From artist Frank Big Bear, the Walker gets a multiverse

Frank Big Bear stands before his 'Multiverse #10.'
Frank Big Bear stands before his "Multiverse #10," which hangs in the newly renovated front entrance of the Walker Art Center.
Gene Pittman | Walker Art Center

For the past year, Frank Big Bear has been buying expensive coffee-table books and cutting them up. He's used them to create an enormous collage for the Walker Art Center's newly redesigned front entrance.

The piece, which will remain on display at the entrance for a year, is so complex that the Walker is training Native youth to discuss it with visitors.

As Big Bear examined a mock-up of his collage recently, the peal of bells from the nearby Basilica of St. Mary echoed the grand scale of his work.

"I was working on it, like, sometimes 10 to 12 hours a day," he said. "You know, cutting up paper ... ."

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Artist Frank Big Bear lives in Duluth.
Artist Frank Big Bear lives in Duluth.
Euan Kerr | MPR News

And that went on for seven months. The collage is huge, mixing ancient images with pop culture, the beautiful with the grotesque, the known with the unknown. There's Patti Smith, Keith Richards, works by Old Masters, news images and nudes. There are tigers and sharks. There are also many pictures of Native Americans.

"I put all my kids and my grandkids in here," said Big Bear.

Big Bear grew up around the White Earth Reservation. For a long time, he lived in the Twin Cities. Now he's based in Duluth.

The collage is called Multiverse #10. It's built on hundreds of invitations to a gallery opening for the painter Star Wallowing Bull, who's Big Bear's son. The cards feature a shackled Native man wrapped in a blanket.

Details from 'Multiverse #10.'
Artist Frank Big Bear spreads some images over several panels, whether it be a red sports car, a lion, or a detail from painter Lucian Freud's nude self-portrait.
Euan Kerr | MPR News

"This figure here is a guy called Big Bear from Canada," says Frank Big Bear. "He was Cree and Ojibwe. But the thing about it is, he looks so much like my father."

The shackled Indian is obscured in many of the mural's panels, but he's still a part of every one of them.

The collage looks like an exploded visual encyclopedia, its pages lined up across the wall. There are thousands of images, each carefully placed to create something huge.

"Forty feet long and 6 feet tall," said curatorial assistant Misa Jeffereis. "There's 432 elements." It's about the size of a school bus in profile, and she said she doesn't know how he did it.

"I think even he is surprised by the fact that he did it," she said. "It's the largest collage that he's ever made."

The collage is built on top of 432 invitations.
The collage "Multiverse #10" is built on top ofn432 invitations to an art show once presented by Frank Big Bear's son Star Wallowing Bull.
Euan Kerr | MPR News

Jeffereis believes the collage reflects Big Bear's experiences driving cab in Minneapolis for three decades. But it's based on his skills with a pencil.

"You can see drawing is at its core," she said. "He is excellent with composition."

The room suddenly filled with young people. These are members of the Little Earth Arts Collective, based at a south Minneapolis housing complex serving the Native American community. The arts collective is designed to build confidence and develop job skills. Many are members of tribal groups around the state.

"My name is Jamison. I'm from Red Lake, Minn.," said one.

"I'm Ashley. I'm from Mille Lacs," said another.

After lunch the group examined the mural. The youngsters had been preparing for weeks, and this was their first chance to meet Frank Big Bear. They peppered him with questions.

"Does this have a meaning?" someone asked, pointing to one section.

"I just liked the background of this, and I cut out a Native American here," Big Bear replied.

The questions came thick and fast. "What's up with the nudity, Dude?" asked one girl.

"What about all the sharks? You've got a few," said another.

"I am anxious to see how this turns out," said a third.

Sometimes, it was as if Big Bear was seeing parts of the collage for the first time. He's loath to offer too much interpretation of what he's done.

"This woman here, I just liked her image, and it just seemed to fit in there just right," he explained. "Even though it looks like she's not in this photograph, it looks like she is outside it, like this is a painting."

The afternoon ended with Big Bear handing out colored pencils and magazines, so members of the arts collective could make their own collages.

The Walker's Maya Weisinger said the youngsters will act as ambassadors for the collage. They'll start greeting visitors Thursday at the Walker's four-day open house celebrating its redesigned front entrance. That's where Multiverse #10 is now installed.

Weisinger said the young people won't rattle off facts and figures, but talk about meeting Big Bear and their own experiences as Native youth.

"It's really giving some personal anecdotes and living experience to this very intense piece that will now be a part of our entrance for a year," she said.

And maybe explain what's up with the nudity, Dude.

Correction (Nov. 29, 2016): A caption in an earlier version of this story incorrectly identified the artist Lucian Freud, whose self-portrait is included in a panel.