Kevin Poor Bear never graduated from Augustana, but the time he spent on campus helped shape his life.
Poor Bear grew up in the Sioux Falls area, spending his young life at the local McCrossan Boys Ranch. After graduating from Washington High School in 1986, he journeyed westward to Colorado for work.
While living in Denver, however, a poisonous brown recluse spider bit Poor Bear, causing paralysis in his lower limbs, confining him to a wheelchair and lessening job opportunities.
Soon after, Poor Bear moved to South Dakota’s Pine Ridge reservation, choosing to focus on a new opportunity: art.
“Kevin has endured a lot of suffering—both personally and culturally,” campus pastor Paul Rhode, who met Poor Bear over Augustana’s Fall Break service trip to Pine Ridge, said. “He uses his artwork to claim and express healing, both for himself and for his people.”
In 1985, as an 11th-grader, Poor Bear was granted admission into Augustana’s gifted and talented art program where he studied art under the tutelage of former Professor Carl Grupp for one semester.
There, he gained an appreciation for the craft, focusing on using charcoals to paint still-life and abstract pieces.
“It just really inspired me,” Poor Bear said. “The charcoals really touched me, so I just got really inspired by using them.”
After his paralysis, Poor Bear channeled the inspiration he had found during high school into his healing process and adapting to his new reality.
“The charcoals and pastels came in handy,” he said. “I just picked up where I left off, and I ended up doing it every day and empowering my spirit to become good so I could inspire those who have no inspiration.”
Today, Poor Bear transfers his passion into depictions of the White Buffalo Calf Woman, a story about the gift of the čhaŋnúŋpa, or peace pipe, given to the Lakota people 18 generations ago. For Poor Bear, the story has deep implications about the presence of hope in human life.
Poor Bear also gives art presentations at church, which he cites as a reason for his sobriety and overall health.
“He is a great example of integrating Christian faith and spirituality into cultural heritage and personal circumstances,” Rhode said.
For Poor Beart, art is prayer.
“When I’m feeling sad or down, I pick up my charcoal… and I pray when I make my artwork,” Poor Bear said. “The power of prayer is how I really get by on this reservation.”
Poor Bear wishes to share his passion with future artists.
“I’m trying to inspire the children so they can have a life in art,” he said.
Poor Bear sells his art through his company Poor Bear Art. He noted that any classmates or friends of his can reach out to him to reconnect by contacting him at (605) 867-5382.