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Arts & Life

Remembering SD Artist Vic Runnels

South Dakota artist Vic Runnels died this week. He was known for his work with Native American art projects in schools. He died Sunday at the age of 81.

Vic Runnels grew up on the Pine Ridge Reservation and focused on Native American art throughout his career. Roger Broer is a South Dakota artist who worked with Runnels.

“We knew each other for many, many years. First of all we’re related. And I guess we probably got to know each other the best when we used to be part of a group called Dreamcatchers—a group of a number of painters. Vic kind of organized the thing and he felt that they were probably the top Lakota artists at that time. It was Don Ruleaux and Don Montileaux was part of it sort of. Arthur Amiotte, Bobby Penn, Richard Red Owl and myself and Vic, of course. We had quite an interesting group. We were just a little bit ahead of our time is what happened.”

Broer says the group of painters would strategize marketing and get together to discuss Lakota art. He says they felt they were onto something important.

“This is back in the late 70’s early 80’s when this came about. And really there hadn’t been a lot of attention paid to Native art in general but Lakota art in particular. And we felt that there was an absolute need in the world for people to understand that what we had to say as artists and as artisans was important for the rest of the world to know.”

Runnels was a charter member of the Dreamcatchers Guild. This group met regularly for nearly seven years. Broer says he and Runnels often spoke about starting the Dreamcatchers Guild up again.

“We did a couple shows here and there, down in California. We got involved in different shows like the Northern Plains Tribal Arts Show in Sioux Falls. It was really interesting because whenever there was a show it seemed like the Dreamcatchers that won all the prize money.”

Broer says they had hoped to set an example for young artists to pursue their dreams and not become disheartened. He says Runnels moved to Hill City in the early 80’s.

The gallery was full of Native American art and only opened for short time. But Broer says it left a mark.

“Vic was very responsible for kind of demystifying the whole idea of what Native art is, of what it’s about and that Native artists are just like anyone else. I think it had a huge impact on not just Hill City, but the whole area was viewing Lakota art at that time.”

Broer says Runnels was always working on a project and planning something new.

Don Becker is also a South Dakota artist. He says he met Runnels in the early 70’s and followed his different projects.

“In architecture and sculpture and painting, you know. He covered a pretty wide variety of things. And education too, even though he had no background in education.”

Becker says Runnels focused on art education primarily for children.

“He was always involved as an artist in the school quite a bit. I know he would have gigs, I’d call them, at this school and that school to have workshops for the students. You know, usually they were BIA schools or tribal schools.”

Becker says for the time that he knew Runnels, he worked independently. He says the artist was good at freelancing his skills.

“I always admired him because it seemed like he could get by on very little—with the occasional sale or trade of art work for what he needed. He was good at that.”

He says Runnels was one of a kind and seemed to remain optimistic no matter what.

“He was a good friend to a lot of people. You know, he was always generous, always giving his art work away. Last time I saw him he gave me several pieces of his artwork.  And he was still optimistic even though he knew that he faced an uncertain future.”

He is survived by his wife of 60 years and his seven children.