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‘A freeing experience’

Times Staff Writer

Producer Robert Greenwald (“Steal This Movie”) had been corresponding with Leonard Peltier, a Native American who became a cause celebre after he was convicted of killing two FBI agents in 1975. Notables ranging from former Atty. Gen. Ramsey Clark to South Africa’s Desmond Tutu have spoken out in his defense, maintaining that -- guilty or innocent -- Peltier was denied a fair trial.

Last March, Greenwald met the man in Kansas’ Leavenworth Prison and resolved to help. The result: “The Warrior’s Eye -- In the Spirit of Crazy Horse,” a two-day exhibit at Santa Monica’s Frumkin Gallery featuring some of the more recent artwork Peltier has created during his 27 years behind bars.

“Leonard had a really powerful presence,” the producer said. “You knew you were dealing with someone who had dug into the deepest part of his soul, and that comes through on canvas.”

Organized with DreamWorks executive Andy Spahn and political cartoonist Robbie Conal, the event kicks off with a $100-a-ticket fund-raiser with proceeds being channeled to Peltier’s family and to help offset his legal expenses. His next parole hearing is scheduled for 2008.

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Peltier, 58, started whittling small sculptures as a child and wanted to be an artist. Instead he became a social activist and, eventually, locked horns with the law.

He and other members of the American Indian Movement were camping out on South Dakota’s Pine Ridge reservation when the FBI entered the property, searching for a crime suspect. A firefight ensued, leaving the agents and one Native American dead.

Though the other defendants were acquitted, Peltier -- who had fled to Canada -- was given two consecutive life sentences in a separate trial. The episode was explored in “Incident at Oglala,” a 1992 documentary on which Robert Redford was executive producer and narrator. The documentary examined how Peltier -- and Native Americans in general -- are treated by the judicial system.

Redford, who is also a member of the exhibit’s host committee, said of Peltier: “The irregularities in trying him, as well as the technicalities which have prevented judicial appeals in his case, paint a grim picture of American justice.”

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Like the other Leavenworth inmates, Peltier -- who has diabetes, high blood pressure and foot problems -- spends his days making furniture. After dinner and on weekends, he paints.

The brightly colored, representational creations (“Wind in His Hair,” “Home of the Brave”) are less political than traditionally Native American -- an homage to his Oglala Lakota heritage.

Colleagues say painting is a lifeline for Peltier, who crashed emotionally when former President Clinton denied him executive clemency.

“Being able to sit down and create something is a freeing experience,” Peltier said this week, responding to e-mailed questions. “It’s the only thing that isn’t at all dictated by someone other than myself.”

Painting makes him feel at home -- one with his culture, observes Debra Peebles, coordinator of the Leonard Peltier Defense Committee. Backgrounds are of particular importance -- his way of relating to the world.

“Leonard is living outside through his paintings -- he freely admits to that,” she said. “Though people buy the paintings because they’re Leonard’s, many can stand on their own.”

Oliver Stone and Jane Fonda have purchased some Peltier pieces, which go for $5,000 to $7,000 apiece. Graham Nash’s printing company is turning out a limited edition of 20 lithographs, which start at $1,000, to be sold Friday night.

Winona Ryder, Bonnie Raitt and Rage Against the Machine are among the show business personalities -- dating back to Marlon Brando -- who have lined up behind Peltier.

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“This exhibit is proof of Hollywood’s continuing support,” the artist said. “That’s something I don’t take lightly -- particularly during a time when such actions may be deemed unpopular. These celebrities help me continue the fight against forces with unlimited resources and manpower.”

Though his work has been displayed in Minneapolis, Long Island and Boston, this is the first time it will be seen in Los Angeles. The Bergamot Station gallery owner had only a pocket between two previously scheduled exhibits.

“Leonard is self-taught and has limited vision in one eye as a result of a stroke,” said Sherry Frumkin. “It’s fairly amazing that he’s able to do such fine work. The audience for Native American art is more limited in this city -- we’re known more for cutting-edge, contemporary work. Still, the name ‘Leonard Peltier’ -- a political prisoner, according to Amnesty International -- carries a great deal of emotional weight.”

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Leonard Peltier

What: “The Warrior’s Eye -- In the Spirit of Crazy Horse”

Where: Frumkin Gallery, Bergamot Station, 2525 Michigan Ave., Santa Monica

When: Friday gala, 6 to 9 p.m., $100 admission; Saturday 11 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., free

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Info: (310) 453-1850


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