Blackfeet sculptor Jay Laber has made a name for himself by taking rusted car parts and turning them into horses. He drives the riverbanks near his St. Ignatius home, scours the hills and ditches, and gathers parts from dump sites where people rolled their cars over the bank and into the gully. Sometimes the tribe calls him up when they find car bodies in need of removal.
“It’s good metal to weld with,” says Laber, “but the main thing that got me going on those particular pieces was the shapes of the old cars. [Automakers] put a lot of natural forms in their cars when they built them back then.”
On the University of Montana campus you can see one of Laber’s sculptures, “Charging Forward,” a warrior with his spear raised, atop a galloping horse. And just recently, on the front lawn of the Missoula Art Museum (MAM), Laber installed another horse-themed sculpture, “Warning Road Hazard, Proceed With Caution” for a current exhibit called Elk Dogs.
“It was kind of profound for me because he rolls it out there and we got it positioned,” says MAM curator Stephen Glueckert. “And there are people standing there looking at that thing and in a way it’s just junk, but people are smiling. You could tell there was a deep respect for an artist who has these skills, and for an artist who can just provide that much joy in someone’s life walking up the street.”
Laber is one of six American Indian artists exhibiting work that explores the anatomy and symbol of the horse. The term “elk dog” came to MAM’s attention through a piece called “Red Elk Dog” by Susan Stewart, a Crow artist whose paintings are part of the MAM collection. Even across various tribes and native languages, documentation shows that the horse was described as this twinned animal: something as big as an elk but that could carry people’s goods like a dog. Glueckert says that the museum wanted to find a way to frame a full exhibit around Stewart’s piece, and at the same time nationally acclaimed, Montana-raised artist Jaune Quick-To-See Smith released her book called She Paints the Horse, also part of the exhibit.
Elk Dogs artists also include Damian Charette, a Crow whose etchings show mythical horses filled with people’s faces, and David John Dragonfly, a Blackfeet/Assinioboine painter and stone carver, who creates collographs that mimic the style of cave symbols. And Blackfeet artist Jeneese Hilton collected her horse paintings that span 20 years for the exhibit.
“The first one I painted in the ’80s sometime and the last one I painted last year so they all mean different things as far as what I was thinking about,” Hilton says. “I was raised on a ranch and horses are really important and I use them as a vehicle to talk about any number of things.”
Two of her paintings—characterized by sweeping strokes of multiple colors—utilize the I Ching and Tai Chi. “Human, All Too Human,” for instance, displays Chinese characters in the corner, and is in homage to one of Hilton’s friends. What she found through collecting horse pieces for this exhibit gave her a new perspective on her own work.
“I’m basically a formalist deep down, but a lot of my themes in the last few years have been heavy duty themes—Judeo-Christian juxtaposed with Native American themes, for instance—and I’ve always tried to stay away from the personal,” she says. “I noticed when I put those paintings up, they’re all very personal, which kind of surprised me.”
Hilton, Laber and Dragonfly will give talks on their pieces at MAM this week, and Laber plans on installing one more sculpture inside the museum. On some sculptures, Laber says, he’s spent up to two years putting them together but this one he’s doing in a month specifically for this exhibit. He, too, finds his own surprises when pinning and welding the car parts together.
“You kind of have to make up your own mind as far as what’s happening,” he says. “A lot of people ask me, ‘What’s going to happen, is the rider going to get it? Is the buffalo going to get it? Are they going to crash or are they going to make it?’ I just can’t tell ya. I think of the sculpture as I go along, and things change constantly. It’s never a finished thought in my mind.”
The Missoula Art Museum presents an artists reception for Elk Dogs Friday, Dec. 5, from 5 to 8 PM with an artists talk at 7 PM. Free.