Billings artist Kira Fercho set out to paint one tepee, but fate intervened.
The single tepee painting was originally commissioned by Jim Duncan, president of the Billings Clinic Foundation. It was to hang in the commons area of the Clinic off North 28th Street.
Fercho said she was honored to be chosen, but her vision was to paint 12 tepees to represent all 12 federally recognized tribes in Montana. Known for her bold colors and thick layers of oil paint, Fercho never does things timidly. Fercho told her friends, Patricia and Harold Korell, about her idea over lunch one day. Within minutes, Harold placed a call to Duncan and offered to underwrite the cost of all 12 paintings, a donation from the Harold and Patricia Korell Foundation.
On Monday, those 12 paintings, some still sticky from the layers of paint, were unveiled in an opening that drew about 150 people.
“My daughter was born here and it’s cool to think that if I have grandkids, they’ll walk through here and see paintings that their grandmother did,” Fercho said.
Fercho spent one year researching the 12 tribes and painting the tepees on 40- by 50-inch canvases. Her 13-year-old daughter, Gia, came to the opening and pointed out her favorite.
“I like the Crow tepee because it has a crow on it,” Gia said.
Fercho said she can’t pick a favorite.
“I love them all in different ways. I got to make each tepee unique, but I made them work together in a set.”
The opening included a blessing by Walter Runsabove, a member of the Northern Cheyenne, Red Bottom Assiniboine and Ogallala/Lakota tribes, and a presentation by Michael Comes At Night, a teacher at St. Ignatius and a member of the Blackfoot Tribe.
Comes At Night said that 150 to 200 years ago, there were likely Crow tepees set up at the spot where Billings Clinic now stands. He thanked the Billings Clinic for focusing on the tribes with the paintings and welcomed the crowd to share in his culture by learning about the tepees.
“We call the tepee our lodges and they have significant meaning to us,” Comes At Night said. “The Blackfoot tepees have edges painted with triangles that symbolize the mountains, which to us are the backbone of the world. Our tepees were decorated with animals that are important to us.”
Fercho painted otters on the Blackfoot-style tepee she painted. A full-size tepee was planned to be part of the exhibit, but when it proved too difficult to set it up on a slippery tile floor, Fercho set it up in her backyard, where Gia and six friends planned to have a sleepover in Monday night.
Duncan complimented Fercho for bringing light and warmth to the space.
“It’s amazing to me what happens when you add art, nature, history and culture,” Duncan said.