Relaying Traditional Culture Through Modern Art

By Beacon Staff

When Flathead High School students learned they would be working with American Indian artists, they expected traditional cultural art forms. So when they were faced with printmaking, sandblasting and plastic piping they were understandably surprised.

“It wasn’t just the traditional scenes you think of like bison or warriors or patterns – it was still taking their culture, but relaying it to art in more modern terms,” Steven Reasner, a FHS senior, said.

Last month, three American Indian artists from the Salish Kootenai College in Pablo worked with art students from Flathead High School and Laser Alternative school, introducing students to new art mediums and creating cultural awareness through the arts. Students practiced beading, printmaking, sandblasting, and flute making.

A beaded vest and quilt by Linda King are seen on display at the Hockaday Museum of Art in Kalispell.

“We put about 450 kids through the classes in just a few days,” teacher Chuck Manning said. “The idea was that we wanted to touch every student rather than a select few.”

Now, a peer-selected group of those students will have its works showcased next to the professional artists in a special exhibit at the Hockaday Museum of the Arts from mid-January through March. Other student works will also be displayed in the new student art gallery on the FHS campus this month.

The public is welcome to attend an artist’s reception for both shows on Jan. 15, from 3:30 to 5 p.m. at FHS and then 5 to 7 p.m. at the museum.

In its first year, the Artists in the Schools and Communities Program benefited from a talented and varied trio of artists.

Corky Clairmont, a member of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes and the art director at Salish Kootenai College since 1984, is a celebrated contemporary artist. His primary medium is printmaking, where he’s known for displaying post-modernist views of how indigenous people struggle to retain sovereignty in today’s culture.

“When they said we were doing printmaking my first thought was that we were printing stuff off a computer,” Neil McIntyre, a senior, said.

Flathead High School senior Gillian Thornton plays a few notes on a flute she built. Artist Jay Laber showed students how to create the flutes out of PVC pipe.

Instead, students got to use an old-fashioned printing press, combining stencils and found objects like gum wrappers and cardboard with Plexiglas, paper and ink to produce unique patterns. It was the quickest of the mediums students learned, allowing them to make several attempts at the art form.

“I probably made about 10,” Chris Thurow, a FHS junior, said. “It was easy – anybody could do it – and I just worked with different patterns and colors until I got my best one.”

Linda King and Jay Laber are also professional artists who teach at SKC. King, who is skilled in intricate beading, led students in the most traditional work of the bunch, creating beaded dreamcatchers.

It was tedious and slow work for the students, who had to carefully count and string pinhead-sized beads. Some, having made it nearly to the end of the project before dropping their string and starting over, were still working on the dreamcatchers last week.

“She showed us these ankle wraps she made that went up to her knees and had pictures of eagles and mountains,” FHS freshmen Justin Morton said. “She said those took her two days. We were struggling to do dreamcatchers in two weeks and bleeding from poking our fingers with pins.

“Every person in there was humbled – beading isn’t actually that easy,” he added.

Chris Thurow holds pieces he created in his printmaking class at Flathead High School with guest instructor Corky Clairmont.

Laber is best known for transforming junk into art by welding parts from rusted, wrecked automobiles into life-size sculptures that often reflect his tribe’s culture and history. But for the high school students, Laber gave classes on sandblasting designs into sandstone slabs and fashioning traditional flutes out of a not-so-traditional material – PVC pipe.

FHS senior Gillian Thornton was skeptical of the method, but said her flute sounded just like her guitar teacher’s real wooden one.

“I think a lot of times we think of native American art as kind of a cliché, that people don’t actually still practice these techniques,” Gillian said. “It was really cool to see an artist taking these ancient traditions into modern art.”

Like their American Indian instructors, the students were already adapting the art forms into their own interests and culture.

Reasner used the sandblasting technique to add designs to pottery, his preferred medium. Morton’s dreamcatcher is FHS orange, black and white. In a graphic arts class, students scanned their prints from Clarimont’s lesson and manipulated them with computer programs, adding colors and other visual elements.

“They’ve really gotten a better understanding of the parallels between contemporary and traditional art,” Manning said. “If we can get the funding, we’d like to continue the program.”