Canku Ota Logo
Canku Ota
Canku Ota Logo
(Many Paths)
An Online Newsletter Celebrating Native America
pictograph divider
Artist hopes to present unusual portrait to Obama
by ZACH BENOIT - The Billings (MT) Gazette Staff
credits: photos by CASEY RIFFE - Billings Gazette Staff

Poster-sized portrait made by burning pine with magnifying glass

CROW AGENCY - Nearly 90 hours hunched over a pine board. Almost as many waiting for the weather to be just right. Thousands of tiny burned dots. A handful of magnifying glasses, one brush and the sun.

That's what it took for Jon Beartusk to create what he hopes will be a personal gift to president-elect Barack Obama.

"I decided to start this by faith when he came (to Crow Agency) in May," he explained. "To show my faith that he would become the next president. And I finished it on Oct. 30, just before the election."

Beartusk, 35, created a poster-sized portrait of Obama by focusing sunlight through magnifying glasses to burn the image - a little-used technique called solar pyrography - onto a pine board, which Beartusk hopes to be able to present to him in person in the near future.

Beartusk has already sent letters to and met with a number of Montana politicians, including Gov. Brian Schweitzer, Sens. Max Baucus and Jon Tester and Rep. Denny Rehberg, asking for their help in getting the portrait to Obama.

• • •

Solar pyrography is a time-consuming art form. Beartusk - who creates mostly portraits - said he often will stay up all night, sometimes 12 hours at a time, working on a piece, drawing the image onto the board or using a firm brush finishing one of his works. Many of his works take more than a month to complete, and he spent 85 hours on the Obama piece.

He uses standard, everyday magnifying glasses, focusing the sun's rays to meticulously burn an image, one dot at a time, onto the board. Smaller lenses are used for finer detail, while larger ones create backgrounds and darken large areas.

"If you make a mistake, you can't change it," he said. "You can't erase it."

When the image has been created, Beartusk then uses a soft but firm brush - similar to a paintbrush - to clear off the ash and expose a bit of the wood grain to add texture to the image.

"It makes it look almost like a cloud or a mist," he said.

Beartusk said he likes to create large shadows in each image "to leave a lot to the imagination." He also prefers to burn most of the background to make the image stand out.

Most of his works are portraits of people from the past. Beartusk, of Northern Cheyenne and Crow heritage, said he welcomes the chance to bring light to remind people of their history. His portraits include images of Crow and Northerne Cheyenne warriors, Gen. George A. Custer and Jesus.

"It's more than pretty pictures," he explained. "God had me do this because he wants me to get some of these great historic figures that are in books closed on coffee tables out into the open."

• • •

Beartusk has been working full time as an artist for about two years. He has pieces in the Gallatin River Gallery and Deck the Walls, has signed an agent and has completed a portrait of an international soccer star for Nike.

But it wasn't always that way. He has been practicing solar pyrography for only about four years, and it took a little nudging to even get him to show his first works to people.

"I was so embarrassed and shy," he said.

It started when he was working in a coffee kiosk near Little Big Horn Battlefield he owned with his wife, Miram Knows His Gun-Beartusk. A friend would drop off copies of old magazines off, which Beartusk would read during work.

One day, he came across a copy of the May/June 1980 issue of Mother Earth News. In it, an artist named Daniel Leahy talked about making a living through solar pyrography. Beartusk tried his hand at it and put a few pieces up at the kiosk.

"When I saw that people were excited by it, I started setting the pieces outside and before long I sold them all," he said.

Before all that, his mother, Jennifer Copley, of Missoula, urged him for two years to explore his artistic abilities.

"She called him every weekend," Knows His Gun-Beartusk said. "Eventually he ran out of excuses."

Over the past four years, he taught himself the intracicies of solar pyrography and, after about two years of thinking about it and with the support of friends and family, they sold the kiosk and Beartusk became a full-time artist in October 2007.

• • •

The Obama image Beartusk used for his portrait is based on the cover of the March 20, 2008, issue of Rolling Stone.

"The seriousness of the picture portrayed the seriousness of this election," he said.

When he was adopted by the Crow Tribe on May 20, Obama was given the name "Awe Kooda Bilaxpak Kuuxshish," which means "one who helps people throughout the land."

The Crow name is inscribed near the bottom of the portrait. It's a simple image of Obama from the neck up, with a representation of the presidential seal behind him. Almost the entire background is burned a dark brown, consistent with Beartusk's style.

While he still hasn't received word that he will be able to present the portrait in person, he is hopeful and confident it will come to be. And, if nothing else, he is just happy to be doing what he is doing.

"I feel honored to use the same sun that gave life and strengthened vision for my ancestors," he said.

Contact Zach Benoit at or 657-1357.

Crow Indian Reservation, Montana map
Crow Indian Reservation, Montana map
Maps by Travel
pictograph divider
Home PageFront PageArchivesOur AwardsAbout Us
Kid's PageColoring BookCool LinksGuest BookEmail Us
pictograph divider
  Canku Ota is a free Newsletter celebrating Native America, its traditions and accomplishments . We do not provide subscriber or visitor names to anyone. Some articles presented in Canku Ota may contain copyright material. We have received appropriate permissions for republishing any articles. Material appearing here is distributed without profit or monetary gain to those who have expressed an interest. This is in accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107.  
Canku Ota is a copyright © 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009 of Vicki Barry and Paul Barry.
Canku Ota Logo   Canku Ota Logo
The "Canku Ota - A Newsletter Celebrating Native America" web site and its design is the
Copyright © 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008 of Paul C. Barry.
All Rights Reserved.

Site Meter
Thank You

Valid HTML 4.01!