Hillary Kempenich (Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa) stares at her current work. The set of eyes tells a story she’s told before. A story 20 years old, when she was a student at the Turtle Mountain Community High School. The story of a Native youth stepping from pain into the light of hope. Here’s the story again, on the canvas of her newest work as she prepares for the Indigenous Fine Arts Market in Santa Fe, N.M. This opportunity fulfills a dream. But first, Hillary travels back to the past.

She rushes down the stairs to her basement and rummages around until she finds it. With gentle hands, tender heart, and moist eyes, Hillary unrolls the dusty painting. She takes it to her studio to examine and is amazed by the similar composition of her very first painting to her present one. History overcomes her, a past that is her own.

Hillary’s school had been preparing for a collective art show, when her aunt Janelle tragically lost her life. As a teen, Hillary walked into the school’s art studio and began to truly paint. She didn’t emerge to herself until she’d completed From Their Eyes. Though haphazard like her grief, it expressed a story.


From Their Eyes, 2015

That’s when she became a storyteller without words.

Like then, Hillary gives voice to Native youth and to herself. Her artwork has been selected to represent the 2016 National Indian Child Welfare Association’s annual conference. Her prayer is for strength and healing. She breathes life into those prayers through her art. With each stroke, she is an advocate, a protector, a storyteller.

Hillary’s aunt left her with a smile and a story. She tells her story with a paintbrush.

Soon, Hillary heads to Santa Fe with her new work, the set of eyes telling a story she’s told before.

Her aunt would be proud.