With the popular view of Native American art relegated to beadwork for domestic items (e.g. jewelry, clothing) or emblems of a lifestyle lost in the westernization of a people, John Isaiah Pepion’s contemporary ledger artwork is unique in Native Art in that while it genuflects to centuries of tribal tradition, it holds a place at the table as fine artwork.
A member of the Piikani tribe (more widely known as the Blackfeet, part of a triad confederacy of northwestern bands spanning Canada and Montana), Pepion can trace his ancestry a hundred years in the rich, Piikian history. This includes one of the few tribes that ceremonially painted teepees (made of the life-giving, emblematic buffalo hide), a tradition Pepion is proudly continuing,
“There is a hierarchal method to decide who can be entrusted to paint teepees. I’ve gone through a few transfer ceremonies to be able to earn that right.” Originally painted with traditional ochre and rendered animal fat, modern teepee painting is done with weather-durable acrylic.
Ledger art started over two hundred years ago when warriors of the Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes were imprisoned Florida. The guards (including William Pratt) gave the men old ledger papers and crayons. The resulting artwork, depictions of past lives, courting, and dreams, became a tourist attraction and an anomalous, purely decorative, yet implicitly political medium of art for Native Americans.
Today ledger art is practiced by men and women. Pepion’s authentic paper comes from eBay finds and antique dealers who specialize in his favorite stock from the 1800s or early 1920s. Preferring silk over linen, Pepion says the former can withhold a stronger brushstroke and the modern-day Prismacolor oil paints.
Pepion’s ledger art, directly inspired by the ledger art of his people, is in pictograph style with almost an element of Matisse-like fancy in contrast to the plains’ (i.e. Sioux or Cheyenne) artists. There are three main categories for Pepion’s work: warriors on horseback, paradoxically realistic and surreal depictions of venerated animals (e.g. buffalo, owls, coyotes), and contemporary fights of Native Americans (e.g. oil, water, missing indigenous women).
The warrior portraits of Pepion include traditional bow-and-arrow hunting, but also heavily feature muskets and arms. As the Piikani were a tribe famed for being traders, guns and horses from European settlers became incorporated into their daily life.
A mark of Pepion’s work is the exaggerated, elongated warrior feet and animal hooves symbolizing a duality of grandiosity and grounding of his subjects. Often, horses are depicted in surreal colors.
“There is no accepted reason for the figurative coloring of the horses. I would surmise that a blue horse represents a blue roan horse and yellow a yellow buckshaw, but the green and orange evade me. The yellow circle on the horse’s eye is a traditional practice of my tribe that symbolizes the horse’s ability to see further. The lightning bolts, on both the horse and rider, are to symbolize speed.”
The geometric designs that flank the figures are inspired by the Rocky Mountains of the area, specific to the Piikani, while the faceless, frontal depictions are found throughout the history of ledger art. “I’ve kept the tradition of the faceless figures because it was a traditional form of resistance as an oppressed expression.” But while the facial features are purposely omitted from the figures, the war paint and facial markings are boldly captured.
Aside from being a gifted, adept artist, Pepion is also a natural, gracious community leader who uses his artwork as a “gentler, academic way to educate” young Piikani children and non-natives about the history and continued struggles of his people. Drawing on personal experience as a gallerist in New Mexico, Pepion started his own artwork in 2009 to “…identify where I’m from. Three generations ago, many were sent to boarding schools and grew ashamed of our culture. I want my art to serve as pride for older and younger generations of my tribe.”
Pepion in his community teaching children the methods behind his art.