By Sarah Elisabeth Sawyer, Artists in Business Leadership Fellow 2015
A colorful bus roams the remote and vast landscape, a vehicle in search of ways to bring economic and social change to Native artists where they live and work on the Pine Ridge Reservation. These artists have six needs, needs that are steadily being helped by our Rolling Rez Arts Mobile Unit. Native art is key to sustaining culture at the community level, though these artists are often overlooked.
First Peoples Fund coordinator of the Rolling Rez Arts, Bryan Parker (White Mountain Apache, Muscogee Creek, Mississippi Choctaw), is passionate about his work and telling the story of the mobile unit. He says, “There is so much unknown, unrecognized talent out there. It’s crazy. But those are the people we are targeting, those who don’t have the resources to learn about grants or how to apply to artist markets or what materials to use to better their art, to better the talent they already have.”
Rolling Rez Arts (RRA) is out serving artists, meeting their needs where they live and work. Economic engines capable of catalyzing true social change, Native artists’ six primary needs are being touched by the Rolling Rez Arts this year. First Peoples Fund focuses on these needs, helping us to think in terms of the greater Indigenous Arts Ecology.
THE SIX NEEDS OF ARTISTS
1. Access to Markets
When there’s a chance of being stranded in Rapid City if art sells are low, many artists stay on the reservation and market their art locally. This abundance of art among few buyers drives down the value, even below the cost of materials.
The Heritage Center Gift Shop at Red Cloud Indian School sells artwork by more than 250 Lakota artists through a retail store in the Heritage Center and an online store. With monthly buying days, artists who can come to the store wait in line and hope there is time for their artwork to be seen. Some of the artists hitchhiked to get to the Heritage Center.
But now, buyers from the Heritage Center’s gift shop climb on board the Rolling Rez Arts once a month to bring a market to the artists. Artists look forward to these buying days on the RRA. Their faces show excitement, masking their nervousness and anticipation when buyer Carmen Little Iron (Oglala Lakota) and director Mary Maxon of the gift shop arrive.
The artists wait to see if their work is picked up. Much of it is. Carmen sometimes offers critique, helping the artists know what they can do to improve their work and how to get fair prices. The gift shop has discovered new artists through the RRA.
“It’s a good vehicle to do stuff on the rez that we couldn’t otherwise do,” Mary says. “With that little bit of help, you can just get it done.”
Michael Cooper, a reporter from the New York Times, witnessed the Rolling Rez Arts in action on a buying day. He experienced the impact that bringing a market to the community is having. It was a cultural exchange, a chance for someone from the East Coast to take home a look at life on the reservation and see Lakota culture in a positive light.
2. Access to Informal (Social) Networks
Traditional Native arts instruction is informal through peer learning and family rather than an institute. On the mobile unit, professionals who were once where they are train emerging artists. It gives them an opportunity to learn among their peers, to build self-worth and confidence. Artists are joining the network created by the Rolling Rez Arts.
This kind of networking led to Razelle Benally (Oglala Lakota/Diné) finding two Native youth interns. Razelle is a 2017 Artist in Business Leadership fellow who recently taught filmmaking on the RRA. “The experience I’ve had with the Rolling Rez Arts Mobile Unit was totally rewarding,” Razelle says. “The youth these days are so bright and it really made me thankful I was able to help the young people in a way that I yearned for when I was young.”
In partnership with the Cheyenne River Youth Project and RRA, Wade Patton (Oglala Lakota) — also a 2017 Artist in Business Leadership fellow — taught art classes to students in Eagle Butte. Bryan Parker led the students on a tour of the mobile unit, showing them how its purposes weave together and the reasons behind it.
In January, the RRA joined Community Spirit Award recipients Phillip Whiteman Jr. (Northern Cheyenne) and Lynette Two Bulls (Oglala Lakota) for the annual Fort Robinson Outbreak Spiritual Run, taking the bus alongside the youth runners, furthering the network and reach of the mobile unit.
3. Access to Credit and Capital
Native CDFI Lakota Funds and their supported Lakota Federal Credit Union provide critical support to artists, but they weren’t easily accessible. Until now. Through an initiative led by Lakota Funds, the Lakota Federal Credit Union boards the RRA monthly to conduct invaluable services in the communities. They cash checks, make deposits and work on loan applications in the mobile unit.
“We partner with First Peoples Fund to share the services that help artists develop their businesses and make a living from their art,” says Tawney Brunsch (Oglala Lakota), executive director of Lakota Funds. “With the Rolling Rez Arts, we’re able to reach even more people and help artists address the issues that stand between them and successful entrepreneurship.”
Oglala Lakota College offered access to hard ground wiring on their campuses to help with secure banking transactions. Oglala Lakota College, the tribal college on Pine Ridge, operates campuses in each of the reservation’s nine districts. The RRA often sets up shop in their parking lots.
4. Increased Business Knowledge
Teaching art is important on the Rolling Rez Arts, but along with that comes the practical business side of training artists in the rudimentary basics of financial management, Internet use, pricing and marketing. The instructors — professional artists themselves — share their knowledge and experiences to begin transforming the emerging artists’ careers into sustainable ones.
Full-time artist Wade Patton joined the RRA to teach in Oglala Lakota County, stopping at 6 sites in 3 days. He wants to see fellow artists learn how to take a creative piece and get it gallery ready in a short time to hit deadlines. He wants to help them along their way in business.
5. Access to Supplies
Getting affordable supplies is still a challenge on a reservation roughly the size of Connecticut. While the RRA doesn’t sell supplies, we do have everything the artists and instructors need for the free classes. Artists take some of these supplies home with them.
6. Creative Space
The Rolling Rez Arts is a physical space where artists create art, connect with others, get feedback, and discover new opportunities. It’s equipped with everything classes need. The tables were retrofitted and are removable to make room for easels. If a larger space is needed for something like a sculpting or tanning class, we can move outside under the protection of the attached canopy.
Artists coming into this space are often experiencing First Peoples Fund for the first time. Some are curious; some are college students who happen to be out of class and stop in. Students of former RRA coordinator and artist coach/trainer Guss Yellowhair, an instructor at Oglala Lakota Artspace, come to the unit as well. They receive extra class credit for their time on the RRA. Many of the participants are unknown artists ready to take the skills taught on the unit and apply them to their art career.
GROWING AN INDIGENOUS ARTS ECOLOGY
The Rolling Rez Arts mobile unit continues to roam the vast landscape, its colorful herd of painted buffalo becoming a recognized sight on the reservation. The unit embodies what it takes to build a creative economy in an expansive space. There’s not enough critical mass in any one location to make it happen otherwise. The RRA is a pollinator in growing this ecosystem, seeding the many partnerships of organizations, artists, and individual in a vibrant Indigenous Arts Ecology. Rolling Rez Arts is a shining example of how moving parts working together can create art and grow businesses.
With warmer weather settling in, Rolling Rez Arts has miles of creative pursuits ahead. There’s the upcoming RedCan Graffiti Jam, classes with FPF artists, mobile banking, art market buying, and more.
Founding FPF board member, Elouise Cobell (Blackfeet) once said, “Art is the greatest asset Indian people have in our communities, yet it is the most underdeveloped.”
Rolling Rez Arts has set out to change that.