We think of artists as this rarefied species that splashes brilliantly into life like meteors, child prodigies of astonishing genius instantly recognizable. While the rest of us struggle to figure out who and what we want to grow up to do, they’ve known since the beginning—it’s the air they breathe! But not all artists arrive like meteors, and some breathe the same air we do. In fact, among the most daring and adventurous artists are those whose paths of discovery appear to them just like ours do, one clue at a time.
Terran Kipp Last Gun, 2016 graduate of the Institute of American Indian Arts, says, “I’ve always felt creative—I always did creative stuff. But I never felt like I was an artist, growing up.” His father, Terrance Guardipee Last Gun, is a painter and ledger artist, “so I grew up around it that way. And my dad always encouraged me,” he says. “But romanticized art—realism—that you see a lot of in Montana was just not intriguing to me.” Some adults from previous generations “didn’t want to be Indian or felt ashamed; they had almost no pride, just a sense of disconnect,” and Terran neither understood nor felt a part of the Catholic faith in which he was raised. But in fourth grade, he began attending the Lost Children immersion school on his reservation, founded partially by his great uncle Darrell Robes Kipp as part of the Piegan Institute, and there, Terran first learned the cultural narratives of his Piikani people and to speak the Blackfoot language. He continued through seventh grade and, although he didn’t know it at the time, that turned out to be his first step on his path to being an artist.
The second step didn’t announce itself right away. “I was a Catholic high school graduate!” he says, laughing at the incongruity of who he was a decade ago. “It wasn’t until later that I realized the bigger picture—assimilation, colonization, all the rest.” He ran cross-country for Fort Lewis College for two years, then quit (“It wasn’t the right fit”), coming back to Browning, Mont., his hometown, and puzzling over what to do next. “My Grandma said, ‘Stay here.’” Blackfeet Community College was nearby; Terran says his peers, who saw it a defeat to enroll there after having initially left—unlike so many of them—“trash talked” it. “But I enjoyed that experience. I learned a tremendous amount about my own people. I had no idea how rich our history is—we’re not even taught that!” It was the direction, Terran says, he’d leaned toward growing up. But the apex of the whole experience came near the end of that two years, when he went across the border on a class field trip to Alberta’s Glenbow Museum, “and that had me hooked!” The highlight was getting to examine five war shirts from the early 1800s, just recently reacquired from Oxford University after a five-year negotiating process. “We got to smell the buckskin. We got to put on museum gloves and handle the shirts!” This, Terran’s first experience seeing all these unique Blackfoot historical, artistic and cultural artifacts, collected in one place—his face lights up just talking about it—was his next clue. Seeing for himself how much the museum filled such a strong need for illuminating his people’s identity, especially for those under 30, he decided to enroll in IAIA’s museum program, “to learn more about the proper care and handling of cultural items and art, about repatriation, and what the museum field is all about.”
IAIA literally galvanized Terran, his clues suddenly accelerating. “One of my museum instructors suggested we take a studio arts course to see what that side of the arts spectrum looks like, since we’re on the museum side.” Once he began exploring, a whole new aspect of himself was revealed. “I never knew much about printmaking and screen printing—serigraphy—and so when I began taking these and other courses, it allowed me to create, and to interact with Indigenous artists from all over. My instructors gave me the tools necessary to begin. IAIA allowed me to tap into the creativity I’d always felt was there and express myself in new visual ways that I never thought were possible.” From there, Terran added on an associate’s fine arts degree in studio arts with a focus in printmaking and photography. “And I became an artist, I guess!”
Through these IAIA art courses and, perhaps even more so, the archival aspects of its museum program, Terran gained invaluable exposure to Native artists whose work pioneered the transition into the contemporary scene, most particularly T.C. Cannon (Kiowa/Caddo), who critics say “changed Indian art forever.” Terran says, “I’ve admired him from the beginning. He was right on the cusp, really rooted in his community, his culture.” With vibrant colors, arresting portraiture and startling candor, Cannon’s paintings brought to life 20th century Indigenous scenes across the Southwest. Terran’s work explores millennia-old Piikani aesthetics and philosophy through a variety of mediums including pop art, minimalism, and geometric abstraction. He’s also recently branched out into capturing what he calls “staged photography as performance”; in “Unconquered Beings,” for example, two human figures wear cardboard headdresses constructed by Terran, representing Napi, a Piikani teacher/trickster, and Mother Nature, meeting for the first time, showing each other their medicines. (A proud participant in the Piikani Chicken Dance, Terran wears his regalia in the photo as Napi.)
As new opportunities have continued to present themselves—interning at IAIA’s Museum of Contemporary Native Arts, interning at SITE Santa Fe, guest co-curating After Hours Alliance’s Festival of Progressive Arts, co-curating IAIA’s 2017 BFA exhibit and, since graduating, currently serving as this year’s IAIA MoCNA local artist-in-residence—Terran’s motto has been—say Yes to any opportunities offered. Even if he’s never done it before, even if he doesn’t know how. For the Southwestern Association for Indian Arts’ Santa Fe Indian Market weekend, he’s gone way out on a limb, working together with established Santa Clara Pueblo artist Eliza Naranjo Morse to conceive of a large scale mural and then create it on an outside wall at MoCNA. “This is the largest-scale work I’ve ever executed,” he says. “Our work is so different—her’s is figurative, mine is geometrical,” so it’s a daunting, but fun challenge to pull these two perspectives together in one harmonized work. But for Terran, this only makes the whole project that much more appealing.
During his four years at IAIA, he’s had lots of mentors, including various MoCNA staff and IAIA Marketing Specialist and Webmaster Jason S. Ordaz. “And as a student among all my IAIA peers, I’ve been sort of a sponge. It’s been an absolutely inspiring experience—we all work off each other. There’s so much good work coming out of this younger generation of Indigenous artists—we need more successful Indigenous artists! We’re really undiscovered, and emerging very slowly.”
Where does Terran see himself going, beyond IAIA? He really misses his mom, dad, his grandparents, his sisters, the mountains, the landscape, he says. “But my uncle, Darren Kipp Last Gun, who’s been like a dad to me—he’s a filmmaker, he’s running the immersion school now, I really look up to him—he told me not to come home. My reservation doesn’t have many opportunities or jobs.” Pressure from his peers, he adds, is still strong. “It’s hard to get away from the negative,” he says, “not be brought down.”
It’s Terran’s art that’s keeping him moving forward and out. IAIA encourages its students to fearlessly express their principles, their values, their very identity, through art. To that end, he and his partner, Samantha Tracy (Dine), fellow museum program graduate, recently participated, through a fellowship, in assisting with archival-related work on boxfuls of materials—records, documents, research—representing the wealth of Piikani history and culture for the Piegan Institute. How did IAIA prepare him for what this world is becoming? “Just continue to be a survivalist,” Terran says. “Be open-minded. Don’t be afraid to ask questions—people want to help. Remember, there is always room for improvement, so continue to experiment and learn.” He and his fellow IAIA graduates are “Indigenous artists living in the 21st century, innovative and ambitious, and we’re contributing our stories to contemporary Indigenous arts, and to IAIA’s legacy. We’re here to create art in unpredictable times.”
Not having grown up with many role models himself, it’s radically important to Terran that he help change that. “I’m gaining all this experience, hoping to bring all of these skillsets back to my community, to share it. Most of them have never seen this. I want to show them they can do it, too.” He mentions how vital it is now, becoming a well-rounded individual, using the best of both worlds as an artist, as a human. “We can change public consciousness for the better. I never knew art could do that, especially Indigenous art. That art could be so creative, so innocent in such a beautiful, ugly way—I mean, that’s reality now.” He pauses. “The mural I’m doing with Eliza Naranjo Morse—the core concept for it is the idea of home. She asked me: What does it mean to me? Now it’s following me through all of my other artwork, too. Hers is bringing me a whole new idea of home, as we collaborate similar ideas—she’s way more advanced than me. Where and how do we affect others with our art?”
Terran’s home, like all of ours, holds both magnificent beauty—his bordering on Glacier National Park—and ugliness—addictions, poverty, hopelessness. How we affect that is: We start right there. “Art has the ability to interact with your emotions and sense of awareness,” Terran says. “The Indigenous art being produced today is really going in some new and exciting direction, and when experienced in person, it sort of brings us back to reality for a moment, and maybe you’ll walk away with something different, a new outlook.”
Story by Gail Snyder