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Minnesota visual artist inspires orchestral composer

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"Black Elk's Little Sandman," by Star Wallowing Bull. He likes to use brilliant color and layers of detail in his drawings. (Image courtesy of the Plains Art Museum)
This weekend the Fargo-Moorhead Symphony performs the premiere of a work by Moorhead composer Russell Peterson. The music is inspired by the colorful and often autobiographical work of Minnesota artist Star Wallowing Bull. An exhibition of Wallowing Bull's drawings opens this weekend at the Plains Art Museum in Fargo.

Moorhead, Minn. — Russell Peterson says this project took him out of his comfort zone. Composing orchestral music based on visual art is a new experience, but he says his fears faded the first time he looked at the art of Star Wallowing Bull.

The colored pencil drawings range from realistic portraits of traditional American Indians to brilliantly colored abstract collages of cultural icons, old and new.

"I saw his work and was inspired by it, and understood where he was coming from, and was excited by his work and was shocked at the depth of his work," says Peterson. "Every time I come back and look at his work I'm shocked by how much stuff there is. I could just stare at it for hours and still check out things I didn't see the first time. And that works great with music."

The 20-minute, three-movement orchestral work begins with a traditional American Indian flute.

"The first drawing that I based my piece on is called "Unknown Territories," says Peterson. "It's based on a drawing of a Native American man gazing off into the distance with a contemplative look on his face, and I think he's a little sad. I see a little anguish."

The second movement is based on a Star Wallowing Bull drawing called "Windigo versus the Cannibal Man." It's a drawing of two evil spirits doing battle.

"It was at a time in my life where I was very angry, I was very resentful, and there were issues I was trying to deal with," says Wallowing Bull. "At the time I didn't want to lash out at anybody, so this is how I expressed myself."

"It's rather violent work, I think, and that translates well to music," says Russell Peterson, "because of course you can get rather nasty with a big symphony orchestra."

Star Wallowing Bull says his art is about life, but more importantly, his art has given him new life.

Wallowing Bull is from the White Earth Indian Reservation, but spent most of his life in Minneapolis. His father, Frank Big Bear, is also an accomplished artist. Star says his father encouraged him to start drawing as a toddler.

One of the drawings, now in the collection of the National Museum of the American Indian, depicts that toddler. It provided the inspiration for the third movement of Russell Peterson's composition.

"This, for me, is one of the most expressive drawings I've seen in Star's collection. It's a little autobiographical for Star. It's a drawing of himself as a baby reaching for a star, and behind it there is sort of barren wasteland," says Peterson.

"When I look at this piece I always see the past, and I see how my life was and I start to get flashbacks," says Wallowing Bull. "The life I once had was very hard due to alcoholism and drugs. When people ask me about my past life I have difficulty talking about it. The only way I can talk about it is through my art."

"I look at art as my higher power. My art is keeping me sober," says Wallowing Bull. "And of course it's a day-by-day situation. I'd like to say I'm going to stay sober the rest of my life, but I don't know that. I do have hope, and I am very thankful I have this gift in my life. This gift is keeping me sober and I'm very, very grateful for that."

The art of Star Wallowing Bull is on display at the Plains Art Museum in Fargo through Jan. 8, 2006.

Russell Peterson's composition, inspired by the art of Star Wallowing Bull, will be performed for the first time by the Fargo-Moorhead Symphony Orchestra on Sept. 24.

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