The first time I met Kevin Red Star was in the 1980s in the newsroom at The Billings Gazette. His lanky frame and handsome smile made him instantly recognizable.
At the time, he was working and living with his family in Santa Fe, New Mexico, but he always made time to come to Montana for the Big Sky Indian Market and Exposition held at Eastern Montana College, now Montana State University Billings. Many times, Kevin loaned a special painting to be used for an art poster for the event.
In 1989, “D.C. Delegation,” a richly colorful portrait of four long-legged Crow warriors wearing traditional outfits with exquisite beadwork, eagle feather and animal fur headdresses, and sitting proudly with their hands on their knees with a brilliant orange moon behind them. Kevin always mixes a modern interpretation into his traditional paintings, and in this one, the warrior’s features are exaggerated, and the colors are bold, with red accents.
It was my all-time favorite art poster for the market, and I shyly approached Kevin that day in the Gazette newsroom to ask him to sign a copy of the poster I purchased at the market. I remember the day so clearly. The signed and framed poster has made many moves with me since that day and it always hangs in a place of honor in my home.
I have interviewed Kevin two times in my career, and each time there is a sense that I am approaching a rock star.
The last time I interviewed Kevin was on a warm December afternoon at his Roberts, Montana studio and gallery. We talked of many things over the course of two hours — the importance of elders, finding your passion in life, and never giving up.
I asked Kevin questions that day that I never dared to ask about before, including asking him about the racism that he undoubtedly endured in his life. In his thoughtful response, Kevin did not pretend that racism does not exist, but he explained how he has risen above it, finding people to associate with who don’t judge others by their race. This is a good lesson for all of us, to find people to look up to and learn from.
When Kevin was a teenager living with his family in Lodge Grass, Montana he was selected to finish high school at the Institute of the Arts in Santa Fe, N.M. He was the only Apsáalooke student there, and he undoubtedly felt isolated from his family. But there were other Native Americans at the Institute, including some of the professors Kevin studied under. This was huge for Kevin, and he began to expand his world view, in addition to gaining valuable instruction. Beyond learning about art, Kevin learned how to live with integrity and purpose and to never give up, he told me.
That is so evident when you visit Kevin’s beautiful studio. He has multiple canvases set up on easels as he works on more than one painting at a time during the four to five hours he devotes daily to his artwork.
At 78, Kevin could be sitting back and resting on his international reputation, but he continues to be curious about the world and to experiment in his artwork. He is always pushing forward, finding a new way to do something, and never giving up.