Courtesy Bockley Gallery,
A detail from 'Little Star' by Star Wallowing Bull. Courtesy Bockley Gallery,

Saved by Art: Star Wallowing Bull of the Transformer Tribe

Alex Jacobs

For some of us there is a new rising star in Native American art and his name is Star Wallowing Bull. Born in 1973, raised in Minneapolis, he is Ojibwe/Arapahoe and is a member of the White Earth Nation. This show at IAIA’s Museum of Contemporary Native Arts will make new fans of his work and the future looks bright. Star Wallowing Bull is known for his exquisite color pencil drawings on paper, and he has several from the early 2000’s to the present. I had to look close up to see what was going on with the surface. The pencil drawings are done in Prismacolor, work which I had never seen done at this “volume” level; they appear like intricate collage but are all built up in pencil, line by line, giving it a metallic sheen. This contrasts to his recent work, acrylic paintings on canvas, brighter “renderings” of his “mechanistic” figures and characters, which viewers may term as futuristic, robotic or alien. There’s also an ancient medicine horn entity, NDN superheroes, a Tobacco merchant and a new take on the NDN at the bar.

In 2005, Star had his first major one man show at Plains Art Museum in Fargo ND. He said 500 people showed up there in Fargo that evening for the reception and he met pop artist James Rosenquist there, who became his mentor. Both artists seek to decipher how things work or are connected in society with humor and insight. Star Wallowing Bull will have another One Man Show at the Plains Art Museum in Fargo in the fall of 2015. He has won a 2014 Native Arts & Culture Foundation Fellowship, 2010 Bush Foundation Artist Fellowship, and a 2001 NMAI Fellowship; he was featured in the NMAI exhibition Before and After the Horizon: Anishinaabe Artists of the Great Lakes; has shown in Kansas City, Washington DC, Toronto, NYC, London, Ireland, Arizona, Wisconsin, the Impacted Nations tour and the Migrations project at Tamarind Institute. Wallowing Bull has been with the Todd Bockley Gallery since 1998, where his father Frank BigBear also showed.  We talked about a lot of things and at one point Star told me, “Art saved my life. Art is a powerful word. I’ve heard it from people many times. Art saved my life.”

'Peace Dancer no. 2' by Star Wallowing Bull. Courtesy Bockley Gallery,

Peace Dancer #2 is very organic and I see some Morrisseau-style spirit-painting but Star had a humorous explanation—he said he’s tried hard not emulate that style. Its pow-wow dancer nature contrasts to Chief Cadillac, an NDN rich from the Bakken oil fields is surrounded by oil totems, computer chips, smoking a spark plug, the wasp and viper slug represent environmental damage.

'Chief Cadillac' by Star Wallowing Bull. Courtesy Bockley Gallery,

The Optimator is a simple toy figure or a member of the Transformer tribe with all its meanings. The Prismacolor drawings are packed with mind teasers and fun images, Rise & Fall of the Industrial Age offers a Pontiac hood ornament superstar surrounded by what the industrial age has done to the natural world and there’s more of that in 5 Star Double Feature, which can be viewed either side up.

'The Optimator' by Star Wallowing Bull. Courtesy Bockley Gallery,

'Rise and Fall of the Industrial Age' by Star Wallowing Bull. Courtesy Bockley Gallery,

'5 Star Double Feature' by Star Wallowing Bull. Courtesy Bockley Gallery,

Your work’s been compared to American pop artists and modern art movements; yet one can sense and relate to Native American elements inside the pigment. How did you get your start? 

I was born and raised in south Minneapolis in a heavily populated Native American Indian neighborhood. I was around 5 years old when my father Frank BigBear took me to the local Art Museums and the Indian Center on Franklin Avenue. I was easily influenced by the art of European art masters, the pop art scene and Native American artists. There was always Indian art hanging on the walls of every establishment in south Minneapolis. I watched my father draw with his color pencils on a daily basis, I went along when visiting his friends at their studios, the local Museums, the Indian Center's art shows, playing with my toy robots, cartoons, comic books. My father was the biggest influence in my life but we could still butt heads.

'Tobacco Merchant' by Star Wallowing Bull. Courtesy Bockley Gallery,

You’ve made a name for yourself outside of Santa Fe, is this your first show here? How did this exhibit come about for you and are you having fun yet?

I visited Santa Fe with my art dealer and friend Todd Bockley in 2002. We had a booth at the La Fonda but we didn't sell anything. A few people questioned if my art work was Native American Indian art or not! I started to question my own style of art at the time. Perhaps my style doesn't fit well here in Santa Fe. But I was an emerging artist and I don't regret having a booth here. I had fun meeting other artists and people. I remember the IAIA Museum was having a private party across the street and I tried to go inside but security told me invites-only, so I looked in through the fence for a while. Then an artist named Ed Noise Cat saw me and came outside to invite me in. I really appreciated that. I have a totally different view of Santa Fe now after having my art show at IAIA’s Museum of Contemporary Native Arts. I met another artist who was showing with me, Chris Pappan, and I’ve always been a huge fan of his art over the years. We’ve been friends on Facebook for quite a few years and I finally got to meet him. What a great guy and artist. Maybe I had a few trepidations but now I look forward to coming back to Santa Fe again.

'Please Stand By' by Star Wallowing Bull. Courtesy Bockley Gallery,

Your drawings are exquisite, can you explain how you developed your technique? And your new paintings, we can see where they come from in relation to your drawings, but can you tell us how it all came about?

My father says he started me drawing when I was 8 months old and soon after, I drew a full bodied person. He still loves telling this story. When I was around 5, he would give me a big sheet of Stonehenge paper and I would draw on the floor next to him or in the living room. Today, when I start a drawing, I tape a sheet of paper to the wall and just start sketching from my imagination. That process doesn't take long, so when I come up with an idea, I then start drawing on my table with a 5H lead pencil because it hardly shows up and is easy to erase. Once I'm finished drawing, I start coloring. I do the same process with my paintings too. I’d like to get “outside the lines” sometime in the future.

'Little Star' by Star Wallowing Bull. Courtesy Bockley Gallery,

Tell us what’s next for you, your work, your vision or your direction?

I have a one-person art show coming up at the Plains Art Museum in Fargo ND, in October, called "Transformer." The first meaning refers to my style of art… it started with my toy robots, especially Transformers at a young age. I like making historical figures into mechanical and metal objects and using technology in my work… how things work and move with objects we use on a daily basis. The second meaning refers to my transition to painting from my color pencil work. I’ll have some new drawings but I’m mostly painting now due to the strain I’ve been putting on my right hand. The pain started in my right hand in 2005 from years of drawing. That was the year I met an artist named James Rosenquist in Fargo. He thought painting would be better for me and he sent me eight large boxes of acrylic paint and a $1000 check to get me going. I struggled at first because I had no experience in painting, just watching my father when I was a boy. I struggled but I learned from my mistakes. I didn't quit, I was determined to be a painter. It was also much easier on my hand.

I had painting lessons from James while visiting his studio in Aripeka, Florida in 2010. He informed me to keep teaching myself to paint when I left his studio and don't be listening to other artists. He didn't want me to pick up someone else's influences. Rosenquist liked the fact that I was original and untouched by art school. To this day, I'm very stubborn when other artists want to teach me how to paint or other art techniques, it's very kind of them but I'd rather teach myself and keep developing as an artist.  I'm feeling pretty confident about my work. I don't get too far ahead of myself when it comes to thinking about what direction I want to go. I just want to continue to make art and show my work in different galleries and museums across the country. 

'Flywheel' by Star Wallowing Bull. Courtesy Bockley Gallery,

'Geocentric Figure' by Star Wallowing Bull. Courtesy Bockley Gallery,

'Matador' by Star Wallowing Bull. Courtesy Bockley Gallery,

Alex Jacobs
Santa Fe NM

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