When Bently Spang pulls on the gold jumpsuit and white platform shoes to become “Indian of the Future,” it’s hard to understand his ancestors’ influence on the Northern Cheyenne artist.
When his character gets in the circle with break dancers and traditional native dancers, it becomes a little more clear. And that is where Spang really shines.
Spang is a multidisciplinary artist and teacher who lives in Billings and exhibits his work all over the world. After receiving his bachelor’s degree from Montana State University Billings, Spang earned a master’s in fine arts at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 1996. During the ‘90s when raves were big in the Midwest, he experienced the frenzied dancing where there was a release of energy and the expression of emotion. It reminded him of tribal
dancing back home in Montana. He calls the genre he created “Techno Powwow.”
“My character comes from the Clown Dance of my people,” Spang said. “It used to be a competition, and the part I liked about clown dancing is that it puts everyone on the same level.”
Spang has created four Techno Powwows around the country. His work has been displayed at the Seattle Art Museum, The Denver Art Museum, the Museum of Modern Art in Rio de Janiero, and many other museums across the world. Spang’s artwork is also included in the Yellowstone Art Museum’s permanent collection. His 1994 multi-media piece “Between a Rock and a Hard Place,” is on display at the YAM in the “Boundless Vision” exhibit, where it will be up through the end of the year.
The piece incorporates glass, deer rawhide, wood, stone, steel and bone. It is the only piece by Spang in the YAM’s collection, and it was purchased by the museum in 2004 using funds donated by Mary Roberta Jones in memory of Mr. and Mrs. Robert H. Jones.
Spang’s work is inspired by more traditional Cheyenne bead artists he studied in 1994 under a Smithsonian Fellowship that allowed him to spend six weeks in Washington, D.C., and New York City examining Native artwork in their collections.
As the new artist in residence at the YAM’s Visible Vault, Spang was working earlier this month on pencil drawings inspired by “crazed beadwork,” where a beader uses only what beads are left in the bottom of the bead pouch and creates a work without traditional patterns.
In the new series, he grabs a fistful of colored pencils and draws circles and loops, continuing the movement as long as his arms and wrists hold out. He recorded the action using a fisheye video camera strapped to his chest.
“Drawing has always been important to me,” Spang said. “It’s a duration drawing; I draw until my arms fall off. That’s how I work, I do something with the spark of an idea.”
In 2012, when the Ash Creek Fire near Ashland burned his parents’ home and 20 other homes, Spang felt compelled to record the experience from the perspective of the trees, still standing but charred. He took rubbings from the charred bark by using large sheets of white paper and rubbing them into the tree.
“I was interacting with the burned tree,” Spang said. “They were telling the story of the fire. When I looked at the first few, I said, ‘Oh my God, that looks like the fire.’ He titled the series ‘On Fire.’ ”
Some of those drawings were shown during a recent residency at the University of Wyoming, and Spang said he was happy to learn that a group of young children, inspired by his work, went outside to take rubbings from trees.
Robyn Peterson, YAM executive director, said despite the extraordinary work done by indigenous artists, there is still a stereotype that Native American art should follow certain traditions and look a certain way.
“It is a straitjacketing way of thinking, and the large number of Native artists, Bently among them, who pursue their art in a completely different manner give viewers a much more thought-proviking, rich and even confusing body of work to consider,” Peterson said.
Spang is a visionary who uses art experiences to express complex ideas about interactions between people, animals and the environment that eveoke feelings that lie just beneath of the surface of our awareness, noted Reno Charette, director of American Indian Outreach at MSU Billings. She has worked with Spang on several projects, and in October she will work with him again as he begins an installation project at the Northcutt Steele Gallery in the Liberal Arts Building.
“He is a totally-out-of-the-box thinker and believer in a community’s potential to see the profound expressions of everyday life interactions,” Charette said.