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Minnesota Indigenous artist draws feelings with color, movement

Kent Estey's show "Hope and Healing" runs through April 30 at the MacRostie Art Center in Grand Rapids.

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Using nontraditional art techniques focusing on color and movement, Kent Estey said he hopes his works, such as "The Vision," will provoke conversations about what they make viewers feel.
Contributed / Kent Estey
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Kent Estey, an artist from Naytahwaush, explores themes of "hope and healing" in his exhibit through April 30 at the MacRostie Art Center.
Contributed / Jeremy Simonson

NAYTAHWAUSH, Minn. — A lifelong resident of the White Earth Reservation is using non-traditional art to tell a story that touches on traumatic tribal memories.

Naytahwaush-based artist Kent Estey’s work is currently on display through April 30 at the MacRostie Art Center in Grand Rapids.

“The theme of the show is ‘Hope and Healing,’” Estey said. “I felt like we needed to have some hope restored during these times, especially during the pandemic and after. I think people are looking for some hope of things maybe returning to normal, or maybe even getting better. I don’t think things are ever going to be the same.”

Non-traditional approach

Estey said that early in his career, he painted a lot of traditional landscapes and Indigenous images.

Then he encountered the work of Ojibwe artist George Morrison, a Grand Portage tribal member.

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“His work was very abstract and not typical,” said Estey, “His work just jumped off the page at me. The way he looked at his artistry was, ‘I’m an artist who happens to be Native American. I’m not a Native American artist.’ And that rang true for me.”

Not that there’s anything with traditional iconography, Estey said, “That’s not where my brain was at.”

So, in his art, “the way I express my heritage,” he said, “is through bright, bold colors and movement, and hopefully people will feel something from looking at my work. They’re not going to say, ‘Oh, that’s a nice mountain,’ or ‘That’s a nice eagle.’ What I hope for them to see is ways of capturing light differently, using color to express joy or gratitude.”

He said he believes the best way to honor his heritage is “by following and doing my work the way I need to express it.”

Some of Estey’s paintings incorporate rocks, wire and other materials, “things that catch light,” he said. “Hopefully it will start a conversation.”

While he’s willing to discuss what he was feeling while working on a piece, Estey said what interests him is what the viewer feels while looking at his work, “what door opens when you’re seeing this.”

Remembering Ma

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Among the works shown in Kent Estey's exhibit "Hope and Healing" is this collage based on media interviews with his grandmother, Indigenous artist Josephine Robinson, titled "Tribal memories."
Contributed / Kent Estey

One piece in the show, titled “Tribal Memories,” is a collage based on newspaper interviews with his grandmother, Josephine Robinson, who grew up on White Earth during the reservation’s early years. Known as Ma to her family, Robinson began practicing the art of Native American basket weaving later in life.

Estey ties the theme of hope and healing to telling Ma’s story. “She was a wonderful artist,” he said, “but she’d gone through many hard things in her life. But she wasn’t bitter through all of it.”

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You would never have seen the trauma she experienced manifest in her life, he said, unless you sat down with her and spoke with her about it.

Indigenous people are still healing, Estey said, from traumas such as Indian boarding schools, where children were punished for speaking their native language or following tribal traditions.

Still living on the same property in Naytahwaush where he has been for 61 years, Estey said, “I haven’t gone very far” – nor has the village changed much. “We still have one store, one school. We still live in an area, in a time where poverty is running rampant and opportunities are few.”

The history books haven’t changed much, either, he said. “If we’re going to tell the story of our people, then those stories have to come from the people.”

‘She gave me hope’

Estey said Robinson was the first real artist he ever knew, as he recognized at an early age.

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Kent Estey's painting "Healing Song" incorporates stones, tree bark and metal items into the multi-textured work.
Contributed / Jeff Frey

“I knew that you could live in Naytahwaush, Minnesota, and become an artist,” he said. “That’s what she gave to me. When there’s no resources around you, and every town is 50 miles away, and you’re growing up poor, and you want to paint or be an artist, and you’re thinking, ‘How could I do this? Will I ever be able to see real art? Will I ever be able to go to a museum?’ All these questions that I had as a kid.

“Today is real. I’m going to museums and galleries to see my work. But she gave me hope to look beyond just the little village of Naytahwaush.”

Part of his mission, Estey says, is to tell his grandmother’s story every chance he gets. “I feel that’s my responsibility to her,” he said.

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He hopes people will come to his artist talk, 6 p.m. Thursday, March 24 at the MacRostie, where he will share excerpts from his recorded interview with Robinson. “We look at her art, and we look at some of the events that she went through,” he said.

Positive reception

Estey said staff at the MacRostie was happy with his show’s opening night, and he hopes his work continues to be well received.

He has also had shows in the Twin Cities and at Watermark Art Center in Bemidji. This fall, he’ll be involved in a group exhibition in Duluth, and he has also been invited to participate in the Park Rapids artists’ collective, Studio 176, this summer.

“A lot of good things are happening right now, and I’m excited about these opportunities,” he said.

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Robin Fish is a staff reporter at the Park Rapids Enterprise. Contact him at rfish@parkrapidsenterprise.com or 218-252-3053.
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