For Corky Clairmont, art has been as much a way to explore his tribal traditions and the ongoing effects on them of European settlement as it has been to tell the story of the Salish and Kootenai people. Layered with symbolism and meaning, each of his conceptual and installation art projects draws from what he learned from his elders — animals and people and landscapes and historical documents all make their way into his work.
Then, he adds his own interpretation or question into the work and lets the public find their way to a conclusion. From his earliest years, Corky was able to translate the world around him into a visual with strong emotional impact. His design for a tribal seal, created when he was just fifteen, is still in use today. (His design was updated in the ‘90s.) He left his home in Ronan first to get an undergraduate degree in fine arts from MSU. Then he ventured even further from his roots to California for a master’s degree. After fourteen years and significant national recognition for his work, Corky returned to Montana and to the tribe, and he helped build the art program at the Salish and Kootenai College. All the while, he continued to create. In 2010, his Eagle Circle Veterans Wall of Remembrance was unveiled. The names of more than 1,300 Confederated Salish and Kootenai tribe members who served in the armed forces are etched into polished black granite and encircled by the outstretched wings of an eagle. Their warrior spirit is honored by the other images and symbols depicted on the monument—two bison, Warrior Woman, and Warrior Man. His art continues to play an important role in the conversations about the relationship between indigenous Americans and European settlers and the effect of industrialized modern life on nature.