Experience the large-scale sculptures of Blackfeet artist Jay Laber (1961-2019) in Reborn Rez Wrecks on display this summer at the Missoula Art Park, adjacent to the Missoula Art Museum.
Laber (Amskapi Pikuni/Blackfeet) passed away last year at his home on Post Creek, north of St. Ignatius. He leaves behind a potent legacy of public artwork.
When he was 3 years old, Laber’s family left Montana after the flood of 1964 took a devastating toll on the Blackfeet Nation. When Laber returned to Montana in the late 1990s, he enrolled at Salish Kootenai College in Pablo to study forestry. While taking art classes on the side, he began making sculptures of warriors, dancers and wildlife out of discarded car parts.
In 1999, the Blackfeet Nation and the Montana Arts Council commissioned him to create a set of four sentries to oversee the North, West, South, and East entrances of the Blackfeet Reservation. Laber made these large-scale sculptures from rusted-out cars that were damaged in the flood that had displaced his family more than three decades earlier.
“It’s a new twist on an old tradition … to make things out of whatever was handy, and that was handy,” Laber said.
The artist settled on Post Creek and launched his studio, which he named Reborn Rez Wrecks. He was a precise craftsman and built large-scale sculpture that weighed hundreds of pounds with tight tolerances. He would meticulously sift through hundreds of parts before selecting and inserting exactly the right piece to suggest or describe an essential detail.
Jay Laber: Reborn Rez Wrecks includes one of Laber’s first sentry pieces, made in one of the classes he took from SKC art professor, mentor and friend Corwin Clairmont.
“For a lack of a better word, he was a genius,” Clairmont told the Missoulian. “A lot of our communities have been through a lot of hardship, and I think that determination and beauty of our people comes out in his work.”
Laber combined both expertise and vision to consider all angles of each sculpture, making his works appear active, kinetic and full of energy.
His sculpture of a horseback rider, titled “Charging Forward,” sits outside Washington-Grizzly Statium at the University of Montana in Missoula. His sculptures at SKC include the dramatic “Buffalo Hunter,” evoking a rider astride a horse, driving a spear into a bison.
Early in his career, he sculpted a massive, 11-foot-long bison that won him awards after it was shown at the American Indian Higher Education Consortium Conference in Billings. A museum in Münster, Germany, purchased it, and he was featured in the Tribal College Journal of American Indian Higher Education.
“This exhibition is an important acknowledgement of an internationally recognized artist whose iconic public commissions are located across the state,” says MAM senior curator Brandon Reintjes. “The Art Park is the ideal environment in which to host Laber’s large-scale sculpture, and this is the first exhibition in the Art Park that exemplifies MAM’s strong commitment to contemporary Native artists.”
Jay Laber: Reborn Rez Wrecks is on view in the Missoula Art Park from June 5 through October 2020.