By Ellen Thompson
Vernon The Boy came to art by serendipity, taking an art course as a final credit to finish high school 40 years ago. He has turned to art repeatedly throughout his life, driven sometimes by spiritual and sometimes by financial necessity.
The Boy will be the featured artist in the Native American Art Show in Great Falls later this month, when hundreds will see his current work, as well as prints of past paintings.
Talent is a gift from God, he often says, and the last 10 years when he has worked as an artist steadily his work has reminded him of that.
"There's a lot of big quality art. ... I like to go my own direction," he said. The Boy is always experimenting, and proof of it is all over his house, as well as the community.
The face of an Indian chief, The Boy's grandfather, peers from a rock that rests on the floor of The Boy's living room. A buffalo is painted onto a buffalo skull lying next to that rock, and across the room a piece of bark rests on The Boy's couch, waiting its turn to make it to the worktable, where he plans to paint it with a Native American Jesus.
Light shines into the room through sliding glass doors, one etched with an eagle, the other, a buffalo. He tried the etching for the first time two weeks ago, he said.
His walls feature his mainstay, painting. They are decorated with the landmarks around him at Rocky Boy's Indian Reservation, Haystack Hill and the Ski Bowl, as though all his walls were windows.
The Boy has painted murals at Rocky Boy High School, Stone Child College, the Big Sandy Museum and in local businesses and churches. He also did a wooden sculpture of a Native American Jesus for the Lutheran Church in Rocky Boy, his first sculpture, he said.
Gladys Cantrell chairs the Native American Art Association, and has known The Boy for years. Every year the association features a different artist in the annual show, drawing particularly from the artists who have contributed to the show for many years, she said.
"Vernon has gotten really good," Cantrell said. Each artist follows his or her own path, and Cantrell knows that The Boy's has not been even.
There are artists who have participated in each of the past 22 years of the show, but The Boy is not one of them. "The last few years he's been more steady," Cantrell said. "You know, artists are funny. They take streaks."
When he has not painted, The Boy has worked as a contractor and carpenter. An enrolled member of the Gros Ventre Tribe of the Fort Belknap Indian Reservation, The Boy lives at Rocky Boy, and suffered from not being an enrolled member there, he said. Job preference, he said, goes to enrolled members.
The Boy said he is also treated as an outsider socially, though he moved onto the reservation in 1967 when he met his former wife, Faith, who died 10 years ago.
He said his past is also a social stumbling block, and he knows that people think of him as a hypocrite. The Boy was in trouble as a youth, and sent to prison for auto theft from 1965 to 1967. Reform school had turned him against authority, he said.
"That's a road I had to take to get where I am now," he said.
The Boy is originally from Havre, though he moved through boarding schools, one in South Dakota, and one in Hays, and finished at a reform school in Miles City.
He considers himself a Catholic, but also talks about Native American spirituality. His work often features a melding of the two.
Spirituality was something that carried him through the time when both Faith and a son died in two months' time.
In an acrylic painting The Boy sold at Big Sandy's annual December art auction, The Boy's imagination draws together his spiritual influences. In the painting, several horses are scattered in front of low mountains, the view of the Bear Paws from Big Sandy, he said.
The painting is inspired by the surrender of Nez Perce leader Chief Joseph on the eastern side of the Bear Paws. When Chief Joseph and his followers were taken into custody by U.S. troops, their horses were seized as well, but not all of them. At that point of the story The Boy's imgination took over, and the painting shows the free horses on the west side of the Bear Paws as they make their way, riderless, back to Idaho. In the painting, Jesus stands, barely noticeable, on the hillside, watching over the scene.
The Boy's painting was the highest selling local item at the Big Sandy auction, going for $1,800.
He will bring five original pieces to the Great Falls art show, which begins March 17 and continues through the weekend. He calls them "A Bevy of Beauties of the Bear Paws," a series he is still working on. He plans to include five portraits of beautiful people clad in traditional Native American clothing. Some are beautiful women from the area. One is The Boy's young son from his second marriage.
The Native American Art Show coincides with the C.M. Russell Art Auction in Great Falls, and The Boy is also planning a combination painting and sculpture that will celebrate the intersection between Native American art and Russell's art.
But the Native American Art Show is strictly about native art. Cantrell said the show is opened only to enrolled tribal members. "It's the only one that's left that's completely native," besides a show in Santa Fe, N.M., Cantrell said.
The association formed because Native American art was selling too cheaply. Now it draws large crowds from all over the country, Cantrell said.
The Boy is planning to hold an open studio at Stone Child College to foster the work of students and area artists on a weekly, rather than yearly basis. He is also planning a home and studio near Box Elder.