Ledger Art From the Edge: Terrance Guardipee Remixes a Classic Genre

Ledger Art From the Edge: Terrance Guardipee Remixes a Classic Genre

Lee Allen

Internationally-acclaimed painter and ledger artist Terrance Guardipee (Last Gun), an enrolled member of the Blackfeet Nation, takes his personal experiences with Blackfeet culture and combines them with his Institute of American Indian Arts training.

According to Montana’s Hockaday Museum, which exhibited his work during the summer of 2013, “Terrance was one of the first Native artists to revive the historic ledger art tradition, the first ledger artist to transform the customary single page style into his signature map collage.”

Guardipee’s collage concept incorporates a myriad of antique documents dating from the mid-19th century -- items such as old maps, war ration documents, cancelled checks -- that typically originate from the historical and present Blackfeet homeland of Montana.

A student of two-dimensional arts, he is also an accomplished artist in other forms from paintings and drawings to easel arts.  “I’m known for my ledger work, a style that has been around since about 1850,” he says.  “I focus on my family members or tribal mates who were in war societies or spiritual or healing societies or even social societies and do drawings of them.

“I research old buffalo robes for tribal war history.  These were called winter counts because in wintertime we wouldn’t normally go out and do exploits, but stay home and create our weapons.  The winter counts would tally up what had been done for the year and the exploits were then drawn onto hides.”

Asked to describe his own work, he says: "It’s a mixture of contemporary colors with traditional forms and ancient symbols used by my tribe over thousands of years -- spiritual animals, painted lodges -- symbols that have protective or spiritual means that came from dreams of designs and shapes."

Guardipee started out like other members of his peer group of ledger artists, working with regular ledger paper.  "That was in the beginning, until I decided I wanted to do something different.  I wanted to take things and expand them by utilizing receipts, documents, texts…that sort of contemporary thing combined with the use of thousands of years old symbols passed down through generations."

"The genre of ledger art represents a transitional form of Plains Indian artistry corresponding to the forced reduction of Plains tribes to government reservations," reports plainsledgerart.org.  To which Wikipedia adds: "The term comes from the accounting ledger books that were a common source of paper for Plains Indians during the late 19th century."

In Guardipee’s style of non-traditional ledger art, a layered collage of antique documents is affixed to a map with Prismacolor art markers used to insert warriors, tipis, and authentic Blackfeet designs and symbols in vibrant colors. Asked to elaborate, Guardipee politely declines: "Since others see what I do and copy my ideas, I prefer to keep my creative process private."

Guardipee's wife, Catherine Black Horse, an award-winning textile designer, offers some quiet praise. "He’s auctioned off some of his ledger art for anywhere from $10,000 to $22,000," she says.  He's seen his work sold to private collectors and at prominent Indian art markets, and featured in numerous museums, among them the Smithsonian Institute, the National Museum of the American Indian, the Autry Museum, and Germany's Museum of Natural History. 

The prestigious Santa Fe Indian Art Market established a separate category for ledger art competition; Terrance has placed first in this category since 2008.

Not long after he graduated from his four-year studio arts studies at the Institute of American Indian Arts, he began developing his style and making his claim to fame at art shows in Montana, Arizona, and New Mexico with his recognition continuing its upward spiral at juried competition at the Heard Museum Guild’s Indian Fair and Market and the Santa Fe Indian Art Market.

For more information and to see many more of his works, visit terranceguardipee.com.

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