GREAT FALLS — A new installation at the Paris Gibson Square Museum of Art is drawn from the artists' belief that the strength and success of Native American identity and culture is internally inherited and created inside of their communities.
John Isaiah Pepion and Louis Still Smoking are hard at work, collaborating on the installation. From ledger art to buffalo hides to oils and 3D artwork, “Within” tells a story of trauma and triumph.
“The show will tackle where we’re at as Blackfeet people now as a Blackfeet artists in 2023,” said Pepion. “It covers a lot of issues, kind of like just digging deep within ourselves and our community and where we're from.”
Pepion has gained recognition for his ledger art. He also did the poster art for the recently released PBS documentary, “The American Buffalo.” Now, he’s teamed up with fellow Blackfeet artist Louis Still Smoking. Their installation titled “Within” opens Friday at Paris Gibson Square Muesum of Art.
Among Still Smoking’s specialties are portraitures mixed with cultural symbolism and historical references. For him, art is about engaging and connecting with a viewer.
“It’s bridging that gap from not knowing something to actually experiencing a culture that you normally wouldn't be experienced to,” said Still Smoking.
He’ll have a work in progress on display. The yet to be titled painting is a commentary on a difficult time for the Blackfeet people, the boarding school era. But Still Smoking wants to focus on the positive.
“It's a bad part of history, but I'm trying to paint it in a way that's a positive message,” said Still Smoking. “Basically, I'm just saying I'm thankful to be here to paint something like that. I want to honor my ancestors.”
Pepion is paying tribute to the buffalo by painting a hide.
“So the yellow on this buffalo hide represents the sun,” said Pepion. “The sun is very important to Blackfeet people. We call the Sun Naato’si. Then cross the king symbol is Morning Star, a very important symbol. We believe that the sun married the moon and Morning Star is their son.”
Pepion says art can highlight the struggles of the past, but also act as a healer, both for his people and himself.
“As an artist, I feel like I'm playing my part,” said Pepion. “I feel like art is therapy and can heal, too. It's healing myself from a journey through diabetes and just my personal life. So art is therapy.”
This isn’t the first time they’ve worked together. Last year they collaborated on an Arts Fest Montana Mural. And Still Smoking Completed a mural for the program this summer.
The installation is curated by Paris Gibson Square Curator of Exhibitions and Collections Nicole Maria Evans and will be accompanied by a series of free and open events.
The installation opens Friday and will feature a reception and discussion on Thursday, October 26 at 5:30 p.m.
On Friday, November 17 at 5:30 p.m., a program by Jennifer Woodcock-Medicine title “hiding in Plain Sight: Expanding the Canvas” will be held.
On Friday, December 8 at 5:30 p.m., Sean Chandler, President of Aaniiih Nakoda College on the Fort Belknap Indian Reservation, will present a program title “indigenous Education for No One.”
You can learn more about the museum and the installation and companion events here.