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Singer, Activist, Digital Artist: Another Side of Buffy Sainte-Marie

An interview with iconic musician Buffy Sainte-Marie about her career as a pioneering digital visual artist.

Buffy Sainte-Marie is well known as a musician and activist, but there's a third side to her that isn't as well known -- Buffy the digital visual artist. She began creating in 1984, with programs such as Mac Paint, and her work has evolved with the technology. Today her images can be seen is in the permanent collections of the Institute of American Indian Arts Museum, First Nations University, and the Tucson Art Museum, and she is represented by Gurevich Fine Art. To learn more about her visual works, visit

You're not easily categorized, whether we're talking about genres of music -- your last album included rock, pure folk ballads and some digital music -- or whole creative disciplines. You're a serious musician and a serious visual artist. What's the vision?

There isn't a vision. That's just how life really is. It's only school that separates from English from Math from History from Literature. That's false. What life is really about is everything. I just never got talked into doing it unnaturally. From my very first album, I've always written about all the different things I think are wonderful.

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'Yaqui From the Wings,' by Buffy Sainte-Marie. 49 x 67 inches. Source:

'Neon Hula,' by Buffy Sainte-Marie. Ilfordchrome (Cibachrome) photograph. 49" x 67 inches. Description from 'Three dancers in a dream, their bodies outlined in neon.' Source:

How did you get into digital visual art?

I guess the same way that a little kid, the first time they see finger paints and paper, it feels exactly the same. It was so new – there was no such thing as 'digital art.' The words had not been invented until many years after I had been putting digital paintings into museums. My works are the first large-scale digital paintings to appear in museums and galleries. But even at that time they weren't new – it took a long time before galleries and museums were unafraid to understand what contemporary artists were doing. They were afraid of it. They didn't know -- If it's "digital," is it still real? They thought the computer made it. We only wish the computer made it; it doesn't. It's exactly the same as my other styles of painting in a wet studio. You do have to wait for the paint to dry, but otherwise digital art is the same. You're still working with color, line, choices, contrast, rhythm, repetition – it's still an art, it's just an art with a different tool.

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Although the pixels are much smaller than what you could do with a paintbrush.

Well, sometimes they can be, but they don't have to be. It's very exciting. For me, it's very similar to music. You do what you want to do. There aren't any rules until some merchant comes along and tries to turn it into a rule book so they can try to sell it to non-artists. But for artists, it's just play, experimentation and eventually coming to a point where you can say, 'Wow, I like that! Now what do I do? I gotta do something else.' The computer doesn't make the art, any more than the recording studio makes the music. It's always the artist who's doing the art.

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Some have compared your more textured digital work to almost post-modern beadwork, with your attention to detail and the textures you create. Do you think that's apt, is it valid?

Oh gosh, I think anything's valid! (Laughs). You can say whatever you see. But when I was first talking about doing digital beadwork – when I was first doing digital art – I took it to different universities especially Saskatchewan Indian Federated College, Haskell (Indian Nations University), and the Institute of American Indian Arts. They already respected me as a musician, and knew I was doing digital music.

'Pink Village,' by Buffy Sainte-Marie. Ilfordchrome (Cibachrome) photograph. 49 x 52.5 inches.Description from 'An image of a Native elder looms above and inside a valley, in which tipis are visible. The colors are hot pinks and other bright hues, fragmented and pixelated. The atmosphere is one of Wisdom bearing witness to chaos and destruction.' Source:

Whereas Harvard would have said, 'It's an Indian who's going to use a computer? We don't know about that?' I started showing fellow artists at these universities just what digital art was about. At first, some said, 'I don't want the computer to do it.' But once they understood that it's just the same artist using a different tool – and that oil paints don't do away with watercolors, it's just another thing you can use – then they started to get it. It's like how guitars don't replace pianos, they're just another way to record what an artist does.

I talked to them in terms of beadwork, because pixel-by-pixel digital beadwork is exactly the same as regular beadwork. As an artist, you wind up with the same challenges when you try to make a circle, for instance, or come around a corner, or you want edges to meet. You have exactly the same choices and problems to solve so far as the design is concerned. And you can save multiple versions of your work. It's really, really fun.

'Yaye Jaguar' by Buffy Sainte-Marie. Source: