Ledger Artist Donald Montileaux: Meaning & Inspiration

What insight! In this snippet of our interview with Native American artist Donald Montileaux, he shares with us some of the meaning behind his work, what he enjoys about the art making process, those who have inspired him, and the thing he admired most about his mentor Herman Red Elk.

[Rose] Do you ever find that you have "artist's block" and you need to get some inspiration? Where do you get your inspiration?

[Donald Montileaux] Fortunately, I never have…because I'm full time, I'm never not an artist. I go to sleep at night and I say my prayers and I thank the Lord for the day, and then I wake up in the morning and I thank him again…but in-between that real wake up and that dream state, that's when most of my ideas come to me. I just let them roll and enjoy them as I think them through…then I wake up and go right to the studio.

[Rose] I love these guys (she says as she points to one of Donald's shadowy horned figures). They just have a spirit, an energy of their own. Whenever I see them, it's comforting.

[Donald] Ah, these guys are helpers. I call them my enchanted figures, my guardian spirits. According to my culture (the Lakota culture), when we first came out of Wind Cave to come up on the surface of the Earth, we were crying, poor, starved, and we didn't know how to care for ourselves, so we started praying. The Great One heard our prayers…down below there were these Helpers that came up and out and gave us the gift of the buffalo.

(Referring to the same shadowy figure with horns)…that's why I represent them in the form of a buffalo - they are always there, even today. If we need help, we can pray and do the right things to make them come to us and help us - these are Helpers. They're not anything to be scared of, these are Helper Guys.

When I do my individuals and I do my people, I like to hear them talk to me - they're always visiting and we're talking back an forth and all the sudden one guy will say "hey, hey, I'd like to have a green trailer", so I'll jump over there and get him (because I don't want to loose that talk), and then another guy will start talking more than the one I was working on, and then another will start saying something - as the piece evolves, these individuals are telling me more about what they want to be, as opposed to me telling them what I want.

[Rose] So, the medium, the creation all speaks to you…it's something inside of you that has to come out?

[Donald] Oh, yeah. I guess I'm just a go between. Spiritually I believe they're still there…maybe I'm just bringing them back and putting them in color.

[Rose] Do you have to do a lot of historical research or do you lean more on stories that were taught to you by your family, your friends, your respected elders?

[Donald] I've done both. When I was younger, growing up I spent a lot of time researching by going to libraries and museums.

And then I'd go to elders and spend a lot of time smoking cigarettes and drinking coffee (because that's how you have to do it) and listening…I did this a lot throughout my 20s, just went and talked to the old people (because there were still a lot of them left then). So, I heard their stories, and especially when Herman (Donald's mentor) came by, he would tell me stories as he was drawing, as he working with pulling a hide, or curing a hide.

The other thing Herman used to say is when you do a hide you have to be able to draw the images in your sleep…especially the horses. I never really knew what that was (I was like 21, 22 years old at the time), but as I matured, I understood what Herman meant…now, I can draw my horses and my images in my sleep. What he meant was you can never make a mistake on a buffalo hide - when you put black down, it's there, you're committed…so you have to know that image.

Herman used to just study his hide. He'd have it on an easel and he would just study it and look at it for 3 days…4 days…whatever it took…and then finally, he would take his bone brush and make the first mark and everything would fall into place after that. He just had it in his mind, it was already there…it just moved from his mind, to his hand, to his art. I always admired that.

I'm kind of there now, I have that movement, that flow of thought.