Blackfeet sculptor Jay Laber lives on in works across Montana, the world

“Charging Forward” juxtaposes Native American traditional culture with mid-20th century car parts. (Laura Lundquist/Missoula Current)

Rising above rows of modern cars outside at the University of Montana recreation center, an iron Indian forever charges forward, his metal steed bolted to the rusted front of what appears to be a 1930s Dodge Power Wagon, complete with dashboard and steering wheel.

But the ancient hulk doesn’t appear to hold horse and rider down. Chrome feathers and wire hair flying, the rider grips his horse with his moccasins, poised to send his spear through a hoop in a game of skill.

For the past 15 years, university students and Grizzly sports fans have admired the sculpture “Charging Forward” that juxtaposes Native American traditional culture with mid-20th century car parts. The rider’s breastplate is a rusted radiator and a car fender forms his horse’s chest. Still, the athleticism of the rider is evident in his fluid posture despite his metal makeup.

But the artist who gave new life to old car parts lives no more. 

Blackfeet artist Jay Laber died at the end of October, but his legacy lives on throughout Montana and in far-flung countries.

Laber’s art is on display in Stevensville, the Salish Kootenai College where he taught art, the Rocky Boy Reservation and at the four corners of the Blackfeet Reservation where he was born. A bison, recreated from a Volkswagon Beetle with bent and flattened fenders for shoulders, stands proudly on the campus of Westphalian State University in Muenster, Germany.

The 58-year-old sculptor discovered his passion somewhat late – about 20 years ago – when he finally returned to Montana after leaving as a child. But his style is unmistakable. And in a time when people are finally recognizing that humans use too many resources, emphasizing the need to reduce, reuse and recycle, he was ahead of his time.

After taking some art classes at Salish Kootenai College, he began collecting 1940s and ‘50s junk cars to use in his depictions of traditional warriors, dancers or wildlife. 

“It’s a new twist on an old tradition,” Laber told the Associated Press in 2002. “The tradition was to make things out of whatever was handy, and that was handy.”

He found early success in 1999 when he won the “People’s Choice” award at the American Indian Higher Education Consortium’s annual conference in Billings with the bison sculpture that ended up in Germany.

“Charging Forward” by Jay Lauer

When the Blackfeet tribal elders hired him in 2000 to create sculptures for the reservation entrances, they asked him to use car bodies that had littered the reservation since the 1964 floods along the Rocky Mountain Front. That brought everything full circle for Laber – his family left Montana because the floods had destroyed their home on the reservation.

Now the four life-sized “Watchful Sentries” sculptures depict two mounted chiefs guarding each entrance, set upon recycled sandstone blocks from the Holy Family Mission, built along the Two Medicine River in the late 1800s.

The artist settled on Post Creek near St. Ignatius where he created his studio called Reborn Rez Wrecks surrounded by a yard filled with car parts of possibility. Now, car parts they will remain. 

Contact reporter Laura Lundquist at lundquist@missoulacurrent.com.