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Storm chaser

Through bad luck and hard work, an ambitious young Plains Indian artist makes it all the way to the Met

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Late last spring, Shania Hall, then 17, stood on top of a hill near Choteau and waited for a storm to hit. Sheets of rain hurtled across Glacier National Park and dark clouds bloomed above the plains. Hall and Big Sky High School's Flagship program coordinator at the time, Scott Mathews, duct-taped a Fujifilm instant camera to a tripod. As the wind whipped the rain and clouds across the sky, Hall squinted through the viewfinder and began to shoot.

"As I'm taking the pictures," Hall recalls, "the photos are popping out in front of me and flying over my head, and Scott's behind me catching them."

Mathews and Hall, along with Big Sky Spanish teacher Jay Bostrom and his wife, Kim, had driven 250 miles from Missoula to the hill up Molly Nipple's Road. It was an unusual school-sanctioned adventure, but it marked the chance of a lifetime. Several months earlier, an email from New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art had circulated in schools nationwide asking for a high school student of Plains Indian descent to submit photographs for inclusion in The Plains Indians: Artists of Earth and Sky—one of the largest Native American exhibits in the world. Hall, with the encouragement of Mathews, had her eye on that prize.

Shania Hall’s photos of the Montana plains are part of a large exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. - PHOTO BY CATHRINE L. WALTERS
  • photo by Cathrine L. Walters
  • Shania Hall’s photos of the Montana plains are part of a large exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

Out of the storm and in the calm light of the hotel room where they were staying, the group studied the photographs as they dried. Mathews, flustered from the chaos, recalls not being sure if what they had was going to hit the mark, but looking at the swirling imagery in front of him, he was hopeful. He numbered the prints and threw them into an envelope to be delivered to the museum. When he mailed them a few weeks later, Mathews was stressed about letting go of the originals.

"I remember checking my phone watching them travel through to Manhattan," he says. "The time stamp for when the package was received at the museum to the time we received the email congratulating Shania was, like, an hour."

Hall had made it in: the only high school student to be included in the prestigious Met exhibit. But for Hall, the months leading up to the opening of the exhibit were anything but a smooth ride.

Even though she's young, Hall knows all too well about the ups and downs of life. She grew up on the reservation in Browning, perusing the pictures in the pages of National Geographic. "Living, poverty-wise, I didn't have money to go out all the time and travel," she says. "I was a big dreamer, but everyone was telling me, 'You need to get a job. You need to do this or that.' And so I was kind of a rebel and did my own thing."

Hall moved with her mother to Missoula to attend high school, and by the time Hall reached her senior year, she was faltering.

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"I was failing some classes and I wasn't doing well socially—hanging out with the wrong crowd," she says. "And so some teachers recommended me to Scott Mathews. I needed someone to help me with my senior project and he did filmmaking, which I wanted to do."

In January 2014, when Mathews got the email about the Met's call for a high school photographer, he thought of Hall.

"I projected a picture of the museum up on the wall of my office," Mathews says. "I told her I thought a project like this would take about 75 hours to complete because we'll have to practice and learn the camera and figure out where we're going to shoot. I said, 'But I don't know an artist who wouldn't invest 75 hours in just having that chance to get into the Met.' And she said, 'Let's do it.'"

It was one of the worst winters of recent memory, the roads bogged down in snow drifts. Mathews and Hall donned snowshoes and took a 35mm camera up to a Rattlesnake ranch owned by one of Mathews' friends so Hall could put together a portfolio for the museum. After the Met approved Hall's portfolio, they sent her the Fujifilm Instax 10 through the maila low-tech camera but one that makes photos that can be blown up in size. Daniel Kershaw, the Met's exhibit designer, also sent them a picture he'd found online to show the kind of sweeping plains and stormy skies the museum was looking for—which is how Mathews and Hall ended up at Molly's Nipple Road in the eye of a storm.

At the time, Hall was still failing three classes. After the stormy shoot and before overnighting the photos to the museum, Mathews made Hall get serious about her work. He told her, "I'm not going to send the pictures out until you pass those classes and I know you're graduating." Hall says she buckled down, stayed up late doing homework and added extra credit work until she passed the classes and received her diploma.

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In June, after she was accepted at the Met, Hall joined the Youth Conservation Corps and camped all month in the woods. While she was gone, Mathews got a call that prominent New York artist Gail Bruce had heard about Hall and wanted to give her a college scholarship.

When Hall returned home for the good news, it was overshadowed by bad news. She and her mother had been evicted from their apartment and her mother was ill. A few weeks later, on a Monday, her mom was diagnosed with cancer. She died that Friday.

Hall says she fell into a depression. She ditched town without telling anyone and hitched a ride to her dad's house in Kalispell, then to the reservation. For two months, Mathews didn't know where she'd gone.

"She went underground," he says. "I was texting her saying, 'You don't have to tell me where you are just tell me you are okay.' Nothing. But, after a while, I sensed that she had gone to Browning."

When Hall resurfaced she vowed to get herself back on track and, with the help of the scholarship, start college in the spring. But in January 2015, Hall received more bad news: this time her grandma had passed away from cancer. Hall headed back to Browning for the four-day funeral where family members and friends took part in pipe ceremonies and prayed. The day before they buried her grandmother, Hall got a call from a New York number. It was a woman from the Met telling her they wanted to fly her out for the exhibit's opening.

"I was thinking how every time something good happens, something bad happens," Hall says. "It's like yin and yang. Every time. I started crying. The woman, Judith, didn't know what to do, because it wasn't how most people react to that kind of news."

A few weeks ago, Hall and Mathews flew to New York and took a car to the center of Manhattan. Hall looked out the window to see the grand steps of the museum that she'd first seen projected on the wall of Mathews' office. Inside the gallery her photos of the storm had been stitched together in a panoramic view and blown up to 16-feet-tall images spread across three large walls.

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"The picture was so big that it kind of looked like it did when we were up on the hill that day," Mathews says. "We were thinking, 'Wow, we are in New York, but this room looks like Montana.'"

During the visit, Hall had lunch with Jodi Gillette, President Obama's Native American senior policy advisor and an artist also in the exhibit. They took what Mathews refers to as a "Willy Wonka Factory-style" tour of the museum.

"Everyone knew Shania's story," Mathews says. "No matter what department of the museum we went to, everyone wanted to talk to her."

Back in Missoula, Hall is still trying to let the experience sink in. She'll attend Blackfeet Community College in the fall and, if she does well, her benefactor will pay for her to study at the Institute of American Indian Arts in New Mexico. Waiting for the next big thing to happen feels unnerving to her, but also exciting.

"None of this has hit me yet," she says. "If I wouldn't have gotten in trouble—and I'm not saying people should—I wouldn't have met Scott and this wouldn't have happened. I don't know what will happen next. But photography has gotten me this far."

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