Pride in art: Famed American Indian painter teaches students the power of putting their imagination on canvas

By VINCE DEVLIN of the Missoulian

Dear Mr. Red Star,
Are your paintings expensive? Can I buy one? Do you ever paint pirate pictures?
From Michael

- A letter on the bulletin board at Cherry Valley Elementary School

POLSON - Eight-year-old Dallas Hewankorn used to want to be a singer when she grew up, but art's her bag now.

“If I sing too loud my voice cracks,” she said. “I figured out you don't have to do a lot of talking or singing when you're an artist.”

On Thursday morning, Hewankorn - and every other third-grader at Cherry Valley School - was getting tips on her chosen profession from a famous artist.

Kevin Red Star, whose works are part of the permanent collections of museums from China to Santa Fe and Paris to the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., didn't just talk about his artwork - he had them all paint pictures, and he painted right alongside them.

“He's good,” decided Sage McMillan. “I wish he'd make more paintings. I like his Indians on horses.”

Red Star, a Crow Indian who lives in Red Lodge and has a studio in nearby Roberts, often uses intense and brilliant colors to paint Indians, horses, tepees and shields. He had painted a chief while working with Polson Middle School students earlier in the week, and was working on a shield at Cherry Valley.

Red Star let the third-graders choose from horses, tepees or a shield for their subject matter.

“Can I draw a dragon instead?” one boy wanted to know.

Red Star thought it over, then suggested the youngster draw a shield, and make dragons part of the decoration on the shield.

The kids sketched their pictures first, then transferred them to a larger piece of paper where they painted them.

The best was still to come. With fan brushes, Red Star and his daughter, Sunny Skies Red Star, helped all the students give a “splatter” effect to their art, flicking paint at their pictures.

Red Star, who grew up in a family of nine children on the Crow Indian Reservation in Lodge Grass, told the students he was about their age when he first became interested in art. He started doing sketches, and it wasn't until high school that he picked up a paint brush and added color to his work.

When his schedule allows, Red Star visits schools to work with students, maybe three or four times a year.

“When I grew up I had no mentors,” he said. “So I'm happy to be able to do this, particularly at reservation schools.”

Cherry Valley principal Elaine Meeks said Red Star gave the school district a great rate. Red Star's three-day visit to Polson - he was also at Linderman Elementary Wednesday - was made possible by Indian Education for All Act funds, and at Cherry Valley, by a grant from the Charlotte Martin Foundation.

Michelle Mitchell, family resource specialist for the district, made the arrangements. Red Star worked with Cherry Valley's fourth-grade students in the afternoon.

In preparation for his visit, art docent coordinator Edna Lemm made an outline of an Indian Red Star had painted - called “Buffalo Medicine Crane” - then had the students try to match the artist's color schemes. When Red Star walked into Cherry Valley Thursday morning, more than 100 versions of “Buffalo Medicine Crane” lined the hallway.

On this day, the students were free to use whatever colors they wanted.

“Don't ask me my favorite color,” said Tabby Denton as she liberally applied blue paint to her tepee drawing. Denton was one of several students who asked Red Star for his autograph.

Most of the kids opted to draw and paint tepees or shields, but a few, like Kayla Whealon, tried their hand at horses.

“I thought it would be really cool because I never had a horse,” she said. “But my aunt is going to teach me how to ride.”

The art docent program this year is focusing on learning about history and culture through the study of art. The students are studying Indian, Asian, black and Hispanic artists.

Red Star told the kids he visits many powwows each year and always takes his camera along. The photographs often inspire his artwork.

The artist said he sometimes conducts similar programs at universities, but prefers the high school and elementary school visits.

“This age group really gets into it and works hard,” he said of the third-graders. “My mom and dad encouraged me a lot in music and art, and it made a lot of difference in my life.”

And perhaps his visit will inspire someone like Dallas Hewankorn.

Copyright 2006 Missoulian

Cherry Valley News | Cherry Valley School