Earl Biss biography a finalist in American Book Fest’s 2019 Best Book Awards
‘Experiences with Earl Biss: The Spirit Who Walks Among His People’
324 pages, paperback; $60
American Design Ltd., 2018
Author Lisa Gerstner’s biography of the late, beloved Aspen-based artist Earl Biss took a fittingly winding and idiosyncratic road to publication. And, like Biss’ work, her book is now earning mainstream acclaim.
Gerstner’s “Experiences with Earl Biss: The Spirit Who Walks Among His People” was recently named a finalist in the American Book Fest’s 2019 Best Book Awards, earning recognition in both the Art and Biography categories. This nontraditional biography sought to capture the essence of the rebellious Crow Nation painter.
The book was 25 years in the making, beginning with Biss tapping Gerstner as his authorized biographer.
“Earl was so unconventional, he didn’t want it to be a conventional biography,” Gerstner said last year. “He didn’t even care if it was in chronological order, because he didn’t live his life that way.”
Unconventional it is, with a lively portrait of the artist that is unconcerned with reciting biographical detail (a chapter on Biss’ marriages states he was married at least eight and perhaps as many as 11 times).
Biss made untold thousands of oil paintings and serigraphs in his 30-year career as a painter, which mirrored the boom of contemporary Native American art in the second half of the 20th century. Many of his works now hang in international museum collections.
Gerstner argues that Biss, who died of a stroke at age 51 in 1998, broke new ground by merging indigenous American subjects with the advanced painting techniques of the old European masters. An extraordinary colorist, he had studied in the Netherlands as a young man — following work at the Institute of American Indian Arts and the San Francisco Art Institute — and used the old-world traditions of oil painting to craft a contemporary vision of Plains Indians and scenes from the Crow Nation’s land in Montana, where Biss grew up.
“It wasn’t a nostalgic look, like ‘Oh, here are some cool Indians from 150 years ago,’” Gerstner said. “It was a vibrant presence that is alive today.”
She narrates his life in vivid and short first-person vignettes about her days with Biss in his final years. Gerstner recounts watching him paint in his fast-paced and improvisatory style, reproduces conversations with Biss about his visual and spiritual aims as an artist.
“Experiences” also chronicles his long professional relationship with gallerist and American Design Ltd. president Paul Zueger. Gerstner brings readers into gallery openings across Colorado and out for drinks with Biss at the Woody Creek Tavern. She joins him for a court hearing (Biss’ attorney balked at the artist inviting his biographer along) and on one rollicking day in Aspen with Biss as he sought out an old girlfriend, his attorney and a machine gun while plotting to flee his mounting legal troubles to Venezuela.
Aspen Grove Fine Art last year celebrated Gerstner’s book with two days of events, an exhibition of his work and a screening of an excerpt from an in-progress documentary that Gerstner is making on Biss.
Titled “Earl Biss: The Spirit Who Walks Among His People,” the film is built on previously unseen interviews, archival footage and film Gerstner shot with Biss in his final years. It is now in post-production, Gerstner said in December.
Many Aspenites remember Biss as an outsized local character and wildman rather than as a master painter. But his unconventional lifestyle ought not overshadow his genius.
“People misunderstood the depth of what this guy was about,” Gerstner said. “The depth of Earl Biss — of him as a human being and the mastery of his art — was profound and it was an honor to be trusted with this story.”
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