Artists who turn their passion into a business venture can find it a challenge. They need to figure out the details and skills that go into making a profit. The Keya Foundation in Eagle Butte on the Cheyenne River Reservation is helping local artists develop those skills.
Paulette Eagle Staff Red Dog walks past art projects hanging off vibrant, turquoise walls. She stands in front of a small framed white dress that belonged to her mother.
“My mother born in 1934 and they made this for her when she was about 2 years old. Her grandmother made it for her.”
Red Dog lives in Eagle butte with her husband and son. Art is just as important to their family now as it was to her ancestors. The house is stocked full of creative supplies that support her work in various artistic techniques.
“I do my little woodworking projects and I sew and I just kind of try and do just a little bit of everything. Whatever I can think of.”
Currently, she’s carving small pieces of wood into different shapes like feathers...
“And these are the eagle heads, I do the turtles too. See my son cuts all these out for me and he sands them down and everything.”
Red Dog burns designs into the wood to finish them. Then she puts them up for sale.
Her husband, Patrick Red Dog is also an artist. He cuts small pieces of bone into shapes for jewelry, beads. He even dies porcupine quills for quill work.
Patrick Red Dog says are a lot of artists on the Reservation. He says the hard part is figuring out how to make a profit.
“We have a lot of creative people, a whole lot. But there’s not very many outlets for them. Being more informed creators and informed business practices and everything else.”
Red Dog used to live in Oregon. He says, there, it was easier for artists to network and find places to sell traditional Native American art. Red Dog says knowing the business side of art helps a seller succeed.
“If you don’t organize the people somehow, they make the art but they don’t have anywhere to sell it. Even though some of them are really good quality art pieces, they don’t have a market and they end up selling their work for, geez, really cheap.”
The Keya Foundation is trying to help local artists learn the business side of things. Justine Kougl is the director. She says people are more likely to stop and buy art in Sioux Falls or Rapid City than they are on reservations.
“People who are traveling through on highway 212, they don’t even think to stop at the Cultural Center to pick up something such as a beaded bracelet as a gift. When really that beaded bracelet for a gift. When really, that beaded bracelet could pay for somebody's phone bill.”
The Keya Foundation selects a handful of people for the Lakota Artistry Cooperative. Participants can apply for scholarships to cover art supply costs and attend classes on marketing, copyright and social media.
"Most of the artists that we work with right now, art is definitely their second job, maybe their third job. They do it because they love it, they do it because they’re creative and that’s what their heart tells them to do.”
Kougl says the program has seen success stories.
Tammy Granados is a special education paraprofessional. She spends her free time painting and creating multimedia work. Her style looks like graffiti with a realistic flare that brings her images to life. Granados says she gets attached to her original pieces.
"I realize I can’t paint for the purpose of making money but I can paint for the purpose of let’s relax today. But I do enjoy being part of the Keya Foundation and being able to sell artwork now.”
Granados didn’t want to sell all of her work, but painting got expensive. The Keya Foundation solved this by reproducing her images on mouse pads, posters greeting cards and coffee mugs.
“When you’re at an art market and things can be so expensive sometimes and people can’t necessarily afford to buy your original but they want to support you or they like your art, they can get a coffee mug. That’s affordable for them. But honestly these mugs are what pays for the gas to get to the art market and get back. It’s crazy.”
Granados says the Keya Foundation also helped her network. An important key for many is connecting with potential retail locations. She’s been invited to sell pieces at the Rapid City Native People of the Plains art market and held a show at the Journey Museum.
It can be difficult for artists to travel to markets with a busy schedule.
Wiyaka Chasing Hawk is a community health representative. When he’s not working to get people to and from doctors appointments He does leather work. He received a scholarship from the Lakota Artistry Project to purchase gear for his work.
“The key fobs, the small coin purses, cell phone cases are primarily what I make right now.”
Chasing Hawk was introduced to leatherworking when he was a kid watching his older cousins create and sell their work. He picked it up as an adult to make a side income. After classes at the Keya Foundation, he started selling his work on social media. He says that was the start he needed.
“We’re in a place where the income levels aren’t as high and there’s not a lot that we can do such as going out to get these things ourselves.”
It takes Chasing Hawk nearly 6 hours to make one piece, which he says is just enough time to fit into his evenings. Eventually, he hopes earn enough to regularly travel to art markets and sustain a side business. But for now, he’s happy that he can make a profit off of his hobby.