Artist Mike McLeod: How I Got My Start

In Part 3 of our talk with Native American artist Mike McLeod, he tells us a little more about what inspires him, reflects on how he got his start, and remembers a few of his favorite Country Western stars (who also happen to be collectors of his work).

[Rose] How long would you say you've actually been doing this type of artwork and able to make a living off it?

[Mike McLeod] I've always done artwork all my life - I started out drawing and painting.

[Rose] What age were you when you started?

[Mike] Probably about 5 or 6 years old. I always worked in pencil, pastels, watercolor. I've only done American Indian art for the last 24 years…and full time for the last 23 years.

[Rose] So, you're a self taught artist?

[Mike] Yes. I've just always love it (making art).

[Rose] Where do you find your inspiration?

[Mike] Well, a lot of the guys here (at Prairie Edge)…Jimmy Little Wounded, Kevin Fast Horse...I've always liked their work.

I also go to museums…The Buffalo Bill Historical Center in Cody, Wyoming and other places when I travel around. I like to look at Western art and American Indian art, but like I said before…most of my inspiration comes from my family and listening to their stories.

[Rose] So, when you look at those historical pieces in the museums, they inspire you as well (the artwork from way back in the day) and trying to keep that type of artwork alive in our modern times?

[Mike] Yes, definitely.

[Tracey] How did you get your start?

[Mike] I did a little painted bag one time…a friend of mine saw it and said I should take it to Ray Hillenbrand at Prairie Edge. At the time, I hadn't even heard of Prairie Edge (this was when I was working for the Rapid City school district).

I took this bag to Ray, he looked at it, liked it, and asked if I could make 100 of them. (looking at Rose, Mike says) Those were those Ghost Dance bags (she nods in agreement).

So, between the School District and that big order, I got them completed…and he started ordering more. Then he asked if I could do other things - shirts, dresses, pipe bags…and painted robes. Of course, I said yes…and pretty soon, it became a choice between the School District full time and doing artwork for Prairie Edge.

Well, I love art, I always have…so Ray actually gave me my start and was able to let me do what I love the most. That will be 23 years ago, coming this May.

[Rose] Before that, were you just doing pieces here and there for friends and family, for your own personal use, or for reenactments?

[Mike] Oh, yes…I had lots of friends who were Buck skinners who went to rendezvous that would ask me to make their outfits for them…I did little things like that.

Before that, I did pencil portraits…and like I said before I also did pastels and watercolors.

[Rose] So, you feel like there's always been an artist in you that just needed to come out? That needed to do that (art), period.

[Mike] Yes.

[Rose] We find that a lot with artists…they just can't function in that 9 to 5. There's just something in them that calls and forces itself to be revealed.

Do you often hear from fans or do you have a following of collectors you like to work with?

[Mike] Well, I used to hear from Marty Stewart.

[Rose] (explaining to us) Marty Stewart is a country western singer who is also a champion of Native American art and Native American culture. He is a very nice man who once judged a Halloween contest for us (at Prairie Edge)…and even had breakfast with us.

[Mike] Yeah, I think he was the first major country stars that bought one of my top hats.

[Rose] (explaining to us) That's right…Mike McLeod does top hats. Big & Rich has one…ZZ Top has one…and Marty Stewart was your first.