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Native American Donald Montileaux takes up art

By Savannah Cummings
Rapid City, South Dakota (AP) 12-08

Donald Montileaux claims he has been a professional artist for just six years. But the artistic legacy of Montileaux, a 60-year-old member of the Oglala Lakota tribe, stretches across decades.

His first inspiration to become an artist came at an early age, Montileaux said, when his father would entertain him by drawing pictures of his favorite characters – Donald Duck and Mickey Mouse.

“I owe it all to my father,” Montileaux said. “He inspired me to want to be an artist.”

Montileaux studied art under noted artist Oscar Howe at the University of South Dakota in 1964 and ‘65.

“He was the epitome of what I wanted to be,” he said of Howe, a teacher, family man and a professional artist.

Along with his father, Montileaux credits friend and mentor Herman Red Elk with helping him find himself as a Native American artist. Red Elk told him stories about his culture and taught him the traditional methods of painting – how to take a buffalo and make its hide a canvas, how to create pigments from plants and how to create brushes from bone. He also offered feedback.

“He ridiculed me all the time about how I drew my horses and people,” Montileaux said with a laugh. “He taught me everything I needed to know.”

While many people know of the use of buffalo hides as canvases, few realize what happened after settlers destroyed the herds. By the 1860s, Montileaux said, the buffalo were gone and the tribes began trading with the settlers for used ledger books, the pages of which replaced hides as a canvas. From about 1860 to 1910, the tribal history was recorded and preserved through the use of ledger drawings.

After having little success as a hide painter, Montileaux was inspired by the ledger drawings.

“I thought, well, I’m going to be the ledger artist,” he said.

After studying at the Institute of American Indian Art in Santa Fe, N.M., and briefly attending the Rhode Island School of Design, Montileaux became a teacher.

He taught for three years on the Cheyenne reservation and said he loved it, although the time commitment wasn’t what he expected.

“Twenty-four hours is not long enough to be a teacher. ... 365 days a year is not long enough to be a teacher,” he joked.

Montileaux quit his job as a teacher to focus more on his art.

“As an artist, it wasn’t where I wanted to go,” he said. He wanted to spend more time learning the old ways and the old stories of his culture and absorbing knowledge from the elders.

Now at 60 years old, Montileaux has come full circle. He has spent the past 15 years devoted to his ledger artwork. Last summer, he returned to Vermillion and taught aspiring artists at the USD Oscar Howe Summer Art Institute. He has won numerous awards and sells his art at shows around the United States. He has achieved his dream of being known as a professional artist. He has a studio in the Prairie Edge gallery in Rapid City and has his work displayed around the country. He also has several private collectors of his work whom he keeps in touch with often via e-mail.

“I have a hard time believing that I’ve actually achieved my dream,” he said.

The artist creates and sells about 150 original works each year, plus prints of his work.


And his schedule is jam-packed with shows. From March to September, Montileaux has about one show a month and travels from Phoenix to Chicago, Indianapolis, Santa Fe and around the Black Hills and South Dakota. Most of the shows he attends require that he bring original work and do not allow the sale of prints.

To meet his quota and be productive, Montileaux treats his art very much like a business and keeps regular hours, working in his studio eight hours a day.

“I’m a businessman, but my product is artwork,” he said.

Montileaux and other Black Hills artists are forced to travel outside the area to make their living, he said, partly because most local galleries are seasonal and close during the winter months.

It takes him anywhere from a day or two to a mere four hours to create a piece of ledger art, Montileaux said. While he also does painting on traditional canvas, ledger art is his “meat and potatoes.”

“That’s work,” Montileaux said of his ledger art. “When I go to do canvas, that’s fun. That’s for me.”

While his acrylic and canvas work doesn’t sell as quickly, when it does attract a buyer who really likes it, Montileaux said it gives him more joy than selling his ledger art because he has more fun making them.

Montileaux has won several awards at art shows across the country and has done lots of commissions, but his favorite award was won at the Santa Fe Indian Market show two years ago. There, Montileaux won first place and best of show. Last year, he received second place at the show. The market attracts about 60,000 art patrons and 1,200 artists. He also won first place at the Indian Market show in Indianapolis. He has a goal of winning at the show he attends in Phoenix.

“If you get those big shows (awards), it establishes you as an artist to a very high clientele,” he said.

Through his travels as an artist, Montileaux said he has developed a community with other artists. He is also a member of the South Dakota Arts Council.

Being a full-time professional artist is challenging, Montileaux said, and it can be a very lonely road to and from the shows.

“It’s wonderful, it’s hard, but you set your own bench marks (for success),” he said.

Attending shows helps artists learn to polish their work and present themselves better to the buyer, he said.

“You learn how to present yourself, you start blossoming more and more,” he said. “You really start to have a story.”

In addition to his position on the SDAC, Montileaux also is a member of the First Peoples Fund, which helps emerging artists build business plans. He also teaches and does presentations about art throughout the year. He is also on the board of directors at Crazy Horse Memorial, where he is establishing his personal gallery.

“I want a place that is going to be forever,” he said about the gallery. “(Artists) want to be immortal. That immortality is achieved through our work.”

While it remains true that most artists are seen as great only through history, Montileaux is pleased with the achievements he has accomplished in his lifetime. He is a teacher, a family man (with three adult children) and a professional artist.

Just like he always dreamed.

Ledger canvas a ‘historically correct form of artwork’

About five years ago, ledger artist Donald Montileaux said there were maybe 20-25 other artists using ledgers as a canvas. Today, there are probably about 50 or 60, he said. A major problem of having so many artists wanting to work with ledgers is finding enough of the books. Some artists use replications of ledger pages instead of originals.

“This is a historically correct form of artwork,” Montileaux said. “I try to keep it as original as possible.”

Montileaux uses only ledger books that are correct for the time period that tribes were using the pages to record their histories – from the late 1800s to early 1900s. He uses colored pencils and India ink for his drawings, which were available to tribes at that time period, but he uses more modern versions.

Montileaux gets many of his ledger books as donations from people who have bought his artwork. He looks through each book after he gets it but said he has never run across any important historic names, although sometimes people will recognize family names on the pages of his artwork. He has about 12 books currently.

“This is a historic record,” he said of his canvas, and he tries to appreciate that. “Then I get hungry and I start tearing pages out of them.”

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