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The Kainai Nation - Profiles: Gerald Tailfeathers

Gerald Tailfeathers, Blood Artist

Gerald Tailfeathers was born on the Kainai Reserve on 13 or 14 February, 1925. Though Tailfeathers died young at the age of fifty, his short life marked his rise to international prominence as a visual artist, illustrator, and sculptor.

Tailfeathers was quite young when he first began his formal art training. In 1935, at the tender age of ten, Tailfeathers travelled to the United States to study at the St. Mary’s Lake Summer Art School in Glacier National Park, Montana. Study at the school would have an interesting influence on Tailfeathers’ work. On one hand, his art was influenced by artists such as Carl Linck and the German born painter from New York named Winold Reiss. Reiss had moved to the United States in 1913 with the dream of painting portraits of Native Peoples, with whom he had carried a boyhood fascination. Starting in 1927, Reiss was commissioned to produce numerous portraits of members of the Blackfoot Confederacy for the Great Northern Railway Company, which the Company used in posters, menus, calendars, and other advertising materials. While Reiss’ portraits were unabashedly romantic, Reiss’ work was considered fresh for its time in that it depicted the Blackfoot People in a vibrant and moving style. Tailfeathers studied closely under Reiss in Montana, and his earlier artwork shows his mentor’s influence.

In addition to his art training, Tailfeathers was receiving a different kind of education at the St. Mary’s Lake Summer School. While at St. Mary’s he forged friendships with many Kainai Elders. Through their tutelage, Tailfeathers would gain a profound sense of his own culture, and this theme resonated in his artwork.

1941 was another significant year for Gerald Tailfeathers. In that year, he began studies at the Banff School of Fine Arts, for which he had received a scholarship. There he continued to develop his style mentored by such artists as Charles Comfort, Walter Philips, and H.G. Glyde. During this time, Tailfeathers was exposed to the artworks of western artists such as Charles M. Russel and Frederick Remington, and he endeavoured to find his own visual style through experimentation. In 1942, Tailfeathers studied commercial design at the Provincial Institute of Art and Technology in Calgary. He found work with the Hudson’s Bay Company as a professional designer. Later, he served as a band council member for the Kainai Nation. Despite his busy schedule, Tailfeathers produced numerous works in media ranging from oils and watercolours to charcoal, pastels, and pen and ink.

Gerald Tailfeathers’ painting

By the 1950s, Tailfeathers was beginning to explore the historical and cultural significance of his work. His knowledge of Kainai history and culture began to become the focus of his work, and his art pieces stood as vignettes of 19th-century Kainai life. During the 1950s and 1960s, Tailfeathers’ work began to rise in prominence. His works were featured at such venues as the Montreal Exposition in 1967, the Calgary Stampede, the Glenbow Museum in Calgary, as well as numerous national art exhibitions across Canada. Always experimenting with his art and accepting new challenges, Tailfeathers illustrated an award winning children’s book, The White Calf, in 1965; after 1969, Tailfeathers added cast bronze sculpture to his artistic achievements. His sculpting was influenced by Arizona artist George Phippin, and depicted cowboy art themes.

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