Native American artists’ gallery transforms MSU building into something ‘pretty special’

MSU Photo by Adrian Sanchez-Gonzalez

John Pepion, left, and Ben Pease, are two of the featured Native American artists who work is represented in the new Indigenous Art in Time gallery in the SUB. Pease, a former MSU art student whose work is now sold worldwide, and Marsha Small helped SUB director Butch Damberger curate the gallery.

Butch Damberger said a new set of Native American paintings that line the hallway to meeting rooms in the Montana State University Strand Union Building often have an unexpected and powerful effect on people.

“A couple of months ago I came across a young man who was moved to tears by the art,” said Damberger, director of the SUB. “That was our goal – to create something (all people) can be proud of.”

The Indigenous Art in Time Gallery is a set of large-scale pieces of art by Native American artists saluting Montana’s tribes. The multimedia gallery was installed on Indigenous Peoples Day in October and still catches people expecting a plain hallway by surprise.

The gallery features muralsized pieces by five artists. They include: Ben Pease, a member of the Apsaalooke (Crow) and Tsitsistas (Northern Cheyenne) nations and former MSU art student who is now successfully selling his multimedia pieces around the world; John Isaiah Pepion, Piikani (Blackfeet), who is also a prominent artist known for his ledger-style art; Carlin Bear Don’t Walk, a member of the Tsitsistas and Apsaalooke nations who grew up in Busby and now lives in Billings and whose painting also graces this year’s American Indian Council powwow poster; Casey Figueroa, a Flathead-area artist and educator of Apache, Tohono O’Odham, Yaqui, Mexican and Irish heritage who is pursuing dual master’s degrees in Native American studies and an MFA from MSU; and Alisha Fisher, Tsitsistas and Apsaalooke, a graduating senior art student at MSU. The gallery was coordinated by Marsha Small, Tsitsistas, an earth science doctoral student and Native American studies lecturer who is passionate about seeing a collection of gallery-quality art by Native American artists installed on the MSU campus.

“This is a salute to our Homelands, because this is what this place here is – Homeland for many Montana tribes,” Small said.

Damberger said while he had the idea of hanging Native American art in the formerly empty hallway for some time, the project didn’t get off the ground for a couple of years until efforts by Small and Pease located artists. The resulting paintings exceeded all of his expectations.

“I had thought for the longest time that we should do something with these walls and I thought I’d like to have a few pieces of Native art in that hallway, but didn’t know how to make it happen,” Damberger said.

Small calls the creation of the gallery over several months last year “one of the greatest family efforts that I have ever been a part of.”

“We all got together and decided the progression on the walls and who would be where,” she said. “All of the artists are really busy, but they made it happen.”

Small said the progression begins on the northwestern wall with a large painting by Fisher of Pretty Woman, a Cheyenne woman. The painting is called “Respect” because “we are a matriarchal society and this is where life begins for us,” Small said. A mural full of Native American symbols and two multimedia pieces by Figueroa follow. The mural merges into Bear Don’t Walk’s neoncolored scene of a white buffalo, called “The Journey Continues.” The art rounds a corner to Pease and Pepion’s “Stories of Our Peoples.” The Pease-Pepion piece, which extends across most of the southern wall, is a vinyl wrap created by SCS Wraps, and it includes symbols from all of Montana’s tribes. The gallery ends with two paintings by Fisher called “Resilience” – one of the historic male Northern Cheyenne leader Red Armed Panther. The last painting is of Fisher’s baby girl.

“It’s the circle of life for us,” Small said of the full presentation.

Two motion-activated monitors in front of the Pease-Pepion piece loop short videos about Montana’s tribes created by Montana’s Office of Tourism. Damberger said the tourism office allowed MSU to download the videos, and Jonathan Dove, the SUB’s technical director, figured out how to make them work with the motion detectors.

Small said the pieces of art are so detailed, and so rich in Native American symbolism “that every time I look at them I see something new.”

Damberger said in addition to the gallery, the SUB also purchased two original paintings from Pease – one is the original used for last year’s American Indian Council’s powwow poster – that now hang outside the SUB ballrooms. While those paintings are beautiful and also add much to the building, he’s grateful for the impact of the larger gallery.

“What I love about (the gallery), what I think is cool, is I now see classes coming up and walking through and looking at it,” Damberger said. “We’re really proud of how it turned out. It really is pretty special.”

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