- United States
42 in. X 32 in.
William Sr. and Dorothy Harmsen Collection, H1998.11.83
Photograph © Denver Art Museum 2008. All Rights Reserved.
About the Artist
Kevin Red Star was born on the Crow Reservation in Lodge Grass, Montana. Born into an artistic family-his father was a musician and his mother is a skilled artist- Red Star’s creativity was nurtured throughout his childhood. Red Star grew up sketching and copying works by other western artists like Frederic Remington and Charles Russell. At age 19, he was selected to study at the newly created Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, New Mexico. As one of only 150 students selected from around the country, Red Star worked closely with a faculty that included several distinguished artists, and was exposed to a wide variety of art forms. He formed a tight circle of American Indian artist friends who encouraged and challenged each other. Red Star later returned to the school as the Institute’s first artist-in-residence.
Red Star continued his studies at the San Francisco Art Institute, where he began to push the traditional boundaries of the surface of a painting. But even as his style evolved, Red Star has stuck with subjects associated with the late 19th century life of his people—he uses images, designs, and even colors that are specifically Crow. Today his home and studio are in Red Lodge, Montana.
"I was taught the old ways, the traditional way to paint with oils, on canvas, the color wheel—that’s my training. I use the knowledge that I acquired through my schooling and my museum visits all over the world, and I take all of that into my studio and put something on the canvas. And in my case, I break a lot of rules. Rules that are standard, that you cannot deviate from. I tell students, 'you have to be knowledgeable. You have to know what you’re breaking before you break it.'" —Kevin Red Star
What Inspired It
This is an image of a Crow woman posed in a time and location that are not entirely clear. While Red Star’s work refers to specific people from the past and present, the names, clothing, and settings of a figure may come from different sources. Red Star looks at lots of old photographs, uses names of people mentioned in historic documents, and is also inspired by living people. He attends Crow ceremonies and feasts, where he photographs people and their personal items, then uses these images in his work. He also uses Crow Indian names to inspire his images. “I get the names off the historic tribal enrollment roles [sic]. I have ideas how a certain portrait or situation would fit them,” says Red Star. Though Red Star’s work is inspired by his native tribe, his portraits often differ from historical American Indian portraits. He describes the clothing styles of his subjects as authentic, though at times exaggerated. He paints his figures with a heavy outline, and uses paint splatters to draw attention to the surface of the painting. Red Star’s figures are often distorted in some way—in this portrait the woman’s hands are particularly large when compared with the rest of her body.
The dress worn here is covered with elk teeth. Dresses like these were popular in the 19th century and are still worn today at powwows and other special occasions. They are usually made of flannel and each elk tooth is tied to the dress individually with a cord; imitation elk teeth are also used. The elk teeth add significant value and prestige to the dress. In the past, they testified to the hunting prowess of the wearer’s husband—each elk only has two of these smooth upper canine teeth (also known as eye teeth, bugler teeth, ivories, tusks, and whistlers), so it could take many years (and many elk) to collect enough teeth to cover a dress. Red Star deliberately exaggerated the size of the teeth to signify their great cultural importance. While elk teeth are used by various tribes, it is believed that their use in clothing originated among the Crow Indians, in part because of the large elk population in the region.
The lower part of the braids are embellished. For special occasions, hair is sometimes wrapped in strips of fur.
A close look reveals that small turquoise beads are also used to ornament the wearer.
These are also part of this style of dress. The contrasting red color of the belt and wrist cuffs is used to enhance the vibrancy of the dress. Note details like the striped trim and large red flowers on the belt.
This woman appears to be sitting right in front of a wall. She wears traditional dress, but her red chair appears modern. Is she sitting in a living room? Red Star leaves us to consider the relationship of the woman to the tipi scene—is it a painting on the wall, a television, a view through a window?
Red Star often includes a sun or a moon in his works. Both are historic Crow symbols. “Sometimes my paintings seem to float in space. I use a moon or sun to give the notion that the people are planted,” he says.
In this figure, the relationship between the size of the hands, head, and body is deliberately distorted and exaggerated. This, added to the way the artist has positioned the figure up close and centered, gives her a monumental presence. “I know proportions and anatomy,” he explains, “and when you know them, then you are free to distort them.”
Red Star uses several techniques to emphasize the edges of shapes. Some outline effects are painted in, some appear by leaving the area around a shape unpainted (see necklace), and there’s a looser halo effect around the figure’s head and shoulders. The outlining creates more contrast (note both dark and light outlining).
Spatters of paint draw attention to the surface of the painting.
Look at the many ways colors and shapes, and curved lines are repeated.
Quick Classroom Ideas
- When Kevin Red Star creates a painting, he often looks to multiple different sources for inspiration. He finds names in historic documents, looks at old photographs, and attends Crow ceremonies where he is inspired by living people. Have your students create a portrait using elements from different sources. For example, they could bring in a family photograph and insert an image of a person from a newspaper. Students can draw, paint, collage, or use a combination of methods.
- Have students imagine that this woman is an ancestor that has come to visit them. Write a dialogue imagining the stories she would tell. What time period does she come from? What was her life like? What would she have to say about our lives today?
- Discuss the woman’s posture. What does it say about her mood? As a class, explore different postures and how they reflect mood and personality. Have students choose a posture and have the class guess what mood they’re trying to portray.
- In Knows Her Medicine, Kevin Red Star exaggerated the size of the woman’s hands, giving her a monumental presence. “I know proportions and anatomy,” he explains, “and when you know them, then you are free to distort them.” Have students create a self-portrait and choose a feature to exaggerate or distort. Ask them to explain why they chose that feature and what it signifies.