Driving north to Browning, the mountains of East Glacier are a startling sight. Even if you've taken the road dozens of times, even if you've lived in Montana your whole life, you can still be shocked by them when they come into sudden view. But it's the stunning contrast of the vast prairie stretching for miles beneath the peaks that inspires artist Lauren Monroe Jr. The 27-year-old Blackfeet tribal member grew up just outside of Browning on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation. His family didn't have internet access or satellite television, so Monroe spent his youth strolling across the prairie daydreaming.
"Some people think the plains are completely empty," he says. "But I spend a lot of time walking through them. There's always something to see no matter where you are. For me, it's also about what could be there. What ran through here at one point in history—who was here or what animal."
In his exhibit, Something Dreamt or Found, at Betty's Divine, Monroe is showing acrylic paintings populated with those imagined prairie creatures from the plains: bison, ravens and horses. It's a collection that, for a 20-something painter in the age of digital art and ever-evolving experimentation, seems surprisingly rooted in tradition. Monroe uses classic Native American primary colors like bright reds and yellows. He depicts war bonnets and tepees. But little things make the pieces feel contemporary—more like skateboard art than something you'd find in a Native American art history catalog. For instance, the men wearing war bonnets are faceless. A bison grows blood-red roots from its hooves. In one, called "Rebirth," a skeleton in a headdress is being born from a tentacled stump.
"That was my very first painting," he says of "Rebirth." "It was over a relationship. I was torn up like anyone would be and the roots were there to help me regrow. I still have that one. I don't know if I'll ever sell it."
Monroe started taking art seriously just a few years ago, but he's been around it his whole life. Besides dreaming about the prairie, he also spent time as a youth with his grandfather, Gordon Monroe, a sculptor who taught art at the Blackfeet Community Free School in the 1970s and who worked for the renowned late sculptor Bob Scriver.
"I watched my grandfather work on a sculpture and soften the balls of clay while he added them piece by piece," Monroe says. "There was [a sculpture] of my ancestor, Old Lady Heavy Runner, a holy woman who participated heavily in the Sun Dance. My grandfather would often tell me stories of her and other history lessons while working on his art. I remember growing up watching all these different faces and figures he made, some based on real people, some not. But nonetheless all representing a different period of Blackfeet history from the buffalo days to the early reservation period. I could feel the age my grandfather lived in, from his days on Moccasin Flat and Cut Bank Creek and from the stories that went with the art pieces."
In his early years, Monroe felt like he didn't quite fit in, and he dreamed of leaving the reservation.
"I was a pretty typical teenager," he says. "I didn't want to be where I was at. That's how it is when you're young. I was basically a nerd. I was interested in making things—in making a sword or making a short film or looking for stuff in the forest. There was a curiosity. Even now it's never quite left me."
He moved to Missoula to get an English degree from the University of Montana, and found the contrast to his home in Browning revelatory. He realized that to do the art he loved meant returning to his home.
Monroe recently started a silk-screen T-shirt business in Browning called Blackfeet Threads for which he uses many of his art pieces as designs. The traditional aspects of his work—the swaths of primary reds and yellows and the simple animal renderings—are perfect for the silk-screen style. With the business and his art, he hopes to inspire, like his grandfather did for him, young artists to be creative while still honoring their history.
"I am grateful for the many hours I spent listening and asking questions because it gave me something no school could teach," he says. "And that's the ability to know where I came from. With that knowledge in hand it gives me the confidence to continue to work on my own art and make my own statements."
Betty's Divine hosts the opening reception for Lauren Monroe Jr.'s Something Dreamt or Found Fri., May 3, from 5 to 8 PM. Free.