When I was a little kid my first years were spent with my mom and dad until they parted ways when I was in kindergarten. Before that, I remember my mom walked a lot because we didn’t have a car. My last memory of my dad’s work was he was a taxi-cab driver in Billings, MT. I was their only child and spent a lot of time with my mom, dad, and paternal grandparents. My dad would sketch a lot and my grandfather would do Absaaloke (Crow) art by making artifacts he could sell throughout his travels in Montana and Wyoming. Art was always a part of my family’s life in some form.
When my mom and dad broke up, I moved with my mom to Salish country in Western Montana. For the first few years, we lived with my uncle Johnny Arlee, my aunt Joan, and my maternal grandmother Rachel Arlee Bowers. All three were prolific in their Indigenous skillsets. At the time, my uncle had his own painting business and was always out in his shop making large hand-painted signs. My aunt Joan was always doing beadwork or sewing and my grandmother did beadwork and taught at the local tribal college; her beadwork. She was also a great seamstress. Earlier than I can remember, my mom would send me with my grandmother Rachel often and she was always toting her beading supplies and beaded creations to sell.
There were times we camped at Agne’s Camp, in Valley Creek, and she would spend summers with Agnes, helping to pass on the Salish culture. I don’t remember the earlier years but as I got older the summer was cut down to a week and my grandma would be there every year, camping out, teaching the tribal college students how to bead. I looked forward to that time and I would help her get her camp set up and do small chores so she could work. She would teach me how to bead too and I remember my first finished beadwork was a little clip-on barrette I wore with my dance regalia when I was in about 4th grade.
By the time I was in high school I knew I wanted to practice art as a profession. I loved to draw and sketched on everything I was allowed to personalize. I wanted to know how to paint and I took every art class that was offered as an elective. I loved color theory and all of the challenges and assignments given to produce art. I wanted to go to art school but as I got older high school had a lot of social challenges for me; for a lot of different reasons; mainly adolescence and social factors. I was fast tracked through high school and when it came time to apply for colleges my mom didn’t agree that art would be the best declaration to pursue. I was so heart-broken but I minded and I ended up doing a lot of other things in college. I was never really satisfied with my majors, and mostly resentful of the ease that came to my classmates when they were following their career passions. I tried to stick it out as long as I could, which felt like my whole life.
I feel that I’ve had a very hard adult life and I’ve somehow managed to take the road less travelled. Like everyone who takes this path, I would say I wouldn’t change my outcomes, but I get a lump in my throat thinking about everything I’ve endured to get to where I am today. I married at age 20 to a Salish man, since I had spent most of my life in Salish country. He had three daughters from a previous marriage that I helped raise. We had two sons of our own who are still young enough to be in elementary school. I used my college degrees to stay near home, in Arlee MT, but I couldn’t handle the local, you-need-to-grow-a-thicker-skin attitudes of home. I’m pretty sure I suffered from PTSD from working in a hostile working environment.
One day, I had enough. My youngest daughter was in her last year of high school and she was exploring colleges to attend. We went to a college visit with her in the spring and we sat in on the art major session. I remembered my existing broken heart from not being able to pursue art as a young adult. When I got back to work, I had a really bad day and decided enough was enough. I found out the University of Montana was beginning its first cohort of online art degree program majors and I enrolled. I took as many classes as I could handle, quit my job and got a different job. I worked full-time and took online classes until eventually I finished the program in 2021 and I finally got an art degree. I don’t think I’ve ever cried so much, throughout those few years, realizing that I should have put my foot down and did art school from the start.
Towards the end of my degree program, I was finally able to do more extensive exploration into art that I was hoping to strongly focus. I was sad that I didn’t know much about being a professional artist so I soaked up any advice I could along the way—I’m still a beginner. I wanted to continue to do beadwork and also was very happy to get a formal educational background on art history. It helped me to better understand genres of the artworld as well as where I found interest. It turned out that all of my time before art school was not wasted. I used a lot of my educational background to express my interest in the type of art I like to create.
I like to focus on Indigenous knowledge and I like the idea of using empowerment to overcome systemic and racial oppression. The environment is most interesting and I try to express ecological concepts in my work, especially the beadwork. I enjoy lots of aspects of my culture, but feel that getting a formal education gave me a leg-up in life and it opened doors for me when I least expected it. Throughout my educational experience, I connected the idea of place-based learning and Indigenous ways of knowing. I believe that when a person is aware of their environment they can grow intellectually and pursue life beyond their basic needs—they are grounded and secure.
Although beadwork is my go-to creative expression, I enjoy painting, drawing, and I aspire to improve my photography skills; I sometimes attempt to mix these medias. The past few years I’ve checked off some huge bucket list items, the biggest one being to participate in the Santa Fe Indian Market. Since 2021 I’ve found joy in participating in Indian Markets and learning how to make time to produce smaller items to vend during the market. It’s intense and physically challenging but I enjoy meeting Indigenous artists I’ve admired for years and having the honor of having artworks amongst the “greats.”
In the future, I hope to calm down a bit and get a better handle of the business end of things. I hope to continue to grow artistically, continue to create art in a cultural sense, and to continue to support my family in this way. At the end of 2021 my husband got a new job and we moved part-time away from Arlee. But when that happened, we agreed that I would give it 100% to pursing professional art full-time. I’ve been doing this and slowly learning how to network and become more knowledgeable about the financial part of the deal. I’m thankful for my husband’s support of my journey and attribute his support to much of my ability to follow-through with life, up to this point. I’m also very thankful for the chance of being born into a family that valued art as a way of life.
I know that I cannot change the past but if I had to give a small bit of advice, I would say that dreams are always worth pursuing. Hard work, consistency, belief in yourself seem to be at the core of carrying a dream. I’ve wanted to give it up a few times, but I stop and remember things I’ve heard other artists say, such as having hard times and easy times along the way. I know that if I can live a life that I didn’t want for so many years, I can definitely commit to a life I really want and do my best to be accountable to myself and to my children. I love creating art and I’m certain this is how I will live the rest of my life.
written by ©Salisha Anne Old Bull
SALISHA ANNE OLD BULL ART, PHOTOS AND WRITING IS AN AUTHORIZED DUPLICATION WITH PERMISSION AND EXPRESSED CONSENT
Feature photo: Signs of Autumn (2023). 7.7″ x 1′ 7″. Vintage and modern true-cut, size 13 seed beads, deer hide, wood, cotton fabric, wool, leather, stabilizer, glass beads, nylon and cotton thread, brass tacks and spots. The fourth cradleboard in a series of four cradleboards, representing the four seasons. This board represents the autumn season. Award: 65th Annual Heard Museum Guild Indian Fair & Market: Honorable Mention award in Division D-Functional objects such as bows and arrows, cradleboards, bows, weapons, shields, furniture, lamps, musical instruments, bull roarers, beaded bottles, and other objects. This work is now owned by a private collector.