The work of lifelong artist, educator, and enrolled member of the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe (Kooyooe Tukadu/cui-ui fish eaters) Ben Aleck will be featured in an exhibition titled The Art of Ben Aleck, which opened April 1 at the Nevada Museum of Art. The exhibition features over thirty of Aleck’s paintings, drawings and mixed-media artworks, and traces his long career through works that emphasize deep connections between Indigenous communities and the Great Basin.
For the duration of the exhibition, all members of tribal communities will be offered free admission and due to the Free Student Admission Program, all University students are also able to visit the museum free of charge.
An active and exhibiting artist in Northern Nevada, Aleck had his first solo exhibition at the age of 23 at the Nevada Museum of Art (then called the Sierra Nevada Art Gallery in Reno) in 1972. For many years, Aleck was employed by the Pyramid Lake Museum and Visitor’s Center, and his art often relays the stories of the plants, animals, and geography of Pyramid Lake, located forty miles northwest of Reno within the boundaries of the Pyramid Lake Paiute Reservation. His paintings and drawings also give visual form to Indigenous stories about the stars, coyotes, the formation of Great Basin lands, and the origins of its people, while at the same time tackling issues involving the environment and water use.
A longtime Nevada resident, Aleck was born in Reno in 1949 and was raised on the Reno Sparks Indian Colony (RSIC). As an aspiring artist at Wooster High School, Aleck became part of the Upward Bound Program and was invited to take art classes at the University of Nevada, Reno.
“I was in middle school, just twelve years old, when I first started attending fine art classes at the University of Nevada, Reno through the Upward Bound Program. One of the first classes I took was a drawing class from the University when I had a break from the regular classroom at Vaughn Middle School,” Aleck said. “I grew up on the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony. The Colony at that time was at the edge of town, and I’d have to walk to my class at the campus early every morning. But, I enjoyed it. Even at that time, I knew that education was important if you want to go onto higher education in any field—mine happened to be art.”
As part of the Upward Bound Program at that time, Aleck took classes from Professor Don Kerr where he learned to paint and draw using models. “The anatomy of the human body is important in my artwork and that was an important part of my development as an artist,” Aleck said. He also studied under art teacher James McCormick. “By the time I finished high school I had built an art portfolio, and I pretty much had my choice of what art schools I could attend.”
“All my teachers along the way from elementary school at Orvis Ring with Mrs. Wolfe to junior high school at Vaughn Middle School with Mr. Yacavelli, and Wooster High School with Tom Tucker, and the Upward Bound Program, where I studied at the University of Nevada, Reno with Don Kerr and James McCormick have always encouraged me to do art. From the very beginning, I had a lot of support. I was really fortunate for that.
“The instruction in fine art that I received when I was an Upward Bound student at the University enabled me to create my artwork and to develop my technique, especially in drawing and painting. Having those skills enabled me to attend one of the better art schools in our region, the California College of Arts and Crafts (now California College of the Arts (CCA)) in Oakland, California after I graduated from Wooster High School in 1968. I was a student there while the occupation of Alcatraz Island was going on, and that introduced me to more Native perspectives.
“Following what the Native American movement was doing as a young college student and artist gave me a greater insight into what it means to be Nuwu/Northern Paiute, and an enrolled member of the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe (Kooyooe Tukadu/cui-ui fish eaters). To this day, my artwork tells the stories of the Great Basin Tribes and gives visual form to not only Indigenous stories, but environmental issues that impact Indigenous people in the Great Basin, like water use,” Aleck said.
After graduating from Wooster High School in 1968, Aleck attended the California College of Arts and Crafts (now California College of the Arts (CCA)) in Oakland, California. During his time in the San Francisco Bay Area, he witnessed the politics and protest of the Vietnam War era and the countercultural Hippie Movement. He became involved with the American Indian Movement (AIM) and participated in the American Indian Occupation of Alcatraz. He graduated with a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Painting from CCA in 1972.
“The Creator provided Ben with amazing gifts including the ability to address injustices effectively and succinctly. Ben is empathetic to all our relatives be they breathing or inanimate.... Ben’s art reflects how he prioritizes our stories, traditions, and our beloved Mother Earth. His work is heartening, and so necessary as we make our way through the drudgery and beauty of today’s world,” said Executive Director of the Nevada Indian Commission Stacey Montooth, who is also a member of the Walker River Paiute Tribe.
“Ben blends humor, knowledge, and emotion to open eyes and hearts to contemporary issues of the region we call the Greater West,” said the Andrea and John C. Deane Family Chief Curator and Associate Director Ann Wolfe. “The Nevada Museum of Art is committed to amplifying and celebrating the many voices of Indigenous artists in the Great Basin and Sierra Nevada.”
Aleck is a founding member of the Great Basin Native Artists and has shown his work regularly in exhibitions at galleries and museums throughout the American West. Pieces of his artwork are in the permanent collections of the Nevada Museum of Art and the Nevada State Museum.