It's been exactly one year since Jason and LaDonna Denny joined the First People's Fund circle of artists and started down a path that would change their perspective about the aesthetic and economic value of their beadwork.
Before accepting a First People's fellowship the Dennys only expected what they could make selling beadwork to a reservation border town pawn shop.
Reflecting back Jason said, "Before Donnie and I came into this program, we never knew anything about Indian art shows or that people would pay good prices for our beadwork," Jason said.
A shy, soft-spoken LaDonna agreed that "this program changed our lives."
Now having logged more than 2,000 miles traveling from art show to art show, the Dennys have earned honors and recognition at several of the most prestigious Indian art markets in the country.
As the quality of their beadwork improved and the Dennys became increasingly savvy about market demands of collectors, they began selling out at art shows and receiving higher prices for their beadwork. No longer do they sell fully beaded cradleboards and vests to the local pawnshop.
The Fund's one-year fellowship program teams nationally recognized and established American Indian artists, who have chosen art as a career, with artists like Jason and LaDonna. Emerging artists learn firsthand from mentors what it takes to succeed in the business.
Initially fellows visit their mentor's studio, attend two juried art shows of their choice, participate in an artist-in-residence at the Eagle Plume's Gallery in Colorado and in three intensive business training seminars throughout the year. They also have access to a loan through the Blackfeet Reservation Development Fund's micro-loan fund, receive a computer and are given a monthly stipend.
Following a rigorous selection process, only five fellows are chosen who must reside in South Dakota, North Dakota, Montana, Wyoming or Minnesota. The Fund seeks artists who are highly motivated, risk takers and deeply rooted in their culture. It looks for artists with the courage to step outside of their boundaries and take a risk.
"It is a tough road (the Indian art business) and it is not easy but you must believe in yourself, said Rollie Grandbois, a Turtle Mountain Chippewa and sculptor who lives in Jemez Springs, N.M. He is a mentor to Michael Kevin Hope, Blackfeet.
Kevin, an ironworker by trade and artist at heart, made a choice to invest in his artistic skills on joining the program. He said he believes artists have something to offer their people.
"It takes a lot of courage, but I never forget where I come from and who I am. I am using the values from my (ancestors) past and through my (Blackfeet) culture, I believe I have something to offer the world and my people."
His tenacity and desire to tell the story of his people has brought pride to the younger children on his reservation. His metal sculptures are changing the face of the Blackfeet community. In the last year, he has completed 13 life-size metal figures depicting the Blackfeet creation story and 18 shields have been placed throughout the small reservation community of Browning, Mont.
Don Montileaux, Oglala Lakota painter and FPF mentor, recalls his earlier days at the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe and how it helped him to "become a person" and have pride in his heritage. He said he is humbled when he recalls two of his mentors, the late Oscar Howe and Herman Red Elk. "I want to give back and if I can help one (artist) I will feel like I achieved something on this earth".
Sam Two Bulls, Oglala Lakota painter and Don Montileaux's protege, speaks to challenges of keeping family members who work with him motivated. He encourages his brother in an effort to carry on the Two Bulls family name of recognized artists. Sam recalled values his grandfather instilled in him as he pursued his art, "organize and discipline yourself, remain humble and always challenge yourself."
Kathy "Elkwoman" Whitman, Mandan-Hidatsa, a mother of five and a grandmother, moved to Santa Fe early in her career from Fort Berthold, N.D. She decided to begin sculpting with stone when only a handful of women worked in that art medium. Since 1989, Kathy has been continuously recognized for stone sculpture at the prestigious Santa Fe Indian Market. She said she appreciates and savors what she calls the "freedom" of being an artist. "My art comes from the earth so it is important to acknowledge the Creator and respect where it comes from and to give thanks." Linda Szabo, Sicangu Lakota, and Marcus Amerman, Choctaw, have joined FPF fellowship program as mentors in 2001.
First People's Fund 2001 fellows are Tim Audiss, Sicangu Lakota, Marshall Burnette, Sicangu Lakota, Donna Owen Carey, Santo Domingo, Michael Kevin Hope, Blackfeet, and Sam Two Bulls Jr., Oglala Lakota.
During the next few months these five artists will start down a new path as did Jason and LaDonna Denny. They will face many challenges and gain new perspectives on what it takes to succeed in the world of art.
Most importantly mentors say they will have gained knowledge and they will inspire others at home and encourage them to believe in themselves and to "just do it."
For more information contact First People's Fund at 605-255-5447 or www.firstpeoplesfund.org.