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Emerging Native Artists Find Their Style

Chynna Lockett

A new generation is helping to re-defining the idea of modern Native art. Each summer Rapid City hosts a juried art show that draws Native artists primarily from the Great Plains tribes.

It’s a chance for young and established artists to sell original works and draw attention to their heritage.

Abstract images of animals and humans line the sides of a white tent. The pieces are mostly black and white but have a small pop of color. People gaze as walk by on a scorching hot day in Main Street Square. This is Rapid City’s annual Native POP: People of the Plains art show.

A young woman stands by to answer questions and sell her work. This is Mikayla Patton. She’s a painter and print maker from the Pine Ridge Reservation. Patton who’s 26 attends school at the Institute of American Indian Arts in New Mexico. This is her first year as an artist at Native POP.

“Sometimes I’ll do like animals, traditional animals—or they have like a significance to my culture—like buffalos and wolves. I try to do portraits. I’ll do portraits of just Native women just because they’re important and stuff like that.”

Patton says she incorporates pieces of her culture into most of her images.

“I just feel like that’s kind of what I lean towards more. It’s more important to me, you know.”

Patton describes her work as contemporary because it’s a modern take on her tradition. She says she creates art that reflects how she lives.

“Like when I was talking about portraits, I don’t like to do portraits of like us in traditional clothing because a lot of people do do that. I personally just don’t like to do that because that’s not how we are all of the time, you know what I mean?”

Patton walks to a large framed black and white print. The outline of a buffalo’s head with a pile of beads coming out if it’s mouth takes up most of the space. Geometric shapes and red circles line the sides.

“What I see in traditional work, I try to reflect that in my more contemporary style. Beadwork is kind of the turn of the century. We did a lot of trading with glass beads and that was one of the big things especially as part of our regalia and stuff so I just thought it’d be interesting to throw beads on there. So I used beads as part of the buffalo’s breath coming up. The red circles, it’s also part of bead work design.”

This year Patton won an Emerging Artist Award at Native POP. She says she wants to live in the Black Hills after she graduates and hopes to be sponsored by local galleries.

Credit Chynna Lockett

Another emerging artist is Terran Kipp Last Gun.

“I’m from Browning Montana on the Black Feet Reservation, also known as the Piikani—that’s our traditional name.”

Last Gun who’s 28 also attended the Institute of American Indian Arts. He’s a print maker and photographer. Last Gun says he’s inspired by modern, contemporary art work.

“It has a whole different way of getting stories across to people and interpreting natives from my tribe. I guess I work with a lot of narratives and then also landscapes. But cultural figures as well.”

Last Gun says he often works with symbols that have meaning to his culture, like the triangle. He says the triangle is symbolic of the Rocky Mountains that boarder his tribe.

“So you’ll see that throughout my works a lot—the triangle symbol—and sort of reconstructing it in more abstract ways.”

Last Gun pulls out an image of three red circles floating in a diagonal row across a green background. Each circle is smaller than the last.  A black line sits under them, bordering the bottom of the piece. He says this work brings some of his tribe’s cultural figures to life.

Credit Chynna Lockett

“For my tribe, our origin story—The sun, his wife is the moon and their child is morning star. And then at the bottom you just have a planes landscape.”

The image is something called a serigraph print. It’s made through a process of exposing a type of film to UV light through a screen. Last Gun says Native artist create more just than historical work. He says he wants to continue to explore different mediums.

“You know sometimes I feel like Native artists can be stuck in a certain area. I want to see new stuff and fresh looks and I know as indigenous artists we can definitely push ourselves to experimenting in new levels. Just like any other regular American artist or just artists in general from any other country that are constantly pushing themselves and moving new directions.”

Last gun says he hopes to use his degree in museum studies to curate at a museum or gallery. This year, two of his pieces earned Emerging Artist Awards at Native POP.