Yellowhawk performs a ceremonial dance in front of two Oscar
Howe paintings and a Donald Montileaux painting Thursday night
during an unveiling event for the Oscar Howe Project at the
Performing Arts Center of Rapid City. The Oscar Howe paintings,
which were donated by Byron Lee, will be part of a permanent
display at the performing arts center.
and Linda Lee examine a donated Oscar Howe painting entitled
"Iktomi" during the unveiling ceremony on May 14
for the Oscar Howe Project at the Performing Arts Center of
Whelchel examines an Oscar Howe painting entitled "Iktomi"
during Thursday night's unveiling ceremony for the Oscar Howe
Project at the Performing Arts Center of Rapid City.
Montileaux stands in front of two Oscar Howe paintings Thursday
night before unveiling his donated artwork for the Oscar Howe
Project, a new permanent addition to the Performing Arts Center
of Rapid City.
Lee speaks during the Oscar Howe Project unveiling ceremony
Thursday night at the Performing Arts Center of Rapid City.
Lee donated two Oscar Howe paintings that are part of a new
permanent addition to the performing arts center.
Donald Montileaux, left, and Nicolas Johnson, executive director
of the Performing Arts Center of Rapid City, reveal Montileaux's
painting "Grey Hair," during Thursday night's unveiling
ceremony for the Oscar Howe Project.
Rapid City celebrated one of South Dakota's greatest artists
Thursday night in honor of the centennial of his birth, but also
to memorialize his groundbreaking work.
The 100-year birthday bash for Oscar Howe drew admirers from
across the region to celebrate Howe's history and welcome a new
local exhibit of his art.
The night was the kickoff of the Oscar Howe Project, a new permanent
exhibit at the Performing Arts Center of Rapid City and Rapid City
High School Commons featuring two Howe paintings valued at an estimated
"These paintings are being exhibited in public for what
we believe is the first time," said donor Byron Lee. "He
was such an incredible artistic talent, so to bring two essentially
new works to the public is overwhelming."
The paintings, "Iktomi" and "Heyoka Dancer,"
were unveiled Thursday night, one day after Howe would have celebrated
his 100th birthday. Both works were commissioned by Margaret Lee,
mother of Byron. His stepmother, Evelyn Dawson Park Lee, served
as caretaker for the paintings while they were part of the Lees'
Lee said the site of the event was chosen in honor of Evelyn,
a former drama teacher at Rapid City High School, and Margaret,
who co-founded the Black Hills Playhouse with her husband, Dr. Warren
M. "Doc" Lee.
"Margaret and Evelyn both loved and appreciated his work,
and the arts," Lee said. "And Oscar put comedy and tragedy
masks in 'Iktomi' for Margaret. I think it only right and proper
that they're here."
Their unveiling was commemorated and blessed by a prayer, flute
composition and dance by Gerald Yellowhawk and his grandson, Stephen,
as well as through brief speeches by Lee and artist Donald Montileaux.
The paintings will be joined by artwork from a guest artist
every month. For its inaugural period, Montileaux's "Grey Hair"
is the visiting work, a great honor to the former student and friend
"What makes him distinctive is that he combines so many
influences," Montileaux said. "He loved Cubism, he loved
Picasso, he loved the colors they used, and he combined that with
Native culture for something wholly unique."
Howe was an innovator in Native American art as well, with "Iktomi"
representing a breakthrough in the use of abstraction in Indian
art. In 1958 his work was rejected from a show of Native American
art at Tulsa's Philbrook Museum for not being in the traditional
style. Howe wrote back in protest.
"He was told that his artwork was experimental, not Native
American," said Lee. "And he said, 'Native American art
is whatever Native Americans do.'"
Howe's protest led to the adoption of abstract forms as a theme
in the Native American community, though few artists can match his
"I draw extremely well, but I and a lot of others try to
do what he does and can't," Montileaux said. "We can't
get the finesses. He could just elongate and shorten lines at the
right places to make a hand come right at you."
Montileaux joked at the ceremony, "I'd hate to be in an
art show with Oscar Howe."
In addition to his innovation, Howe was a big believer in paintings
being more than just pictures on the canvas.
"Oscar believed in telling stories and having stories behind
the work," Montileaux said. "He used a lot of legends
of the Native people and ceremony. He felt that was as important
as the art."
Lee agreed, relating how the piece "Heyoka Dancer"
was a depiction of a "sacred clown," one who showed people
the errors of their ways. "Iktomi," or "the spider
man," meanwhile, portrays a man who tried to make others look
foolish, only to make a fool of himself.
These were just a few of the lessons Montileaux said he learned
in the two internships he was offered under Howe at the University
of South Dakota.
"Two weeks with him were like a semester in college,"
Montileaux said. "So many people who studied at the University
of Oscar, so to speak, are pursuing art because of him. He was my
mentor and my hero, truly."
Howe taught as a professor of the arts at USD from 1957 to 1980.
He died in 1983 after a prolonged illness.
Howe's work will continue to teach, however. The Oscar Howe
Project will be used to teach all grades from K through 12, with
plans underway to create lessons aligning state literacy standards
with the Oceti Sakowin Project's standards for teaching the rich
Lee said that whether it was as a part of a lesson plan or a
permanent part of the school, he hoped it would inspire students.
"I hope they take pride in the incredible mythology that
is the Dakota myth," Lee said. "And that they see Howe's
work and realize that a person of great skill and talent can become
respected and famous no matter where they're from.