By Patrick Winderl
Winning two awards at the Heard Museum Guild Indian Fair & Market in Phoenix earlier this month was the fulfillment of a dream for Montana artist Jesse W. Henderson.
"That has been a professional goal of mine since Day One. The best Indian painters in the world are there," said Henderson, who was raised on Rocky Boy's Indian Reservation and now lives in Missoula.
Henderson received awards for Best in Classification and Best in Division for an oil painting called "Stick Game."
Sponsored annually by the Heard Museum, the Indian Fair & Market is among the most prestigious Indian art fairs in the country and attracts upward of 18,000 people. Receiving recognition at the event was a career highlight for Henderson, who credits his heritage, luck and hard work for his success. After more than 20 years of drawing and painting as a hobby, Henderson now devotes himself to his passion full time.
Since he entered his first professional art show in 1998, Henderson's work has appeared at numerous art shows, and he has been contracted to create a series of paintings to coincide with the Lewis and Clark Bicentennial. He was the featured artist at the Helena Indian Market in 2003, and has won awards at art shows in Great Falls, Portland, Ore., and Post Falls, Idaho.
Henderson creates oil paintings and pencil drawings, nearly all of which have Western themes, depicting images of wildlife, Indians, cowboys and historical events.
"I've been concentrating on Montana Indians mostly, up from Lewis and Clark to the 1930s - a lot of historical stuff," Henderson said.
He paints mostly on canvas, and uses graphite paper to transfer a drawing to the canvas before painting over the image.
While the artist chooses topics for his work based on his childhood influences and events in history, he often gets ideas from other people.
"I have a ton of ideas, and people come up to me all the time with suggestions," he said. "Most of the requests have to do with happy things, because of what's been going on around the world. People want something they can hang in their home and make them laugh."
Henderson said one of his greatest influences has been famous Western artist Charles M. Russell.
"I tried to emulate him, but of course I'll never be able to," he said. "Then I just developed my own style, which I think is recognizable anywhere in the country."
Henderson's artwork can take from just a couple of hours to nearly a year to complete. He is now working on a series of paintings that bring life to the Lewis and Clark expedition as told from an Indian's perspective.
The first painting in the series was a massive mural that's now in the Valley County Historical Museum. The 8-by-48-foot painting shows the expedition as it reaches the convergence of the Milk and Missouri rivers on May 8, 1805. Henderson used aerial images of the region along with historical data from the expedition's journals to ensure the accuracy of the painting.
The second painting in the Lewis and Clark series was chosen by the Nemont Telephone Cooperative to adorn the cover of its phone books, as well as the co-op's annual calendar. A third painting, which Henderson called "Offering at the Great Clearing," was purchased by a corporate executive from Connecticut and will likely be loaned to a Montana museum for display through the Lewis and Clark Bicentennial. The oil painting, which measures 4-by-7 feet, shows the expedition meeting the Flathead Indian Tribe at Ross' Hole.
"I first figured out I had talent when I was in third grade, and when I went to Box Elder High School I was fortunate enough to have a good teacher," Henderson said. "When I started out, I was a pencil artist. I was a little intimidated by the paint, just not knowing it."
Henderson said his mother, Carole Henderson, recognized his potential before he did.
"I think my mother noticed probably before anybody. For Christmas, I always got books and pencils and things like that," he said. "She never pushed me really hard at it. She just always made sure I had the means to do it. I can remember when I was in high school, she would always send my brothers to bed and let me stay up and draw in the kitchen."
Henderson said most of his early art focused on things he saw as a youngster on his family's ranch on the reservation.
"That's where I got all my ideas, was on the ranch working with horses," he said.
Despite his obvious talent, Henderson viewed art as a hobby. He moved to Missoula in 1988, planning to study at the University of Montana to become a game warden.
"I wanted to know where all the big bucks and all the big bulls were," joked Henderson, who enjoys hunting.
Instead, he found work at the Montana Power Co., where he spent nine years. His work did not allow him much time to hone his artistic talent. It was not until the mid-'90s that Henderson began to consider art as a career rather than a hobby.
"That was about the time Montana Power started to downsize, and started selling off all of its stuff. I took the buyout that was being offered to different employees and I outfitted myself with all the things I needed to paint full time," Henderson said.
"I needed everything, right down from the easel to the paint and the brushes. I bought a lot of things I didn't need, just not knowing what I would need. I bought enough frames so that I was able to get a start at it."
Initially, Henderson's work consisted of painting for family and friends, but it quickly snowballed. In 1998, he entered his first juried art competition - the Native American Art Show in Great Falls - and won the People's Choice Award.
"That's when things really took off and I haven't looked back since," he said. "I won my first one out of the gate, and I guess I've been fortunate when it comes to winning awards at some major shows. It's been good. After I won the award in Great Falls, it let me know that art was probably what I should be doing."
The following year, Henderson entered the Western Artists Show in Great Falls, and won a first place. In 2000, Henderson received a fellowship through First People's Fund.
"The fellowship took five emerging artists from the Northern Plains, and provided a monthly stipend and a computer," Henderson said. "We had different trainings around the country, and art marketing workshops. It covered everything you needed to know to turn your art into a business. They required us to keep a log of what we did throughout the year and have a business plan. It was pretty intense."
Through the one-year fellowship, Henderson took his art to fairs and shows across the country, including events in New Mexico, Kansas and Oklahoma.
"It was a lot of big shows that I probably would not have been exposed to without them," Henderson said of the fellowship. "They introduced us to a lot of key people. Along with them came their connections, and it gave us the credibility we needed early on. I think they were one of the instrumental parts in why I am a success, right close to my wife and my kids."
Henderson's wife, Michelle, handles practically every aspect of his business.
"It would be next to impossible to do it the way I do it, if it wasn't for her. She negotiates good deals and works very hard," he said, adding that her master of business administration degree from the University of Montana probably comes in helpful.
Like their father, the couple's two children - 8-year-old Jessie Luree and 4-year-old Sundance - have a penchant for art.
"They're very talented," Henderson said. "They are pretty excited about it, and I would be happy if that's all they wanted to do."
Henderson said he is pleased at the success and recognition his talent has brought him. He is quick to credit those who have helped him along the way, including his family, the fellowship from First People's Fund, and the people who influenced him as a young man growing up on Rocky Boy's Indian Reservation.
"My tribe has also been an instrumental part of my success," he said. "If it wasn't for them over the years, there would have been a lot of times I was feeding my kids paintings. I advocate my tribe wherever I go to make sure they know I'm Chippewa Cree from Montana."
Often the Chippewa Cree tribal council purchased Henderson's paintings when he was struggling to sell some his work, Henderson said. Some of his art adorns tribal offices.
"When I needed to make a sale, and there wasn't anybody there, they stepped up and bought a painting," Henderson said, adding that tribal officials often promote his work when they are traveling.
In addition to the financial assistance, the tribe has given Henderson something more valuable, he said.
"At times the tribal council (members) have come and told me important things about our culture that I didn't know," he said.
Henderson said he uses his art to share parts of Chippewa Cree culture with other people.
"When I am at an art show, and people ask me questions, I use my art to explain our culture and that's how I educate them. I think a lot of artists are like that," he said.
He was "ignorant of the outside world" when he left the reservation at 18, he added, and his success has given him a voice to try to inspire Indian youths to chase their dreams.
"When I go home, I try to tell the young people as much as I can that anything is possible. Dream big. Dream big if you can, so even if you come up short, you'll land somewhere in the middle," Henderson said.
Henderson's work will appear at an art show in Jackson, Wyo., in July and in Sante Fe, N.M., in August. On the Web at www.jessehenderson.com