Art and Storytelling

The Cultural Crossroads Program at the Holter Museum of Art
Students investigate an exhibit at the Holter Museum of Art. Photo courtesy of Sondra Hines
Students investigate an exhibit at the Holter Museum of Art. Photo courtesy of Sondra Hines

Arts education isn't just a means of learning an artistic skill or practice; it is also a unique tool for learning about different cultures and perspectives. Multicultural arts programs help students look outside of themselves, encouraging them to explore and experience other ways of life.

The Holter Museum of Art in Helena, Montana, is doing just this with its Cultural Crossroads program. Supported by the NEA, Cultural Crossroads brings diverse artists into the museum for two-week teaching residencies. Each artist gives workshops to one or two school groups a day, and exhibits their artwork in the museum galleries. The museum also works with each artist to put together a pre-visit experience for students so they arrive for the program with an understanding of the artist's work and cultural background.

Most recently, the museum hosted Native-American painter and ledger artist Monte Yellow Bird.

Better known in the art world as Black Pinto Horse, Yellow Bird is Hidatsa and Arikara from the Fort Berthold Reservation in North Dakota. His artistic focus is mainly in painting and ledger art, an art form traditional to the Plains Indians. Ledger art creates a visual narrative, telling stories through colored drawings on paper or cloth.

Yellow Bird works with students during the Cultural Crossroads Program. Photo courtesy of Sondra Hines
Yellow Bird works with students during the Cultural Crossroads Program. Photo courtesy of Sondra Hines

But creating art is only part of what Yellow Bird considers to be his career. A storyteller and an educator, Yellow Bird is devoted to passing on the teachings of his people, and shares his stories with a passion and an openness to anyone wishing to listen. He wove storytelling throughout his workshops with Cultural Crossroads, which gave him the opportunity to work with more than 250 students.

Speaking with Yellow Bird served as a reminder of how arts education has the power to cultivate connections between both cultures and individuals. Yellow Bird gives us further insight into his work, his involvement in the Cultural Crossroads program, and his vision for the future of arts education. 

NEA: How would you describe your approach to arts education?

MONTE YELLOW BIRD: The foundation of my life and career is art, giving, and education. My livelihood as an artist, storyteller, and educator chose me, art being my first love.

When we go out to do an educational program, I don't go in front of a mirror and practice my lecture. I try to shoot from the heart because it's natural, and I want to continue to be natural. I think my education programming comes from really trying to live that. I always let participants know that I came from very, very little means. I come from a big family—there were 15 of us. We were very limited in our resources, and were very poor. Without art, I would have never finished college. I would have never even finished high school.

One Star Pose, one of Yellow bird's pieces of ledger art. Photo courtesy of Emily Yellow Bird
One Star Pose, one of Yellow bird's pieces of ledger art. Photo courtesy of Emily Yellow Bird

NEA: What has been the most fulfilling part of being an artist-in-residence with the Cultural Crossroads program?

YELLOW BIRD: I think the most fulfilling part is when participants make an emotional connection to your work and teachings. Some of the participants were teachers and volunteers. I wasn't just talking to kids. I was addressing everybody as a responsible, equal individual. It's like, "This really is a part of my life. You're talking about my life right now. I don't know how you know about my life, but you're talking about my life." I think that was the really important part of the program, and it really made a huge difference for me. 

NEA: In what ways do you use storytelling in your educational programs, and why is it important?

YELLOW BIRD: When I talk about my work in public, we talk about the process. We talk about the process that led to the final images, and I have stories that are associated with that. These stories and teachings are really important to pass on to the younger generations. We're starting to lose the [verbal] passing on of stories and traditions because of technology. When I start to tell stories, some of the kids tell me they have never heard a storyteller. Storytelling really engages another part of their mind, and helps them to develop their imagination.

The important thing, too, is all the different morals in stories. I feel that as a society, we don't really look at how our actions will affect other generations. We have a responsibility to other generations because they're going to be the ones taking care of us. One of the important things I do in classrooms is apologize to the young people. I apologize for my generation because we're going to be passing on a world that's really been damaged. I tell them that as young people, they have to start thinking more critically about what they're going to have to do to change things. What I'm doing is empowering them. I tell them that they are not just students, but participants. I'm actively engaging them in their future.

Yellow Bird sharing a story with his audience. Photo courtesy of Emily Yellow Bird
Yellow Bird sharing a story with his audience. Photo courtesy of Emily Yellow Bird

NEA: Could you talk about your ledger art and your paintings?

YELLOW BIRD: Ledger art has a very simplistic style that is untouched by mainstream society as well as by Native indigenous people. During its popular era, it reflected a dark time for Native people. But the art was telling stories, and leaving legacies of honor and respect and what our people really represented. During the era of ledger art, our people were forced to change, but we maintained a lot of good solid values and respect. The depictions really emulated that era. The process of doing ledger art is emulating qualities that are important to us, and I think that's what I want to say with my ledger art. I don't follow a traditional style because I don't live in that time, but I'm bringing that era forward by using my style.

With my paintings and mixed media work, I really like to focus on the process. I don't know how much you know about the Sun Dance ceremony, but the center of our ceremony is really our Creator. Along with that, though, we have a connection to the Tree of Life. We have a Tree of Life that we actually dance with. The center part of the trunk represents the living, the roots represent our ancestors, and all of the branches and leaves that are up above represent the unborn or the future generation.

When I'm building a canvas or building a stretcher, I keep the same mindset as with the Tree of Life. I really want to place my spirituality and everything that I believe in into the center of that, because it's kind of a ceremonial creation. I build the canvas with the wood, and after I'm done, I stretch the canvas. The strand that the canvas comes from is the cotton that comes from the Mother Earth as well. After I'm done, I'll smudge it. Smudging means that I'll burn the sage or sweet grass or cedar, and then I'll put smoke on the canvas. I like to say it's all story-oriented. Not just a story, but teachings—traditional teachings that are really universal to everybody.

Yellow Bird works with a student. Photo courtesy of Emily Yellow Bird
Yellow Bird works with a student. Photo courtesy of Emily Yellow Bird

NEA: How would you explain the development of your current artistic style?

YELLOW BIRD: I was raised in a very Catholic-oriented family, yet still maintained connections with my Native culture. The idea of spirituality was always a basic seed in the development of my art. Becoming academically educated through art was also a really important step for me. Studying art helped me to understand other people's views, history, connections or disconnections, functions or dysfunctions—and [helped me] know that they were just as human as everybody else. I really feel the confidence to use my spirituality as a very basic component to the work. Not everybody is going to like your work, but if you're confident about who you are and your connection with your spirituality or your Creator, then it's just what it is.

NEA: How do you feel education fits into your overall goals as an artist?

YELLOW BIRD: Because my work is so different, education is key—it's just part of it. You have to educate your public about your work. There are a lot of up-and-coming ledger artists, which I think is wonderful, but I feel I have to make myself distinct from these other artists. I think that using the educational and teaching aspect of my work is one way I am able to distinguish myself. I think it's important to say, "Here's the process. This is the process. It's everybody's process." But whether you take a part of it, it's just entirely up to you.

NEA: What are some meaningful experiences that have come out of teaching residencies you've done?

YELLOW BIRD: There was one week-long program we did in Belt, Montana. We talked about line, shape, and all of the different artistic elements, but we also talked about emotional connection in our work.

At the end of the week it was time for students to get up and communicate about their projects. Of course, these were high school kids, so nobody wanted to get up and talk about their emotions in front of their peers. There was a younger guy who must have been about a freshman that came from the back of the classroom and said, "I'll be first." I swear you could hear a pin drop in that room. They were looking at him like he was running on water.

After the program when we were packing up, the art teacher came over and was very emotional. He said, "That boy that came up first, did you know he's autistic?" I couldn't believe it. He told me that he'd never seen him get up in front of anyone before, and he usually only whispers to people. I said, "You've got to be kidding me." He says, "Oh, no, I've known him ever since he was kid, a little tiny guy. And that's the first time he ever did that." It really touched my heart. These are the things that tell you that you're doing the right thing. I think that's our job: to be able to support that little bit of something that makes people go a little bit further.