New Earl Biss documentary at Shining Mountains Film Festival
Documentary tackles the wild life and genius of Aspen artist Earl Biss
The fascinating and messy life of renowned Crow Nation painter and longtime Aspenite Earl Biss is the stuff of Hollywood tall tales, the dreams of biographers. Filmmaker Lisa Gerstner contends with the artist’s genius along with his contradictions and mysteries in her new film “Earl Biss: The Spirit Who Walks Among His People.”
The 94-minute feature — directed, produced and written by Gerstner, who also is his authorized biographer — will screen Saturday at the Shining Mountains Film Festival at the Wheeler Opera House amid a two-day, four-program lineup of Native American films.
The film showcases much footage of Biss himself, who died of a stroke at 51 in 1998, in revealing interviews and in the act of painting — a whirling dervish of improvisation and inspiration. It contends with the spiritual nature of Biss’ work, attempting to find what drove him to paint and trying to capture his larger-than-life presence on screen.
“It’s almost like I’m holding the brush and somebody else is doing the painting and the thinking,” Biss says of his method in the film during a period in 1994 when he completed some 50 large-scale oil paintings in three weeks.
Like Gerstner’s 2019 biography, on which “Earl Biss” is based, the film is far more concerned with capturing the essence of Biss, the man and the artist, than it is in reporting facts and recording dates and biographical details. Along with intimate interviews with Biss himself, it includes archival footage going back to the 1960s and includes interviews with friends, wives, fellow artists and curators. Watching the film is maybe akin to hanging out in Biss’ brilliant orbit.
Gerstner doesn’t bother to relay, say, the year Biss moved from his childhood home on the Crow reservation in Montana down Santa Fe, New Mexico, to attend high school at the Institute of American Indian Arts, where he found himself at the red hot center of the contemporary Native American art movement alongside classmates like Kevin Red Star, or explore why he moved to Aspen, nor does she offer the resolution of his federal prosecution by the IRS, nor to pin down the number of women he married (somewhere between eight and 11, according to interviewees).
Instead the filmmaker opts to spend time looking at the work, listening to Biss and those who knew him best in an attempt to communicate his unique gifts. It’s a fittingly unconventional approach that makes for a compelling viewing experience.
His friend and former Pitkin County Sheriff Bob Braudis argues that the legend and reputation of Biss will grow as we learn and study him and as more biographers, critics and filmmakers pick up where Gerstner leaves off.
“Earl was an agent of change,” Braudis says in the film. “I do believe he will be — once the books are written, the documentaries are done — Earl Biss will emerge as an agent of change.”
Biss’s adopted son, Dante Biss-Grayson, describes him as “a conduit for the spirit.”
The film covers Biss and his embrace of the joy of living, his expansive intellect and studied aesthetic, his deep connection to nature and, yes, a rage over the treatment of Native Americans and their land.
“I feel a lot of this pain, this anger,” he says in a 1997 interview.
Biss is believed to have made upward of 10,000 oil paintings in his 30-year career, merging indigenous American subjects and images of Plains Indians with the techniques of the old European masters.
In the film his ex-wife, Dana Ivers, describes an early trip to the Netherlands and traveling across Europe, spending time looking at old Dutch masters and works in museums across France and Italy.
Returning home from the trip, Biss bloomed creatively, abandoning his early abstract work and embracing a kinetic and improvisational action-painting style.
Soon after, he had his big break when the star-making gallerist Elaine Horwich began representing Biss and championing his work.
His wish, as he says, is “to be an artist first, not as an Indian artist first,” wrestling with concerns about being categorized and minimized by the art world or being “too easily typed as being a fad.”
“I believe an important artists should say something to humanity in general,” he says.
The film also explores his gifts as a colorist and how he internalized the Impressionists’ techniques to become, as one German art critic dubbed him, “the Monet of the 20th century” with his misty visions of horsemen.
“I get frustrated when people see my paintings and see pretty pictures, “ Biss says in the film. “They don’t see what I’m trying to say.”
He painted for his fellow indigenous peoples and also saw himself as something of an emissary into the white man’s art world.
“I am painting for my people and my heritage but this is something I like to share,” he says. “Something I want to expose the rest of the world to.”
Many of his works show indigenous people in chains, including self-portraits like “The Artist and His Counsel,” depicting stylized versions of Biss and his attorney Victor Abbas, who is featured prominently in the film.
The portrayal of Biss being held captive by white men is not pure imagination. Flashing Aspen Times headlines in the movie show how often he ran afoul of the law in the ‘80s and ‘90s and ended up in the jail run by his friend and sheriff.
The film also shows the wall painting that Biss made in the jail’s common area, a landscape of golden aspen trees in autumn, preserved to this day for inmates in the facility. Braudis says Biss taught inmates to paint during his stints inside.
Braudis also details the close friendship Biss had with another local beloved outlaw, the writer Hunter S. Thompson, explaining how they bonded as courageous men who “pushed the limits of their art to the extremes.”
Braudis attempted to support both of them as a friend and lawman, he explains.
“Part of my job was to keep these guys — Earl, Hunter, etc. — within some boundaries,” Braudis says. “We do have genius freaks living here and we want to protect them. Because in most communities they would be driven out.”
Charismatic, handsome, “flirty” and brilliant, Biss was as comfortable in a jingle dress or in a multi-day peyote ceremony as he was schmoozing on a private jet or glad-handing with U.S. President Ronald Reagan (Biss made Reagan’s official poster for the 1984 Republican National Convention). Friends describe getting picked up in the whirlwind of Biss.
“When he was in Aspen, he would sell paintings, he would get some cash and he would immediately spend it,” Braudis recalls. “If you were with Earl you got part of the crumbs and if you weren’t with Earl you missed it.”
Friends also recount some of the downsides of that hard-charging life, like the time Biss fell off the balcony of his Aspen condo and suffered some 30 compound fractures in his body.
Several clips in the film show exhibitions here at Aspen Grove Fine Art, his longtime local gallery which is also hosting a Biss show to coincide with the film festival.
In the documentary, the Caribou Club’s Billy Stolz also gives a tour of Biss’ “Custer’s Last Stand” work that runs along the trim of the restaurant’s dining room (Stolz also mentions how Biss had sex with women in the room in search of inspiration as he made the painting).
Biss is a world unto himself it seems, elusive now as ever, and hard to catch as the wind. As Biss himself put it: “You can’t contain the wind. Or else it isn’t the wind.”
What: ‘Earl Biss: The Spirit Who Walks Among His People”
Where: Shining Mountains Film Festival, Wheeler Opera House
When: Saturday, Nov. 20, 6 p.m.
How much: $25
Tickets: Wheeler box office; aspenshowtix.com
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What: Shining Mountains Film Festival
Where: Wheeler Opera House
When: Saturday, Nov. 20 & Sunday, Nov. 21
How much: $25/single program; $40/day pass; $75/weekend pass
Tickets: Wheeler box office; aspen showtix.com
More info: The festival includes four programs across its two days; wheeleroperahouse.com
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What: ‘A Celebration of Native American Art’
Where: Aspen Grove Fine Art
When: Opening Friday, reception 4-6 p.m.
More info: The show includes works by Earl Biss and protégé Dante Biss-Grayson; Lisa Gerstner will be on hand at the reception to sign her 2019 book “Experiences with Earl Biss;” aspengrovefineart.com
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