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John Isaiah Pepion (Blackfeet), a prominent artist and Inspired Natives Project Collaborator, is a lot like the buffalo often featured in his Plains Indian graphic art. Instead of fleeing from a problem, he charges into it. So, his steadfast and strategic approach to surviving – and even thriving – during the pandemic shouldn’t be a surprise.
John lives on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation in Montana, an expansive stretch of beautiful land bordering Glacier National Park. In the best of times, travel to his frequent gigs as an art coach or to the art markets where he sells his original work can be difficult. The coronavirus has made these usual activities nearly impossible, as the Blackfeet reservation has been in and out of lockdown since March.
Fortunate for John, he had already been diversifying his income in advance of the pandemic through his work with Eighth Generation.
“The ecommerce skills I’ve learned from the Inspired Natives Project has carried me through – paid my bills, supported me as a business – during these times,” John says. John packages and ships online product orders from his home.
Now, with his basic needs taken care of, John is quickly adapting to the post-Covid economic landscape by changing the way he uses his artistic abilities to make a living. In February, he began teaching art part-time at Heart Butte Public School, and he recently started collaborating with renowned Piikani artist, Louis Still Smoking (Amskapi Piikani) on three large-scale murals on the school walls.
John free-hands bold lines in his art. He describes his style as pictographic or Plains Indian graphic art, influenced by rock art around the U.S. and Canada. John’s technique is also specific to his tribe and guided by teachings from others in his life.
“When it comes to indigenous art, it has a collective spirit,” John says. “I’m usually telling a story or other’s stories about who we are and how we’re living.” He adds that his visual story telling typically goes much deeper than the cursory treatment given by most educational institutions, which he says, “tell our stories like we’re stuck in the past.” His new murals exemplify a narrative that includes the past, present and future.
The huge murals blend John’s strong animal motifs with Louis’ contemporary impressionist portrait-style paintings, making unmistakable statements about Piikani cultural pride and identity. The first mural rests on a strip of wall above the school’s entrance where a light blue background fuses with the sky, reminding us of a new day. The men and buffalo in the mural are a tribute to the area’s warriors and leaders. In contrast, the second mural uses a powerful pink background, representing the setting sun. This mural will illustrate the importance of women, children and their wisdom. A third mural is also in the works.
These murals are no easy task to complete. Since John and Louis started production in August, they’ve had to skirt around an early September snowstorm, days of rain and thick, wildfire smoke. The two have rented scaffolding for the first mural, traveled to other towns for supplies and waited roughly two weeks at a time for online materials to arrive. John also manages his personal ecommerce site day to day.
When a storm rolls in over the buffalo, they don’t scatter – they choose to charge. By facing the storm directly, the buffalo reduce the impact and swiftly reach the sun on the other side. By charging into the storm of the pandemic head-on, John hopes to do the same.
“No matter how hard it may seem, I try to keep learning and moving forward,” John says. “My hope is that these murals at the school give ownership to the children, our community and identity.”
The pandemic allowed John to find new outlets for creative expression. In the future, John expects to hire employees to help maintain his flourishing business. He also aims to have a business warehouse and studio space.