Skin and bones

From a distance, the three-dimensional sculptures by artist Carol Hepper at North Dakota Museum of Art appear light and lovely with familiar yet fantastical shapes. A fanciful person might even think them a little magical.

"Seven Stroke Roll"
"Seven Stroke Roll," a piece by Carol Hepper, is constructed of deer skin and willow limbs.

From a distance, the three-dimensional sculptures by artist Carol Hepper at North Dakota Museum of Art appear light and lovely with familiar yet fantastical shapes. A fanciful person might even think them a little magical.

It isn't until you look more closely that you realize her pieces, including "Maelstrom," "Moondance" and "Vertical Chamber," have been constructed mostly of dead animal parts. And just like that, what at first may have seemed translucent and airy may now feel a little -- well, eerie.

Hepper created the pieces in the early- to mid-1980s, when she was in her 20s, just after graduating from South Dakota State University with an art degree. She wanted to go to graduate school but couldn't afford it, so she had returned to the place she grew up, the Standing Rock Indian Reservation near McLaughlin, S.D.

"Because I was living out on a ranch, my goal was to work with life and ideas and thoughts around me," Hepper said in an interview. "I didn't have an art supply store to run down to. I was reading a lot, and I read the old advice that writers should write what they know. So, I thought I should make art based on what I knew."

So, from her brother's ranch, where she lived while working at Standing Rock Community College, she collected willow branches, animal skins, hide and bones. Her brother, Monte, let her use his basement, garage and hayloft as her studio.


"It was very freeing, really formative work. It really built my foundation as a sculptor," she said.

The work also helped Hepper make her reputation as an artist. She gained national prominence through her inclusion in the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum's 1983 exhibition, "New Perspectives in American Art" and moved to New York City in 1985. Today she lives and works in New York City and upstate New York.

The pieces now on display in Grand Forks have been exhibited at other museums in more urban settings. But Hepper said she loves showing this work in North Dakota because it gets a totally different reaction that it got at, say, the Guggenheim. Many North Dakotans grew up on farms and ranches, as Hepper did, and have had firsthand experience with cows and deer and other animals, living and dead.

'Something that makes you think'

If Hepper is put off or offended by comments like, "Wow. That's part of a dead cow," she doesn't show it.

"All of those things are totally valid and really good," she said. "I think art is something that makes you think. I also am really interested in art that contains a power that can move people and that they can relate to in some powerful and visceral way."

If you've grown up on a ranch, you've seen, felt and smelled life and death in a way others have not.

"You see all this stuff as a young person, and it's traumatizing and emotional, and somehow you have to sort it out for yourself," she said. "And out of that, you can make something powerful and beautiful and moving."


Living on a ranch, you grow up fast in a lot of ways, she said. You see the power of nature -- that it can make things grow and it also can kill. That knowledge comes through when your art is built from pieces of dried skin and hides and rib bones that have been cleaned by coyotes and bugs, sun and wind and rain,

"Human beings are very small in a space like that, where nature seems overwhelmingly powerful," Hepper said.

Again, her art become an analogy for literature, like something by Shakespeare or any other really good story.

"I think there is a power in addressing what honestly exists, not only the finality of it but also the joy and beauty of it as well," she said. "When you ignore one aspect of it, you don't get the full truth of it."

'Shared Histories'

In addition to Hepper's work, the "Shared Histories" exhibit in North Dakota Museum of Art features work by Canadians Keith Bernes and Tim Schouten. Berens, an "urban Native" of Indian descent, is an artist of abstract painting, a writer, teacher and curator, who lives in downtown Winnipeg. Schouten, born in Winnipeg, is a leading painter known for his encaustic paintings, several of which have made their way into local collections through North Dakota Museum of Art auctions.

Hepper's work has been exhibited in the Orlando Art Museum, Worcester Art Museum, Cranbrook Academy of Art Museum, The Phillips Collection, Walter Art Center and the Art Gallery of Western Australia. It is represented in collections of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Detroit Institute of Arts, The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum and the Dannheisser Foundation, among others. Hepper also has been a visiting lecturer at Brandeis University, Princeton University, the Maryland Art Institute, Rhode Island School of Design and the School of Visual Arts.

New York art curator and critic Diane Waldman observed that the landscape of South Dakota, remote yet beautiful, left its mark on Hepper.


"It has elicited from her an extraordinarily poetic response in the form of a body of work that unites respect for the past with a new means of expression," Waldman said.

Hepper said she's getting ready for a show at the Yellowstone Art Museum in Billings, Mont.


Reach Tobin at (701) 780-1134; (800) 477-6572, ext. 134; or send e-mail to .

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