Ben Pease often finds himself digging through old folks’ attics or antique shops or the modern equivalent, eBay.
As he says, “It’s part of the journey.”
And what’s he searching for?
Sometimes it’s old maps. Other times it’s historic bond certificates and stocks. Or simple ledgers, pale and frayed and hardly legible, yet telling nonetheless.
These historical documents provide the backdrop — both literally and figuratively — for much of Pease’s artwork, acrylic paintings that depict classic Native American imagery with a vivid and unmistakable contemporary originality.
“I see it as a basic evolution of things like hide paintings and drawings that chronicle stories and experiences,” says Pease, who grew up in southeastern Montana and is a member of the Crow and Northern Cheyenne tribes.
“Our peoples have always been historians and chronicled their existences through stories and shared that with their people. What I’m doing, like any other artist, is treating imagery to tell a story.”
At 27, Pease is a rising star in the art world. His work is becoming a fixture at premier galleries and shows across the West. Last year, he received Best in Show and the People’s Choice Award at the C.M. Russell Art Week in Great Falls. Earlier this year, he traveled to Abu Dhabi, where he was one of five artists from North America chosen to represent Native American art in a month-long residency. Most recently, he designed the movie poster for “Mankiller,” a documentary film celebrating the life of Wilma Mankiller, the first woman to be elected principal chief of the Cherokee Nation.
Pease’s artwork is currently showcased at the Dick Idol Signature Gallery in Whitefish, which he recently visited to discuss his work.
Like the work of Colt Idol, another local rising star who is garnering widespread attention and accolades, Pease’s distinct paintings stand out in the Western art landscape.
One of Pease’s newest acrylic-on-canvas paintings, “If Sweet Looks Could Kill,” features a young Native American girl atop a horse with an antique Coca-Cola ad and sweets shop receipts from the 1890s in the background. Another, “Biiluuke-Spies on the Enemy,” showcases a digital black-and-white photo alteration of a tribal member dressed in full regalia, surrounded by original ledger papers from the 1890s and bright red graffiti-like lettering decorating his chest.
It’s a collision of traditional and contemporary styles, and in a way it feels like Andy Warhol pop art blended with Banksy street art set in the Wild West.
“People in my family, we’ve always been artists,” he says. “We’ve always been creative and we’ve always been makers of something or another. I think that’s sort of reflective of our heritage and our culture.”
“We’re creators by blood, through ceremonies, through tradition, through history,” he added.
Pease has nurtured a passion for art since he was a young boy on the Crow Reservation. His first painting, part of an art project during his junior year of high school, focused on a chief in the Crow Tribe. The work attracted the eye of a tribal member whose great grandfather was the subject of Pease’s painting, and he paid $400 for the piece.
“For me at that time, I thought I had hit the lottery,” Pease says. “Other people started seeing what I did and asked me to do the same, painting their namesakes or grandfathers. I kept doing it, and it snowballed from there.”
Pease attended the University of North Dakota on a football scholarship and stayed involved in his art. After four years, he transferred to Montana State University in Bozeman and dropped football to focus on his life’s real passion.
Now based in Belgrade with his wife and two young children, Pease is making a living doing what he loves.
“It’s a little scary to say I’m going to be a professional artist, but I’ve made it work,” he says.
To help others achieve similar dreams, Pease helped form the Creative Indigenous Collective, a group of emerging professional artists from the Northern Plains. Pease says the goal of the collective is to inspire and help other new and potential artists who have a passion for storytelling through imagery.
“We like to speak to the youth and try to break down barriers and share knowledge,” he says.
And, perhaps most impressively, Pease is leading by example.
For more information about Ben Pease, visit www.benpeasevisions.com.