Jeremy Fields changed themes on Monday when he stopped in Madison to paint the trailer the Madison Area Arts Council purchased to transport its sound equipment. With a white buffalo wearing headphones and manipulating a sound mixer with one hoof, the mural is bright, colorful and fun.
"I've been doing this style of art for 25 years," the 40-year-old Rapid City artist said while taking a break.
He started working with aerosol paint when he was around 14 or 15, and painted his first mural when he was 18. Most recently, he's been partnering with IllumiNative and Natives Vote 2020 to do murals across the region encouraging Native Americans to get out to vote.
Traveling with his wife Collins Fields, a bead worker, and their one-year-old daughter, Iyotanla (which means "to love" in Lakota), he is doing a series of 16 murals across North Dakota, South Dakota and Minnesota. Each mural is unique, incorporating motifs which are meaningful to the tribe and community.
"It turned into a big project," he said. "When people hear we're coming to the area, they're saying, `Can you come over here'?"
After leaving Madison, he will travel to Wagner, Sisseton and Flandreau -- in that order -- spending about a day in each location. He explained that he is tackling the whirlwind painting tour because it's an extension of the work that he and his wife do through an organization they founded, Thrive Unltd.
"It's something we feel strongly about," said Fields, an enrolled member of the Crow Tribe of Montana. His wife is an enrolled member of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe.
Thrive Unltd. is an organization created to help indigenous communities heal by creating a new narrative, according to their website. The organization's mission is "to cultivate well-being within our communities by placing creative power back in the hands of the people."
"Through that company, we're focused on leadership and wellness training," Fields explained.
The training side includes on-site training, conference facilitation and regional seminars. The creative side include collaborative murals, interpretive stage play, creative writing, interactive storytelling and cultural crafts.
The goal is to address three common problems seen in Native American communities: poverty, alcoholism and a high suicide rate. Fields said his expertise comes out his own experience and his work with young people. He has been working with Native American youth since graduating from high school.
"I've done the best I can to show what I have come to understand over the years," he indicated.
One of the things he's come to understand is that historical trauma exists in what Native American young people view as normal, including alcoholism and dysfunctional family dynamics. They have not been removed from their families and carried off to boarding schools, but they feel the effects of this practice.
"Those things have been passed down as different kinds of coping strategies," Fields explained.
He and his colleagues are working to help young people to understand that what they experience in their homes and in their communities is not normal. They are working to build healthier communities by raising and awareness of this dynamic.
"It changes your view of yourself and the world," Fields said.
He illustrated with a personal story. Growing up in Oklahoma, his father was present in the home, but not a source of love or support.
"There was a kind of benign neglect," Fields noted. "It affected my self-esteem and how I looked at myself."
Now, he, his wife, and others in the organization they founded are working to heal that trauma and to create an example for future generations. The series of murals that he is doing now, leading up to the November election, is part of that effort.
He is quoted in USA Today as saying, "It's all about making sure our families and homes are adequately represented."
But, on Monday, he was taking a break from that serious theme to work on a more playful mural. Chris Francis, president of the Madison Area Arts Council, said that they wanted something fun and something that acknowledged the community.
"The white buffalo has come to represent Madison, first through `Chief' at Prostrollo's," he explained. "But, several years ago, the riders of the Dakota 38+2 gifted our community an incredibly beautiful quilt as a thanks which is adorned by a white buffalo. It seemed fitting, so say the least."
Francis described Fields as an "outstanding artist," one who is "incredibly skilled." Fields said he has always been artistic and has been drawing since childhood. His formal training is limited to classes he took in high school.
Fields began creating murals with aerosol paint because he could work on a large scale very quickly. For this same reason, spray paint was initially used for graffiti, beginning in the late 1970s. Since that time, the murals have become more complex and the genre has gained respect.
As his mural on the trailer evolved on Monday afternoon, Fields used cans of paint in the same way other painters might use a brush, changing colors as he worked rapidly to create a three-dimensional image. He also wore a respirator because the fumes quickly became overwhelming and a haze formed in the air.
Francis said he would like to see Fields do other murals in the community.
"I'm eager to help make those efforts possible if there's anyone or organization interested in working with Jeremy in the future," he said.