the midst of other images, other media, other forms of storytelling.
Pease himself has a chief-like bearing. He is tall and solidly built, like the college football player he once was, but at the age of 24 he carries himself with a calm gracefulness, and his habitual smile can be disarming.
His portrait of Plenty Coups is on display at Mr. A’s Fine Art Gallery in Hardin, along with other of his works. He talks about his paintings with a somewhat distant affection, liking them for what they represent but eager to move on and create something new.
In “Last Good Man,” Pease painted an acrylic-wash profile portrait of Plenty Coups on a canvas to which he pasted old newspaper clippings, a map, a bill of sale from a hardware store, a check from Yellowstone National Bank and an old newspaper photo of Signal Peak near Forsyth.
There are also three antique stereoscope slides showing hunting scenes and Pease’s painting of Plenty Coups’ tepee. In the center of the piece is a map showing the original boundaries of the Crow Reservation, redrawn with red ink to illustrate how the reservation was reduced to its current size.
If you get close enough, you will notice that the portrait of Plenty Coups is not entirely opaque; some of the newsprint is legible through the gauze of paint.
“My style is drawing with paint,” Pease says. “That’s how I get that ghostly effect.”
Pease loves it when people stop to take in the emotion of Plenty Coups’ portrait — “I want them to feel that first” — then lean in for a closer look when they realize how much is going on in the painting. Sometimes they’ll linger for 15 or 20 minutes.
Then they might start asking questions, about his technique, about Plenty Coups, about Crow history in general.
That’s the spirit. Pease learned the history and culture of his people, the Crow and Cheyenne Indians, by listening and talking. History he learned mostly from his grandmother, Margery Pease, whose house in Lockwood is stuffed with Indian art, photo albums and books of Indian history. She didn’t so much teach as tell stories to her children and grandchildren.
“Some of them didn’t listen,” she says, sitting with Ben in her sun-washed living room. “This one” — pointing at Ben — “liked to talk and ask questions.”
He was inspired to draw by his grandfather, Margery’s late husband Benjamin Pease Jr., who used to create Crow portraits.
Pease was born in Missoula and lived in Phoenix and Lodge Grass before moving to Hardin in middle school. He started drawing when he was 4 or 5, then got “really serious” about it when he was 10 or so.
Next to his grandfather, a big influence was Hector Alvarado, who taught art at Hardin High School for 21 years before retiring last spring. Pease says Alvarado gave him the technical skills, “all the objective stuff” he needed to advance his work. He also taught him some discipline.
Pease was still like “a wild little pony” when he met him, Alvarado says, and like many other students, Pease had to endure Alvarado’s “noon detainments.”
“They had to watch me eat,” Alvarado says with a laugh. “It wasn’t a pretty sight.”
After high school, Pease went to Minot State University in North Dakota for four years on a football and art scholarship.
He is now attending Montana State University in Bozeman, completing a degree in art. He often spends time with relatives in Billings and Hardin, and many of his unsold works are displayed at Alvarado’s Mr. A’s Fine Art Gallery in Hardin, which opened in November.
The works show Pease’s range and versatility, embracing humor, social commentary, history and Indian culture.
A portrait of Crow Chief Sits in the Middle is reminiscent of “Last Good Man,” with its portrait of the chief superimposed on a 1955 map of the reservation area, spray-painted bison and a sepia-tone photo of tepees.
“Beautiful,” which has elicited the most interest on Pease’s Facebook and Instagram pages, shows an elegant Indian woman in a low-cut cocktail dress festooned with elk teeth.
“Crow Fair Visitors” riffs on a B-movie poster image of two white actors hugging in the face of an alien invasion, showing them in Indian dress, with UFOs hovering over a line of tepees. Another, “Buckskin Stormtroopers,” portrays warriors dressed partly in Indian clothing and partly in “Star Wars” battle gear.
The latter two works highlight an important aspect of Pease’s personality and his approach to his work. He takes his art seriously, but he’s more than ready to have some fun.
In an “artist statement” posted on his website, Pease lays out a variety of vague and rather pompous pronouncements, then undercuts them with self-effacing commentary.
“I am a Native American Artist,” he begins, followed in parentheses by “I have my stoic face on at least 80% of the time.” “My work is currently in a state of flux” is followed by “I am lazy but very talented.”
After another high-minded statement — “As such, I am attempting to acquire supplementary additions to my Creative Influences, by exploring fresh artistic territories” — he adds: “I really need to make more contacts in the art world. Or I’m screwed.”
The Pease name is big medicine in Crow Country. He is the fifth Benjamin Pease and his 18-month-old son is the sixth. Ben’s great-great-great-grandfather was Bull Chief, whose son was White Man Runs Him, one of Custer’s scouts. His great-grandfather was well known for his beautiful, handmade Crow regalia, samples of which — including a purse, a gourd rattle and a quiver — adorn his grandmother’s walls.
His mother, Linda Brien, has a bachelor’s degree in art and is now superintendent of the Wyola School District. Ben’s grandmother said many family members had the talent to pursue careers in art but decided to follow other paths.
“So this is where I come from,” Ben says. “I’m proud to come from all this. Very lucky.”
Most of the works on display at Mr. A’s Fine Art Gallery were created by students of Alvarado’s at Hardin High.
“I kind of feel like a conductor of an orchestra,” Alvarado says. “I’ve orchestrated a lot of kids into the world of art.”
He speaks highly of many of his protégés, but he acknowledges that two of them, Pease and Allen Knows His Gun, have the best chances of prospering in the art world.
“It seems like it’s going to be an endless road for them to fame and fortune,” he says.
For his part, Pease possesses a quiet confidence about his gifts as a painter. He somehow manages to sound modest even when he says, in answer to a question of where he’d like to find himself in the future, “Maybe five years down the road, being internationally known.”
For now, he just wants to continue telling Native American narratives and perfecting his craft.
“When I do a piece, I’m always learning,” he says. “I’m educating myself about my culture and others’.”
He says his technique is to work hard but not to overthink things.
“I don’t plot it out, sketch it out. I just take a paintbrush and start. It works for me.”
He also knows what he’s aiming for, even if he can’t define it precisely.
“I don’t have ‘it’ exactly,” he says. “But I’ll get it.”