Prairie Star Award

‘Sculptor in Sacred Stone’

Pipestone quarrier and pipe maker Travis Erickson has received the Prairie Star Award from the Southwest Minnesota Arts Council (SMAC) to honor his work as an outstanding artist in southwest Minnesota.
The letter that announced the SMAC Board of Directors’ decision came to Erickson with a no-strings-attached $5,000 check.
“I don’t think my eyebrows came down for a week,” Erickson said.

The Prairie Star Award, granted every two years, recognizes an individual artist whose body of work has made a significant contribution to the arts over an extended period of time, who has been recognized by his or her artistic peers, and who best exemplifies the highest artistic quality of work in the SMAC 18-county, southwest Minnesota region.
Twenty-one artists have received the award since it was developed in 1994, including Erickson, but Erickson is the first from Pipestone County and believed also to be the first American Indian artist.
Erickson was nominated by Pipestone Chamber Executive Director Erica Volkir, who is also a member of the SMAC Board of Directors representing Pipestone County. Volkir said she read the criteria for the award and “instantly Travis came to mind. In fact, I had to go back and look at the list to make sure he hadn’t already won it because I couldn’t believe he hadn’t been nominated and hadn’t already won it. I just cannot think of anyone, any artist, who exemplifies the arts in southwest Minnesota more than Travis.”
SMAC Executive Director Nicole DeBoer said the SMAC Board of Directors will receive between seven and 10 nominations for the award every two years and was “very excited” when Erickson’s nomination came through.
“We do have some artists that would merit being awarded but whoever nominates them is not a strong grant writer and doesn’t provide enough support for the board who, with our 18 counties, they may never have met or heard of you,” she said. “So they really need to be told the whole background and all the good things that the awardee does and is. That’s where Erica really shined as a nominator in providing all that information. So it was really a slam-dunk for the board to say this far and above the other applications merits the award.”

Standing in front of the cultural demonstration section of the Visitor Center at Pipestone National Monument is (l-to-r): Nicole DeBoer, executive director of Southwest Minnesota Arts Council; Erica Volkir, executive director, Pipestone Area Chamber of Commerce; Travis Erickson, quarrier and pipemaker; and Lisaann Evenson, Erickson’s long-time partner. Erickson is the first Pipestone County artist to receive SMAC’s $5,000 Prairie Star Award, which he received after being nominated by Volkir.

A fourth-generation Dakota Sioux, Erickson was born with pipestone rock in his life, learning at the knees of his grandparents, mother, aunts and uncles how to quarry and carve the soft red stone. The rock being a way of life, he said he never called himself an artist.
“Everybody else called me an artist,” he said. “I just kind of accepted it. In a way I’m still just a pipe maker. But I have people that call me a master. I’m not a master. You give me something that I’ve never carved before, I’m a rookie again. But the thing is the mastery I have to have is the confidence in my skills to be able to carve that particular project.”
Those skills and that mastery have been honed over almost 40 years, a lifetime of knowledge that he shares with others and tries to pass on in many ways “to ensure the longevity of this traditional art form,” as summarized by Volkir in the nomination application, through his co-authored book, “How to Carve a Native American Pipe,” through his mentorship of novice quarriers and carvers, and as a founding member of the Keepers of the Sacred Tradition of Pipemakers and as culutural demonstrator employee and Honorary Adviser to the Board of Directors of the nonprofit Pipestone Indian Shrine Association.
“Travis is truly an artist –– a sculptor in sacred stone,” Volkir wrote, possessing the “soul and spirit of an artist and for those who have watched him work, it is readily apparent the love he has for his art and his culture.”
All artists have their way, their process, and part of that typically involves purchasing their raw materials, whether paints or clays or woods. Erickson’s way is to be deeply connected to the Sioux quartzite earth from which he extracts his raw materials from his quarry at Pipestone National Monument using only hand tools, strength, sweat, time and patience.
The stone is the reward of his hard work quarrying, he said, but it’s also breaking rock that he breaks into himself.
“It was probably 20 years ago that I figured out how connected I am to the earth, to this Mother Earth,” Erickson said. “I always thought it was the stone, but I’ve had several spiritual people tell me that my attitude comes from the quartzite; I’m connected to the quartzite. If you’re not down there to quarry it yourself, break rock, ask these questions of yourself, be mindful, explore your inner mind, your inner soul…that’s what a lot of people who buy their material, that’s what they’re missing out on; the origin; where it came from. So I’m connected to the quarries. That’s why people ask me to help them because I can figure out fractures and cracks, the story; I can figure the story out right away.”
Artists know that it’s difficult to make a living through their art. Erickson’s time spent quarrying –– he refers to his long-time partner, Lisaann Evenson, as a “quarry widow” –– makes that even harder given the amount of time it takes to get his art materials from his quarry, breaking approximately 7 tons of quartzite to extract 1 ton of pipestone.
Despite the challenges, Erickson talked about the joy of discovery and creation that sustained, motivated and inspired him through “years of effort, persistence and faith,” as the Prairie Star Award letter recognized.
“First of all you just have to have the love of carving,” Erickson said. “When you figure out that you can make a Plains pipe or an elbow pipe, whatever, that’s cool. But when you decide to stretch yourself out and explore other regions, like carving an eagle –– the very first eagle pipe I carved looked like a plane being pulled out of the side of a mountain. It was bad; it really was bad. But that told me what I needed to do on the next one and then I carved another eagle pipe and that was just fun. It was fun to figure that all out. Now I’ll carve bears, buffaloes, wolves, dragonflies, butterflies, snakes — I can carve just about anything.”
Erickson continues to stretch himself, his reach most recently resulting in a new kind of art, Pipestone Dust Art. The product he creates is a kind of plastic made with the tailings of his pipestone carvings that he molds into jewelry, refrigerator art, and other products.
His advice for both emerging and established artists gives voice to his actions, and to his belief about the connection between the person and the art.
“Keep exploring who you are,” he said. “I’m not done. Don’t stop exploring who you are.”