Published on June 22, 2014 by Carol
Robert Michael Gress, contemporary silversmith, is a leader in the revival of the artistic heritage of Crow Indian art (1850-1900). Robert Gress creates powerfully evocative sterling silver jewelry inlaid with a dazzling mosaic of semi precious stones.
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The Absaloka people have lived for centuries on the Plains of Montana where they evolved a complex and intense abstract geometric art tradition that reflects the visual and experiential drama of life and survival on the Great Plains. Beginning with rock art, Crow Indian design has embraced all media from abstract and figurative painting on hide to surface embroidery with quillwork and glass beads.
During the Classic Period, the art of this warrior people reached a zenith that was scarcely equaled by any other American Indian Tribe. What distinguishes Classic Crow art from the art of the Sioux, Cheyenne, Blackfoot and other Plains tribes is its complex interweaving of simple geometric forms – isosceles triangle, box, bar, diamonds and hourglass figures – and interplay of bright primary and secondary colors. These elements were compounded to create myriad patterns to ornament utilitarian and decorative objects of Absaloka material culture of the period – moccasins, war shirts, leggings, rifle cases, hides and robes, blanket strips, saddles, cradles and especially parfleches, the great Crow abstract paintings on rawhide storage containers.
These patterns, and color relationships resonate in the jewelry art of Robert Gress. The colors that came to be known as “Crow blue” and “Crow pink” in the 19th century are found in Gress’s jewelry in pale sky-blue turquoise and in rose coral. They contrast with the cobalt blue of lapis lazuli and deep red of crimson coral. Sudulite projects a rich lavender glow, opals add fiery brilliance. Fossil ivory hints at the eons of Native whose Crow name Bishee-bachee means Buffalo Man. Gress sometimes uses overlay silver technique and cutouts to create monochromatic solid silver bracelets that rely on the play of light and shadow on silver for their effect.
Robert Gress, a member of his tribe’s Big Lodge Clan, is descended on his mother’s side from two of the great families among the Crow. His great-great grandfather was the warrior Medicine Tail. His great-grandmother Kitty Medicine Tail married John Deernose. On his father’s side, he is descended from a captain in the czarist army in Russia who eventually immigrated to Montana. Robert Gress studied at Montana State University and at the Institute of American Indian Art in Santa Fe, where his teacher the notes silversmith and Indian art scholar Millard J. Holbrook encouraged Gress to innovate and to separate himself from the traditional Navajo and Pueblo styles and to crate a new design idiom in silver, abstracting geometric motifs from his Absaloka heritage. Robert Gress has done so with great success.