BILLINGS — Ben Pease is a self-described "Indigenous creative," who creates works of art in a wide variety of mediums. His work can be seen at the Chicago Field Museum and at the Stapleton Gallery in downtown Billings.
“My work hearkens back to a time from before Montana, because our people are much older than the notion of Montana. I always say, ‘we’re from before here was here,'" Pease said Sunday in an interview with Q2 during December's Art Walk in Billings.
Pease, 31, was born in Missoula, raised on the Crow Indian Reservation in Lodge Grass, and graduated high school in Hardin. He now lives in Billings with his wife and three kids.
Pease has been professionally creating art for seven years, showing his work starting in small galleries and eventually the Chicago Field Museum as part of the Apsáalooke Women and Warriors exhibit that opened in March.
Pease said he prefers to be called an Indigenous creative so that the western art world doesn't put him in the Native American artist box.
“When I call myself an Indigenous creative, it’s not saying that I simply make paintings. It’s not saying that I just do sculptures or do photography or use my words to paint. I do all kinds of stuff. I work with organizations, communities, schools. My medium is my mind,” Pease said.
Pease brings his Indigenous heritage into his work, hoping to spark conversations about Indigenous people's history, way of life and place in the world.
“Our culture is living. Our culture and our life and the things that we make in a creative sense, those can’t be redacted from each other. They can not be taken apart. With my work, I’m hoping to find a way to continue these conversations, because we are contemporary human beings. We’re living in 2020, which is supposed to be the future and we have a community and we have cultures that we have to protect," Pease said.
Pease said he doesn't try to elicit direct emotions from the viewer in his art; rather, he makes art for himself and his community to further represent Indigenous creatives in the art world.
"I make my work for myself. I make my work for my community and just to be that representation, because Native artists haven’t always had a platform to speak on. Especially in a place like, we’re in Montana. We’re in southeastern Montana, which is one of the traditional hearts of the west. I’m working to gain a larger platform not only for myself, but for more artists to come," Pease said.
Another way Pease tries to break out of the Native American artist box is looking to the Indigenous creatives that came before him. Pease mentioned Kevin Red Star, a Crow artist who still lives in Montana and has received national recognition for his work.
"Those conversations, looking back on all of those and realizing how important all of those are. Conversations like those that my grandfather and grandmothers had and conversations like Kevin Red Star have had as an artist in this place for many decades. I’m understanding that I can further those conversations, because they’ve taken those steps to build them, to build the foundation for those. So, my work is sort of working to further contextualize our place," Pease said.
One of Pease's works elicits questions about how the history books were written when it comes to Indigenous culture. An oil painting by Pease titled "Of the People, For the People" is one in a series called "The Wife Of..."
Pease started the series after searching through archival photographs and finding the names of Indigenous women pictured were almost never noted. They were simply referred to as "The wife of...".
“I’m trying to find a way to highlight those grandmothers and those mothers who were left behind by ethnographers and anthropologists and photographers and people who wrote the history books and made the museum archives," Pease said.
Pease said expressing himself and his cultural identity is a part of him, and he's trying to ensure Indigenous culture moves forward and is passed down. Similar to cave paintings created by Indigenous people thousands of years ago, Pease said imagery and storytelling is an important part of that culture.
"The things that I make are extensions of my existence and the same with all other creatives. As a cultural person, as a person with tribal histories with my family and our communities, it’s important that we keep our culture alive because imagery is important to us. That’s how we’ve told our stories for millennia. This is a part of how we keep our archives. This is a part of how we keep the knowledge for the next generation. It’s always been rock art, it’s always been hide paintings, it’s been oral history and that’s why I speak about my work because there’s oral history to be learned and to be heard," Pease said.
Pease's work can be seen at the Stapleton Gallery as part of the month-long December art walk. Gallery co-founder Jeremiah Young said to schedule a viewing, give him a call at 406-690-7602.
Or if you're not comfortable in public spaces due to the pandemic, a wide selection of Pease's work can be viewed online at the Stapleton Gallery's web site by clicking here.