Cover Stories

Branching Lines

Artist Terran Last Gun fine-tunes his content and trajectory

Piikani artist Terran Last Gun had been waiting weeks for the news. Just as a successful solo show wrapped at Plaza-adjacent Hecho Gallery last month, however, he learned his application to this year’s Indian Market from the Southwest Association for American Indian Arts had finally been accepted.

Last Gun was already slated to appear at the Native Treasures market event over Memorial Day weekend, but he had worried he might miss out on the limited spaces at the country’s largest gathering of Indigenous artists (a recent Facebook post from SWAIA indicates a high volume of applications led to delayed notifications for accepted artists). He says he “pushed it” with his application.

Perhaps he need not have worried, after all—this will be Last Gun’s third time showing at Indian Market, which has lured thousands of collectors, fans, artists and institutional advocates to the city each year for a century. Last year, he won numerous accolades, including Best of Division A and First Place in the Ledger Art and Serigraph category.

As he moves into the new market season, the artist’s practice has been evolving at an accelerated rate with shows in his adopted home of Santa Fe, representation from Albuquerque’s Gallery Hózhó, a current exhibit at the Missoula Art Museum in Montana and other opportunities on the horizon.

His career seems to be particularly flourishing—but none of this was supposed to happen at all.

“It’s funny, because people have always asked me, y’know, ‘When did you think you were an artist? When did you feel like an artist?’” Last Gun tells SFR. “But my father was an artist when I was growing up—or is an artist, I should say, and I honestly didn’t want to pursue that growing up.”

Last Gun, 34, was supposed to do or be so many other things before he found this path. For a time, he thought he’d be a traditional Piikani dancer, or perhaps a museum administrator or archivist. But when he arrived at the Institute of American Indian Arts in 2011 after earning an associate’s degree in environmental science at Blackfeet Community College in his hometown of Browning, Montana, discovering the nuts and bolts of visual arts prompted a change in his outlook.

He credits a particularly inspiring slate of teachers at IAIA for opening his eyes to a level of creativity and need to create that had lain dormant. Maybe he’d settle into a life as a printmaker or illustrator; a painter; a ledger artist; a photographer. Why not some? Why not all? A simple color theory class blew his mind wide open—something so fundamental (yet, admittedly, enjoyable) makes Last Gun’s transformation feels like destiny, or at the very least, something for which he’s almost preternaturally suited. Now, energized and starting his next big chapter, Last Gun tells SFR he’s feeling a lot more confident about his abilities, even if he never envisioned any of this.

Last Gun’s breaks started happening in 2018 when he took part in the Santa Fe Art Institute’s Story Maps initiative, which found various artists-in-residence at the institute working with data to create interpretations of informational sets. With a focus on the serigraph style of printmaking, Last Gun mapped the movements and operations of Santa Fe’s Mobile Integrated Health Office, an alternative to 911 that sought to rewrite the emergency response game in Santa Fe by taking into consideration, among other things, mental health. The impetus for that project? Browning struggles with the same issues that the MIHO program targets.

“I started learning the dispatch codes that they were using, which I assume are similar for people in my hometown dealing with substance abuse, homelessness and behavioral health issues.” Last Gun told SFR at the time. “Reading the narratives of what they do was totally overwhelming. These stories were an eye-opener for me to learn about the community, and what problems we face that a lot of people don’t really know about.”

That same year, SFR partnered with Santa Fe Native arts-based nonprofit The Coe Center during the latter’s Imprint exhibit featuring artists Jamison Chās Banks (Seneca-Cayuga, Cherokee), Eliza Naranjo Morse (Santa Clara Pueblo), Dakota Mace (Diné), Jacob Meders (Mechoopda/Maidu), Jason Garcia (Santa Clara Pueblo Tewa) and Last Gun for a cover story by writer Alicia Inez Guzmán. In addition to the story, several of the participating artists designed newspaper cover art and artsy glossy inserts as part of the project. Last Gun’s contribution—an impossibly clean serigraph print based on Piikani painted lodges (also known as tipis)—proved he already had a vision that skirted territory between traditional imagery and contemporary style. But what wasn’t certain was whether Last Gun would have longevity.

The following year, however, the artist geared up for his first-ever solo show at Canyon Road outpost, Hecho a Mano. That space, run by gallerist Frank Rose, also of Hecho Gallery, has always focused mainly on prints, which made Last Gun’s serigraphs, or silkscreens, a natural fit.

“It’s inspired by how home follows you,” Last Gun told SFR of his work at the time, elucidating his love for the painted lodges of his homelands.

Last Gun had only recently phased into the world of creating visual arts on a more full-time basis. In 2016. he graduated from the Institute of American Indian Arts, the alma mater of his father, the ledger artist Terrance Guardipee Last Gun. Just a few years earlier, he had been fairly certain he would be a dancer.

“My parents got me into powwow dancing at a very young age,” he reminisces. “My late grandma, Thelma Ridesatthedoor...she was a dancer, so I traveled around a lot with her and all my cousins, dancing.”

Under his grandmother’s tutelage, Last Gun embraced styles of dance traditional to the Piikani—grass dancing and, eventually, he says, prairie chicken dancing.

“That last one we all consider like ours, like, we originated our version of it, and I guess you could say it’s an imitation of a male prairie chicken during mating season; they do this ruffle on the ground and they pop their chests out and kind of cock up their heads,” Last Gun explains. “So that’s what I did growing up—I still have [the regalia]—and that’s where I felt the creative vibe, the vibrant colors going on. I always have to give credit to dancing being a creative outlet when I was growing up.”

While he intends to revisit an active life of dancing, Last Gun says he’s so focused on visual arts just now that he’s not sure when or how that will happen. Visual media wasn’t his original plan, yet the creative vibe remains strong and he’s eager to embrace and experiment with other methods. When it came to printmaking, his skills in serigraph quickly drew buzz around Santa Fe and beyond, even in early college and post-college examples.

“I learned all these traditional printing techniques, but [serigraph] was the one I was really drawn to. It almost seems like the odd child out,” Last Gun says. “A lot of them require a press, whereas serigraph...has emotion to it, it’s a little bit of a different process.”

After completing just about every printing class available at IAIA, Last Gun found private lessons and continued his focus. He became enamored with mono-printing and bleeding his colors right to the edge of the paper. The latter aspect is strangely uncommon in the print world, at least the way Last Gun executes it, and the method draws viewers in with its bold look. Last Gun also tackled photographing his own pieces, adding another layer of control and professionalism. Still, his laid-back and friendly demeanor belies a supernatural focus and über-hardworking habits, not just as an artist, but a businessperson who continues to represent himself.

Last Gun’s first show at Hecho a Mano opened in 2019. Yet, like so many other artists, the pandemic halted momentum in the spring of 2020. His final show before the statewide lockdowns went up at the IAIA Museum of Contemporary Native Art’s Lloyd Kiva New Gallery, and it flew under the radar a tad given the shape of the world at the time. Even so, it signaled Last Gun’s pivot from serigraph, and he managed to eke his way through the COVID-19 restrictions with private sales, smaller works, prints and commissions. The lockdowns also had another interesting side-effect of leading Last Gun more fully into his ledger art practice.

“Because of the pandemic, I hadn’t been in the print studio since 2020, but I still needed to create, so I just switched completely over to that,” he says.

His home studio work loops Last Gun into a rich artistic tradition close to his heritage. While certain Plains Indian tribes, such as the Piikani (or Blackfoot) people didn’t adopt a written language through which to keep a record of their histories, their contributions to petroglyphs, pictographs and painted hides and lodges are notable. The representational ephemera found throughout areas roamed by the Piikani marked achievements and milestones.

The paintings displayed on the exterior of the lodge, says Last Gun, were typically from subject matter received “through a dream.”

“It was broken into three parts: the bottom, being the land, the mountains; the middle, being whatever that authority is, like an animal, a bird or a natural water element,” he told SFR in 2019, “and the top, the sky world and cosmologies, the…stars, clouds, rains.”

Once the soldiers from the US military and traders began making their way into the plains in the 1830s and interacting with the Indigenous peoples, however, Native artists, craftspeople and even record keepers gained access to a new medium: the paper from ledger books. Its rows and columns were meant primarily to keep track of whatever land-stealing, cattle-trading, railroad-building nonsense the powers that be engaged in, yet Native people repurposed the pages and, according to the Smithsonian Institution, regarded the artworks as ways to hold onto their memories and stories.

“They were formerly like calendars that they’d write on hides,” says artist and educator Nocona Burgess (Comanche Nation of Oklahoma). “The hides were the stories of the tribes, and it evolved in the 1870s.”

Research from the Milwaukee Public Museum, which boasts a robust collection of ledger works, claims the earliest surviving works still viewable date back to the 1870s. Some of the most well-known ledger art comes from works created by Indigenous people imprisoned in Florida’s Fort Marion in St. Augustine. According to Burgess, young warriors who landed there—or in boarding schools and other prison-like institutions—were allowed to make art, much of the time on ledger paper, but they were prohibited from depicting war or violence.

“They could do the ceremonies, they could do the dancers, and it kind of stayed hovering in that boarding school mentality,” he explains. “But ledger drawing had a resurgence in the 1950s and ‘60s that was going away from that Indian School style. The fact that they could have more freedom in it by then, what they could or couldn’t draw...that warrior aspect came back and other elements came back or changed altogether.”

Burgess also says necessity led to resourcefulness. Imprisoned Native people or boarding school students would create ledger work with anything they could get their hands on—crayons, colored pencils, ink, etc. The methods and the imagery might have been altered over time, both outside of and within the schools, but the overall practice and intentions of ledger art remained somewhat the same, even as supplies became more readily available.

“It wasn’t like today when you could pop into Walmart or wherever and get art supplies,” Burgess says with a laugh. “They used pretty much whatever they could get.”

That’s how a modern artist with ample access to supplies such as Last Gun can evolve the medium even further. The most famous ledger art is almost always representational, for example—animals, warriors, dancers, etc. Last Gun’s take, however, at least insofar as it relates to his current practice, draws deeply from the history of the Piikani painted lodges, but diverges into simple shapes and geometric designs that stand in for concepts like rains, the cosmos, the plains and so on. A swooping curved bit of of orange and yellow can signify the light; what looks like polka dots stand in for stars; converging circles mark the creation of a black hole. The oomph, as it were, lies in learning about the stories the shapes represent, and they are manifold.

Ledger art runs in Last Gun’s blood; his father Terrance gained some notoriety with his own ledger practice as a mainstay exhibitor at markets, galleries and museums. The younger Last Gun’s path, meanwhile, feels like an unexpected but vital addition to the ongoing history of the art form. He says just about every piece he’s ever done embraces ideas based on traditional imagery, but whereas he cites the history, the people, the families and the processes, he’s eager to add his own elements moving forward.

Last Gun’s pieces have a unique aesthetic in the genre, for example, both in their use of color and in their symbolism. The tools and media are definitely traditional, but when it comes to pushing and implementing new ideas, he wants to add to the shared lexicon in ways all his own. That idea of growth extends to new acrylic paintings that resemble Last Gun’s serigraphs in all of their satisfyingly clean and almost mathematical perfections. Even a simple set of rectangles representing a doorway or portal can be painstakingly precise yet emotive. When one learns it’s a portal, for example, they might begin to construct their own narrative. What does it mean to cross a threshold, and what’s on the other side?

Last Gun’s new ledger works and painterly practice have also deepened his relationship with gallerist Rose. He characterizes Last Gun’s most recent eponymous solo show as “incredibly successful,” with numerous pieces selling—including a ledger art diptych that is the largest piece Last Gun has ever made. The mural titled “Cosmic Fragment for Renewed Vitality” that Last Gun created for the show will remain in the window display area of Hecho for another month, too.

“I wanted to create something that would not only complement my solo exhibition as a whole, but also draw or attract people into the gallery space,” Last Gun says of the mural. “There is a sense of energy and harmony being activated through color and shape, and it creates a state of being, especially when viewed in person. I often think of geology, and how rocks and mountains have visual layers. My work and process can be viewed in a similar manner in that the human experience is embedded into it layer by layer.”

Rose continues to count himself among Last Gun’s most stalwart supporters.

“What draws me to Terran is pretty similar to what draws me to a lot of work: artists who have kind of a root in tradition,” Rose says. “That’s kind of a loaded word, but they’re about culture, craft or some kind of root, yet they’re evolving or interpreting or expressing that in a new way. Terran is very much rooted in Piikani tradition, yet he’s doing it in a way that feels and looks very relevant to both insiders and outsiders. It’s very accessible visually and I think a lot of people can find an entry point into the work that way.”

This week, Last Gun wraps an appearance at the Missoula Art Museum in Montana, where his Future Cosmic Energy exhibit recently opened and will run through mid-August. Since the museum is located roughly 200 miles from his hometown of Browning, much of Last Gun’s Montana family plans to make the trek to see the show, he says. The homecoming feels bittersweet, according to Last Gun, as he’ll always carry a piece of Montana with him, even if he feels Santa Fe is where he must stay for now.

“There’s just more opportunity here, at least to grow, and now that I’ve grown here, I’m starting to reach a little beyond,” he says. “My art career started here. And my experience here...well, I try to pursue different opportunities when they arise, if I feel like I fit. Though I really would like to eventually get a little more established in Browning, in my home community and Montana in general. I think that’s starting to happen. I think people there are finally starting to see my work and see what I’m doing.”

Rose, meanwhile, says he and Last Gun are already talking about another solo show down the line. For his part, Last Gun says he’ll be ready for that. He’ll be ready for just about anything, including, he says, interest from a number of galleries in Montana. He’s not ready to say whether he’s signed on with any of them yet, but he’s mulling it over. Indian Market and Native Treasures—and the hustle they entail—are right around the corner.

In a small apartment on the southern edge of town that Last Gun shares with his partner Samantha Tracy (herself a notable institutional administrator who has formerly worked for places like the School for Advanced Research and The Coe Center) and their cat Midnight (a champion), Last Gun pores over his collection of ledger sheets and in-progress works. Discussing his plans for the future both near and far, he lights up in a way that feels infectious. Contentedness probably isn’t the right word for someone so constantly focused on creating art, but Last Gun says he’s happy with where he is these days and the possibilities yet to come.

“I’m just kind of interested in doing the work,” he tells SFR. “Doing the work and then seeing who is attracted to it.”

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