Growing up on the Crow Reservation in Montana, Kevin Red Star took to sketching scenes from family stories – the hunts and horses, ceremonial dances and the cultural roots of his people.

By the 1950s, others took note of his work. It was the beginning of an art career now spanning more than half a century, placing him among the world's most recognized Native American artists.

On a recent weekend, it also placed him at the Dana Gallery in downtown Missoula, where he signed copies of his namesake book.

“Early on, I sketched a lot with charcoal and pencil and paper, but I never really got introduced to painting until I transferred my freshman year from Lodge Grass to New Mexico,” Red Star told the Missoula Current. “That's when they opened the first all-Native American Indian art school.”

The Institute of American Indian Arts opened in the 1960s, and Red Star received an invitation to attend. The school was founded as a high school, though it would later become a four-year college – one that would bestow an honorary doctoral degree upon one of its most recognized alumni.

During those early days, Red Star received valuable tips on painting and drawing with a keen focus on still life. The outings into the New Mexico landscape, its ancient kivas and wide desert, opened his eyes to a new world and other Indian cultures.

“The homes were different, built different with the adobe, quite different than from up north here in Montana,” he said. “I went to a lot of ceremonial dances too around the pueblos.

“That kind of influenced me a little bit. I was curious to know what was going on, what was happening in New Mexico at the time. I did my buffalo dancers, the Taos Pueblo and the Chaco Canyon. They were pretty generous about teaching us and giving us experience, and I took advantage of it.”

Kevin Red Star sits at the Dana Gallery surrounded by his work on a recent weekend in downtown Missoula. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)
Kevin Red Star sits at the Dana Gallery surrounded by his work on a recent weekend in downtown Missoula. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

Red Star's work has evolved over the years, an evolution he described as a natural process. He moved from oils to acrylics 18 years ago when his older daughter became pregnant with his grandson. The family lived near his studio, and his daughter served as his business partner.

The smell of turpentine demanded the change of medium, but those old stories of his youth stayed with him. Given his status as an artist and his cultural imagery, his work now fetches five figures.

“I don't always like to do warrior scenes – not all Indians were warriors,” he said. “They were home builders, they were feeding their families, moving camp for their horses' pasture and stuff. I try to depict how the Crow dressed during the turn of the century. Some of our models have reservation hats, vests and white shirts and trousers, and maybe moccasins or boots on.”

While Red Star's work earned him entry to the Institute of Native American Arts in New Mexico back in the 1960s, it also earned him recognition back home. He was one of four Montana artists chosen to engage in a cultural exchange to Russia in the mid-1990s.

The opportunity marked the beginning of his global travels – China, the Netherlands, Germany and Paris – bringing Crow culture to the far corners of the world. During an art opening in Paris, he was greeted by a small group of people who called themselves the “French Crow.”

The Europeans, he learned, were deeply interested in American Indian culture.

“There's a band that studies the Apaches, the Sioux, the Pueblo, but this band studied the Crow Indians,” he said. “I saw some of their beadwork and it was museum quality, because that's what they saw. They could sing and dance, but the one thing they said they can't do yet is speak our language, but they would work on it now.”

Red Star's rise to artistic acclaim coincided with a darker time in American history. Crow students were denied association with their language and culture. But in the privacy of his home, that culture thrived.

“My imagery right now is Northern Plains,” Red Star said. “Growing up on the Crow Reservation, in our house we also spoke Crow. My aunts and uncles were also visiting, and I was sketching and doodling, and they'd encourage me. That's how we grew up, listening to tales from my uncles and my father and mother and aunt. I would visualize how it actually would be in the horse times and hunting and stuff.”

Red Star was encouraged to explore his people's history and culture through modern art while attending the Institute of American Indian Arts. During his scholarship at the San Francisco Art Institute, he further tested the post-modern movement.

His work now depicts large, colorful imagery like “Indian Girl,” “Spotted Wolf” and “Chief and His Men.” His shields are both simple and ornate, and his scenes of past hunts challenge viewers to consider another age.

It's because of such work that Red Star is considered both a visual historian and cultural ambassador for the Crow. And to his delight, his work will continue its worldly travels.

“We're setting up an art show that will start in Oklahoma, and probably go to Denver, Arizona, and work its way to New York and back to Oklahoma,” he said. “It's going to be a three-year endeavor, so it’s exciting.”