Grand Forks artist Hillary Kempenich aims to advance art career, supported by grant
In her studio, seated on a small stool in front of a large canvas, Hillary Kempenich carefully dabs paint on the tail feathers of a red tail hawk, ascending from lower right into a vast sky rendered in soft shades of blue, white and pink.
The hawk is distinct against the pale sky. Its form is a composite of color, each like the piece of a puzzle.
"I like to divide the color up but, eventually, I blend it all back together," the Grand Forks artist says.
Kempenich, a mixed media artist, recently received a grant and an Artist in Business Leadership Fellowship from the First Peoples Fund of Rapid City, S.D., to build her artistic career.
She also is the force behind that organization's plan to host Grand Forks' first two-day arts business workshop for Native American artists, set for Monday and Tuesday at UND.
Here in her studio, the muted colors of her current project represent a departure from the bold, saturated tones for which she is known. An example within reach is an intensely colored painting inspired by the proud profile of her maternal grandfather, Alfred LaFountain, wearing a traditional war bonnet.
"This is more subdued than what I usually do," she says of the painting. "I like challenging myself to do things I don't normally do."
This painting is in its early stages.
"It's far from done," she said. "I'm interested to see what comes of it. I don't paint like I have something in mind. (The art) takes a life of its own. I kind of go with it."
Close to nature
The studio in her Grand Forks home blurs the division between indoors and out, welcoming light through windows on three sides and two skylights in the roof. The space puts her closer to nature.
"I see all these little birds that hang out here," she said with a smile, "and squirrels come and watch."
Kempenich likes to paint what she has seen, known or remembered—like the Shetland pony, Little Bill, who was among the many horses her grandparents raised and whose portrait hangs among many paintings on her dining room wall.
"I take snapshots of things I see or do," she said.
"On our way back from Rapid City last year, we kept seeing red tail hawks. I like painting birds—in a different way—because I like the energy they have."
"For a while, I was painting owls," she mused. "One Christmas morning, a horned owl was sitting outside and hung out for the longest time."
After that, the owl didn't return for a long time, she said. "But later, he came back. In my culture, owls are deliverers of bad news, or they just deliver a message. I've heard different things."
She's fascinated by the traditional Native stories behind occurrences in nature that explain "why and how things happen," she said, "or it's just an owl."
Fertile ground for artists
In many ways, Kempenich, who identifies as Anishinaabe, is a product of her childhood experiences growing up in the Turtle Mountains of north-central North Dakota, an area populated by people of her own and Cree, Assiniboine, Ojibwe and French Canadian heritage.
The culture of the Turtle Mountains "is unique," she said. "From my viewpoint, it's extremely creative and artistic."
The people of the Belcourt, N.D., region have a "true appreciation" for the arts, she said. "(The culture) is very rich, and I love it."
As a child, she'd get up early to sit outside and watch the sunrise.
Artists from near and far came frequently to teach at her school. Clinics and workshops made it possible to learn traditional arts.
Such teaching is critical, she said, "so we don't lose those things."
"I remember sitting in the woods and making willow baskets with a member of the Cree family, a man we called Grandpa Francis," she said. "We taught each other what we knew."
She often drew pictures for her mother and grandmother, she said. "I always drew."
Two of her uncles, Presley and Bruce LaFountain, became well-known sculptors. Her mother's cousin, Bennett Brien, is a highly regarded North Dakota artist whose work includes a large-scale bison and pony, constructed with rebar (reinforcing steel bar), that stand on the Capitol grounds in Bismarck.
Given that culture and family influence, she said, "it's like, how could you not like the arts and enjoy the arts."
Creating a business
A career in the art business is something Kempenich has "always wanted—even as a little girl," she said.
At 15, she took a vacation with her family to Santa Fe, N.M., to attend a large Native American arts market event sponsored each year by the Southwestern Association for Indian Arts.
The event draws more than 1,000 artists from across North America. Artists from an array of Native American tribes display artwork including basketry, weavings, jewelry, pottery, painting and sculpture.
"It's hard to get into that market," she said.
But, nonetheless, the experience planted the idea that combining art and business was an attainable goal.
For several years, Kempenich has been working on exposing her art through various art galleries and markets. But when her two daughters were very young, they were her main focus.
Now that they are "a little more independent," at ages 8 and 11, she can devote more attention to a career in art, she said.
In 2011, she decided she "needed to push" herself and move her art career to a new level, she said.
Today, she feels fortunate she can turn to the artists in her family for advice and counsel.
"I can ask, 'How did you do that?' or other questions," she said. "I had that support, and I am lucky and grateful for that."
And her efforts are paying off.
In January 2015, an image she created was selected for the 2016 National Indian Child Welfare Association conference in April in St. Paul.
Last July, she participated in a Native American art market, Native Arts Gathering, in Rapid City, where she received an award as an emerging artist.
In August, she participated in the Indigenous Fine Arts Market in Santa Fe.
"I was so excited to be accepted (into that market)," she said. "That was so much fun. I met people from galleries in Paris."
"It was a great experience to meet indigenous artists—and so many of different ages and concepts. There's so much support down there."
In this area, one of her paintings, "The Storyteller," is on display through May 22 in the Plains Art Museum in Fargo. It is part of the museum's first juried exhibition for contemporary art by emerging Native American artists in the region, presenting a survey of media and styles.
She recently applied to participate in the Southwestern American Indian Arts Market in August at Sante Fe. She'll probably learn if she's been admitted in a month or so, she said.
This school year, she is teaching art to fourth- and fifth-grade students as part of the Artist in the Classroom program with the Grand Forks School District.
"When you're starting out as an artist, you second-guess yourself quite a bit," she said.
The grant of $10,000 and fellowship from the First Peoples Fund have bolstered her confidence. It's the first grant Kempenich has received.
"Over the last few years, I've started an attempt at the grant-writing process. It can be overwhelming if you're not familiar with the process," she said. "It's frustrating when you want to do something—it's hard to express those ideas into words when you're an artist."
When she got the call informing her she'd received the grant, "I was caught off-guard. For years, I thought, 'I'm not ready.' I was not expecting to be accepted."
While she felt fearful in pursuing her dream of an art career, she said she now has "more faith in myself, and those fears are going away."
The grant will allow her to build on her interests, which include art installation and videography, and also advance her business knowledge and skills in exposing and marketing her art to the world.
"A large portion of it will assist me in developing a better online presence," she said. "You have to have the right technologies. You'd think that for artists, it wouldn't be difficult, but it is."
The funds also will help cover the cost of travel to participate in markets, fellowship training and related events.
While granting agencies and others may view her as being in midcareer, Kempenich said, "I feel I'm just beginning my career."
Artists who want to pursue art as a viable business face plenty of hurdles, including the lack of locally available space to exhibit one's work, Kempenich said. The waiting list can be very long.
"It can be challenging to find support," she said.
But "as an artist-entrepreneur, you are self-employed," she said. "It is a small business, but we as artists don't see it as such."
That's part of the reason she worked to persuade the First Peoples Fund to hold a training session at the UND American Indian Student Services building. At the professional development training session this week, artists will learn how to market their art, set budget and pricing structures, develop a business plan and more.
She's glad to see more interest and more public conversation about art and artists locally.
"I'm starting to see that other artists are trying to make things happen in our community," she said. "The more the better."
Like many artists, she wants to connect with an audience. Through her art, she has dealt with such things as the emotions that arose from a death in her family and the trauma that befell some Native American children who were forced, years ago, to attend boarding schools at great distances from their homes.
From the stories she has heard, those children suffered "feelings of despair," she said.
"For some people, it can be an uncomfortable conversation, but it needs to happen."
She also is concerned about the effects of oil industry development on North Dakota and Minnesota and the results of "not taking care of the environment and the people who rely on that land."
Art makes people talk and think, she said.
"I have a story to tell—about me, where I come from. There's a lot of social commentary in my work."