grew up in Reno and in Hungry Valley on the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony. I remember being interested in art at a very young age and I gave close attention to the few glimpses of regional art there were available to me throughout my childhood. Indigenous art and artists in our area were not visible then, though time would prove that there were very few Indigenous artist opportunities in the region and an obvious erasure of Indigenous history. One of the few artists I remember was Ben Aleck. I would see his unique, illustrative style on posters for pow wows, glimpses of large framed artwork in the region’s Tribal offices and images scattered throughout a local Indigenous magazine from the time called The Native Nevadan, circa years 1965-1992.
To me, Ben Aleck was a famous artist. His work encircled our community with rich, illustrative imagery and pride for our Indigenous culture. A rare thing in the early 1980’s, because art and culture often took a backseat to survival at a time when Indigenous people were/are still struggling to heal from the Indian boarding school era and the cultural genocide that ensued.
Later, when I was going to college in Portland, Oregon, I realized what a gift those memories of Ben Aleck’s images were and the limited exposure to any other Indigenous artists from Nevada. It was important because, when I was going to school far away from my homelands, I was desperate for the imagery of home and my cultural connections and stories. I needed that stimulation and imagery to help tell these same stories as well through my own artistic medium. I would have to rely on pure childhood memory because it would be another 25 years until one of two books were to be published with anything about our underrepresented contemporary Indigenous artists of the area. These images fueled my artwork, and my wanting to know and see more of it was essential.
Ben’s illustrative visual interpretations of our culture and our landscape, including his basketry design and perfectly depicted tufa formations of the Stone Mother at Pyramid Lake, opened my eyes to how his art was telling me stories through imagery. It was telling us stories of not only this region of tribal peoples, but was also documenting an art history of the Nevada landscape and colors, animals and pride for our Indigenous homelands. This Indigenous artist was documenting history through art. I think we forget about this in the bigger art world a lot. By forgetting or neglecting to tell a diverse story, we all lose out on a complete history of our world and us in it.
In 2000, I was establishing myself as an artist in Nevada and I was asked to sit on a selection committee for a series of art exhibitions for Under One Sky at the Nevada State Museum in Carson City, Nevada. These art exhibitions would accompany the permanent exhibition Under One Sky, still on view, that is a survey of historical and contemporary Indigenous peoples in the state. Ben Aleck was also on the selection committee and as we were co-curating these exhibitions, I got to know Ben as an artist and a friend. I think if you were to describe Ben Aleck to anyone, two words would always come to mind first, art and humor.
Ben has one unique sense of humor. I wouldn’t define it as dry humor because sometimes he can really make you belly laugh, way too loud. Whatever it is, sometimes you would have to wait and see him smile to know it was a joke and then you really “get” it. His humor is also infused into a lot of his works, though I would have to say most of those are only in his private collection. In Ben’s younger days, he recalls hanging at “the chateau” with fellow artists on the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony like Jack Malotte, Gordon “Snooks” Gibson and Clayton Sampson.
Other influential Indigenous artists of the area like Burton Pete, Dorothy Nez and Kevin Jones were all creating a very similar illustrative style, popular of that time period in the late ’70s through early ’90s.
Almost 10 years ago, I was interviewing Ben for an artist profile for First American Art Magazine, and we started talking about needing to get together with our fellow artists more often. We also got to talking about so many things that were missing in our community that we as regional artists and Indigenous artists needed to change. We both agreed, we needed more opportunities to exhibit our work, we needed to gather with each other more often and we needed our next generation to have publications and documentation to see the history of our artists from past, present and future to be inspired to carry on our art history. Our group, the Great Basin Native Artists, was born of this interaction, and so much important creation and documentation of Indigenous artwork has that predestined meeting to thank for it.
As we are gearing up for Ben’s solo exhibition at the Nevada Museum of Art, I am so thankful that our community will have a chance to enjoy this unique retrospective of Ben’s work. In my eyes, Ben will always be “the Famous Artist, Ben Aleck.”
The Art of Ben Aleck will be on view at the Nevada Museum of Art from April 1 – Oct. 29, with a first Thursday event on May 4, starting at 4 p.m. For the duration of the exhibition, museum admission will be free for members of tribal communities.
Aleck’s mural “Beauty of the Great Basin” and more of his artwork are also on view at the Stewart Indian School Cultural Center and Museum in Carson City.
Cover image: “Kwe’naa’a” (eagle), circa 2010, acrylic on canvas, collection of the Reno–Sparks
Indian Colony. Image courtesy Nevada Museum of Art
Correction: The headline for this article initially referred to Melissa Melero-Moose as the exhibition’s curator. That was an error on our part. Her title at the museum is “Community Advisor, Great Basin Native Artists.” The headline was updated on March 31.