Terrance Guardipee fuses traditional Blackfeet imagery with historical documents to find “a new way to express ledger art,” he said.
The Browning native will present some of his all-new works at the Hockaday Museum in Kalispell this summer: ledger art on paper from Butte circa the late 1890s, about six paintings and his “map collages.”
Guardipee developed the latter as a way to differentiate his work from the traditional style of ledger art, typically done on one sheet of paper.
“From the single page, I wanted to separate myself from my mentor, so I started using checks, receipts, stocks, money, WWII ration books and coupons,” he said.
He incorporates these documents from the 19th century, including maps of Montana, to explore the growth and change in the state at that time period, show where the Blackfeet Tribe protected its territories and relate the stories of ancient warriors.
The Hockaday exhibit will have multiple images of Running Eagle, “one of the only women to become a warrior,” he said. While there’s a waterfall named after her in Glacier National Park, his work is way of spreading her story across the country.
In addition to Blackfeet figures, Guardipee uses traditional symbols in his work, such as lodge designs. He’s had the training and fully understands what they’re used for. A viewer could see an old photograph of a lodge and see the same, he said.
“It’s a great gift for me to have that knowledge, and share it with the greater world outside of the Blackfeet homeland,” he said.
From the start, he would do careful research and talk to people back home, who, he said, if he needed a fuller understanding of a particular subject.
He’s also always included a breakdown of the imagery in each piece so that viewers can understand and enjoy the symbols.
“I’m happy and I’m proud to share that with the public – the history and the culture of my tribe,” he said.
“The symbols, even though they’re ancient, the symbols still have the same power – personal power protection, tribal power protections, they still have great significance,” he said.
Guardipee graduated from the Institute of American Indian Art in Sante Fe, N.M., where he studied two-dimensional arts.
He said the experience was positive – there were members of tribes from all over the U.S., from the East Coast to Alaska, which gave him a broad view of Indian art outside his home.
The students were encouraged to experiment with abstract styles, but Guardipee said he honed his skills and stayed true to his heritage.
“I always stuck to who I was in terms of being a Blackfeet artist,” he said.
When Guardipee first transitioned into his map collage style, he gathered the documents from a few small antique stores. After he began showing his work, he met collectors looking to unload what he needed: “Original documents with dates on them to connect my drawings to the era,” he said.
The documents, which come from small towns up and down central Montana, are always authentic, Guardipee stressed.
“I do not use copies of the original documents. They’re all originals, they’re all one of a kind,” he said.
They’re typically from small towns up and down central Montana, and their use is a compliment, Guardipee said.
“It’s no disrespect to the state of Montana or these old businesses that I’m using their documents. It’s honoring those places. It’s keeping them alive,” he said.
For instance, he’s used numerous documents from Virginia City and often gets questions about whether it’s a Nevada reference.
“It’s a ghost town, but I’m keeping it alive and it’s going all over the country,” Guardipee said.
The documents can have great significance to the work as a whole, he said. Take the pieces that use World War II ration books.
“Those directly link my tribes’ ancient war history with modern warriors going overseas so those really connect,” he said.
In addition to his Hockaday exhibit, Guardipee has a busy schedule.
In the fall, he will have a show at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of the American Indian, which will all be ledger art based on Blackfeet culture. In 2007, he was the featured artist there.
He’ll also be showing his work at the Heard Museum of Native Cultures and Art in Phoenix, in addition to his regular circuit, which includes the Sante Fe Indian Art Market. He won top honors for his ledger art three years in a row at one point in his career.
One place you won't find his work, though, is a gift shop. He doesn't use prints in his collages, and doesn't currently produce prints of his work - each piece is a one-off. He doesn't frown on arists who sell reproductions, however.
“Mine’s a personal decision in terms of keeping my art rare, and special, and one of a kind,” he said, whether it’s only as big as a playing card or as large as a map.