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At the heart of Kevin Red Star’s bold, modernist paintings is the tradition and history of the Crow Tribe.

When one young Crow student viewed his work, she told her mother that Red Star is painting her ancestors. And the young woman was right on. Red Star has used historic photographs of his Crow ancestors, some taken by Edward Curtis and others from his family archives, to get the details right.

The Yellowstone Art Museum is exhibiting its only Red Star painting in the “Boundless Visions” exhibit through 2015. It is titled “The General.”

Dispelling stereotypes

YAM docent Virginia Bryan led a tour of elementary students through the museum and asked them to comment on the painting that shows a Crow leader wearing a U.S. cavalry jacket and holding a large feather. Bryan said it was a good opportunity to dispel the stereotypes about Native Americans by explaining the details of the painting to students.

“One thing that I thought was interesting was the stereotypes that kids have about the painting,” Bryan said. “One student said, ‘He probably killed the man and took his jacket.’ But the Crow didn’t fight the U.S. Army. The Crow were scouts for the U.S. Army because of a dream one of the Crows had that the white man is coming and that they should make friends with them. Kevin told me that probably an Army officer had gifted this jacket to the Crow leader.”

Santa Fe writer Daniel Gibson pointed out that the outfit Johnny Depp wears in his portrayal of Tonto in the 2013 film “The Lone Ranger” looks much like one of Red Star’s paintings where a warrior is wearing a raven as a headdress. Red Star laughed at the idea of Depp owning one of his paintings, but he noted that he doesn’t always know who buys his work. Red Star remembers when newsman Tom Brokaw purchased one of his paintings several years ago.

Historic accuracy

Gibson and his photographer wife, Kitty Leaken, collaborated on a new art book on Red Star, “Kevin Red Star: Crow Indian Artist.” A book signing at the YAM with Red Star will be scheduled for early May.

The painted faces, bird headdresses and feathers in the hands of Crow leaders are all historically accurate, and to illustrate their accuracy, Gibson and Leaken selected Curtis photos to run alongside Red Star paintings in their book. Gibson said he admires Red Star for his strong, dignified portrayal of the Crow people.

“He is one of a handful of pre-eminent Native American artists. He has had a long career and has created a huge body of work. He is prolific and works diligently,” Gibson said.

Red Star, now 71, paints his ancestors with such reverence and stark simplicity that the paintings are immediately recognizable as Red Star’s work, former YAM executive director Robert Knight said.

When Red Star, whose Crow name is Running Rabbit, had a solo exhibit at the YAM in 2005, Knight wrote, “Championing stark figure-ground compositions and heroic-scaled canvases, Kevin Red Star has evolved a compelling and powerful synthesis of traditional and contemporary imagery.”

Born painter

Elizabeth Guheen, who is now director of the Bair Family Museum in Martinsdale, curated the YAM exhibit. She noted that Red Star was a born painter.

“The most interesting thing about Kevin and his work is it is modern and contemporary, yet it is rooted in some of the oldest traditions in the U.S.,” Guheen said. “Visually, what you see is very contemporary, but the roots are ancient.”

Red Star has a studio and gallery in Roberts and also spends time on the family ranch near Lodge Grass.

Red Star grew up speaking Crow and did not speak English until he started kindergarten in Lodge Grass.

He showed promise as an artist at a young age and was encouraged by his parents, but Red Star said he was discouraged by school counselors from pursuing art as a viable career. Instead, they suggested he consider a career as a plumber.

Red Star said his parents were both artistic, and culture was a big part of their home life. When a representative from the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe visited his reservation and invited the then 16-year-old Red Star to study art at the noted school, Red Star took his first plane ride to get there.

“I had watched planes flying overhead and was curious,” Red Star said. “It was an adventurous time for me.”

Witnessing history

A few years later when Red Star was studying art in San Francisco, one of his teachers from Santa Fe chartered a plane and took three students to a big festival happening on the East Coast — Woodstock.

“We set up a tepee to show our artwork. When the movie came out, we didn’t see anything about the arts, but we were there.”

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Back in San Francisco in 1969, a friend invited Red Star to take in another historic event — the American Indian Movement’s occupation of Alcatraz.

“A friend of mine said to me, ‘This reminds me of Fort Peck,’” Red Star recalled.

Red Star is a quiet man who is respectful of all people, Gibson said. He has a sly humor and his wide grin is one of his trademarks.

“It’s a myth that Indians are stoic,” Gibson said. “You get to spend a lot of time with a person if you do a biography, and it was a real pleasure to work with Kevin.”

Bryan said Red Star’s work and mentorship for young artists is important to the Crow tribe.

“My daughter Ellie is Crow, and we were talking about his subject matter. She said he paints my ancestors. There is just a connection there that is so vital and so strong.”

Beyond the reservation, Red Star is important throughout the country and his artwork is revered worldwide. He is gearing up for a show in May in Paris, and in October, Red Star talked about his work in Germany to an audience filled with enthralled fans. Gibson and Leaken helped arrange Red Star’s visit to the Linden Museum in Stuttgart, Germany, where some of Red Star’s work is on display.

“People leaned forward in their seats and listened to every word Kevin said,” Leaken said. “They couldn’t get enough of his stories.”

Gibson said Red Star’s life story is so unique because he came from such a simple, rural environment and now he travels the world.

“He had to leave Montana to establish himself, but culturally his familial ties really link him to Montana,” Gibson said.

Bryan described Red Star as the “Charlie Russell of the Plains Indian artists.”

“There is never going to be another Kevin Red Star. The way his life has unfolded is so unique and the way he paints, I just think he’s one of a kind,” Bryan said.

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Entertainment Reporter

Jaci Webb covers entertainment for The Billings Gazette.