"The Spirit Who Walks Among His People"
By Chadd Scott
Trailer for Lisa Gerstner's new documentary on the life of Earl Biss
Lisa Gerstner gave that subtitle to both her Earl Biss biography, published in 2018, and her nearly completed, feature-length documentary of the Crow (Apsáalooke) painter.
Gerstner first met Biss at a party in Aspen, Colorado in 1994 through a mutual friend. The friend thought Gerstner should write Biss’ biography. Gerstner was not a professional writer and with only a few published articles under her belt, had never attempted a project so ambitious.
She recalls in the book, “Experiences with Earl Biss,” the artist sizing her up at the party. Without introduction, she asked him plainly, “Am I your biographer?”
“Yes,” he answered.
Wondering how he could be so certain never having talked to or spent any time with her, he said, “I can just tell.”
Gerstner would work directly with Biss on and off for the next year and a half before losing track of him.
Spirits don’t rest, they move. Nor do they keep regular correspondence.
Gerstner went four years without seeing him again before coming across an ad for an upcoming show of his in a Denver newspaper by happenstance. At the exhibit, Gerstner asked him if he wanted to finish the book. He said he did.
It was the last time the two would see each other in the flesh. Biss died a month later at 51-years-old.
“It was a leap of faith,” Gerstner told “Essential West” of taking on the Biss biography. “Whenever something highly unusual like this happens in my life, I do have something in common with Earl in making these kind of decisions, in that we look at it from a spiritual perspective. We pay attention to our dreams. We pay attention to signs and the way life can talk to you in ways other than logic. Everything that was happening at the time was pointing to Earl Biss and saying, ‘yes, do this.’”
And so she did, not realizing 20 years would pass before the project she took on resulted in a finished product.
Much of that delay was owed to uncertainty surrounding who owned the copyrights to Biss’ paintings.
This is where the third key figure in the story enters: Paul Zueger, Biss’ last art dealer.
After Gerstner had a completed manuscript, she contacted Zueger to inquire about who owned the copyrights. Gerstner didn’t want to publish a Biss biography without being able to show his work.
Biss married at least 10 times over the course of his short life. Zueger didn’t know if he had married his last girlfriend, thereby giving her ownership of the copyrights. Turns out he did and years of legal wrangling ensued before Zueger was able to buy the rights via public auction.
Once he did, he contacted Gerstner, greenlighting her to finish the book, images included.
While Gerstner was working on the book, Zueger had tried twice unsuccessfully with two different directors on producing a Biss documentary. When Gerstner showed him a short trailer she put together to promote the biography, he had found his director.
Like Biss, he could just tell.
A highlight of the film, which “Essential West” was able to preview and has been selected for screening at the 2021 Santa Fe Film Festival, shows footage of Biss painting. Gerstner shot this while working with him on the book.
Here is where viewers see “the spirit,” Biss leaving this world to connect with another, entering a trance-like state allowing his body to serve as a conduit between his ancestors, the Apsáalooke culture and the canvas.
When fully engaged, Biss moved like an athlete, dynamic, with certainty, flinging paint at the canvas, rhythmic, plugged in to a power source we cannot see, using brooms and mops and rags to “move paint around” as he described it. Biss was not modest when assessing his ability to do so. Nor should he have been. He’s seen painting with both hands simultaneously, using multiple brushes in concert, pouring water on the canvas, using his hands – not his fingers – his hands, conjuring images from only he knows where to create his breathtaking expressionist scenes.
Gerstner’s video captures much more than a virtuoso with paint, a genius, viewers are shown the supernatural.
What was it like being in the room as Biss spent his “medicine” on the canvas?
“I would describe it as Earl becoming more himself,” Gerstner explains. “Not like you hear about people channeling something other, but he became more who he was as a soul, beyond the mind and emotions, and there was this connection to his culture and this other realm where these other Crows – whether they were still alive or passed on and were visiting – you could feel hundreds of Crows in the room when he was painting and he was very open about that. He said, ‘yeah, they’re coming through the paint, I didn’t do that, they did that.’ You could feel the presence of all of these souls of the Crow culture.”
That seems difficult to believe until you’ve seen an Earl Biss masterpiece up close. Then his ability to connect to other realities and portray them in oil paint becomes self-evident.
“The beautiful, powerful way of being, he captured that in paint and he could tune into that and the other realms and bring it into the physical realm,” Gerstner said.
Kevin Red Star, a fellow Crow and friend of Biss,’ recalls in the film an extraordinary story of Biss flying to the Crow reservation in Montana simply to observe one sunset and the following sunrise to make sure he had his colors right.
No camera. No sketchpad. He only needed to look.
“There was something about the environment and the people, you notice a lot of his work has these giant skies with masterful colors, I’ve never seen anyone work with color like him before, he just knew everything there was to know about color and everything there was to know about the way oil paint feels under your hands,” Gerstner, also a painter with a fine arts degree, said. “He’d say things like, ‘between the atoms and molecules there’s a lot of space, so there has to be something there, the spirit is between those atoms and it’s alive and that’s what I’m painting.’”
Again, hard to believe until you see him painting and see his paintings, then impossible to ignore.
Despite his unique talent, Biss doesn’t enjoy the same degree of notoriety his contemporaries in the first generation of contemporary Native painters, T.C. Cannon, Fritz Scholder and Red Star do. Biss was friendly with all three and spent time studying under Scholder at the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe in the mid-1960s.
Gerstner’s book and documentary may be his best, last chance to break free from the confines of classification as a “Native American” artist into the wider “American art” category those three have.
“It has always felt like a big responsibility, especially to get it accurate, not only with how his personality is portrayed, the way the process of his painting is portrayed, but the Crow culture is such a mysterious, little known way of life, I felt a huge responsibility to portray that as accurately as possible by using the words of the Crows,” Gerstner said.
Both the book and documentary share numerous first-hand accounts from Crow people about Biss and the culture. Gerstner has visited the Crow Reservation multiple times on each project.
As you’d imagine, two undertakings of this scope occurring over this length of time has changed Gerstner, but in a surprising way.
“Watching him paint gave me more confidence in my own creative abilities,” Gerstner said. “Almost like something was passed to me by proximity that I no longer doubted what I could do in a creative manner. It gave me the courage to write a book for the first time. It gave me the courage to make the film.”
A film which only needs a small amount of sound engineering to complete. Gerstner expects that to occur no later than mid-November at which time it will be submitted to film festivals. The way documentary film distribution works is that films shown at festivals tend to be taken more seriously by top distributors.
Gerstner is learning all of this as she goes. As with the book, she’s continually working at the edge of what she knows.
Another attribute she shares with her subject.
“Earl was always painting on the edge of what he knew, that’s why his work kept evolving, it didn’t stay static, he didn’t stay with one style, it kept getting richer and better,” Gerstner said.
Once 25-plus years of work on Earl Biss becomes completed, what’s next for her?
“Sometimes I wonder what’s next, but I don’t fear it,” Gerstner said.
Thanks to Earl Biss.