Paintings From the Past

painting on a hide by sam kills two, painting, southwest art.
Painting on a Hide by Sam Kills Two

By Bruce M. Shackelford

Painted images and designs are nothing new to the native cultures of North America. Designs dating back 8,000 years can be found on rock ledges in West Texas and northern Mexico. Through the centuries, native artists applied line and color to all types of surfaces, from animal hides to pottery. Most often these painted objects had functional use as day-to-day or ritual objects. Before 1900, when these painted objects began to be acquired by non- Indians, they were viewed as curiosities or souvenirs of an event, like a treaty signing or a battle. That changed in the early 20th century when young Indian artists first encountered non-Indian teachers and patrons who encouraged what has come to be known as traditional Indian painting.

Origins of the style. Throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, most Indian paintings were applied to buffalo and deer hides. Geometric designs were painted by Plains Indian women, while pictorial scenes were applied by male artists. Pictorial designs usually served as narratives of a specific incident, such as a buffalo hunt or a battle. Similarly, calendars of important events were painted on hides by Plains artists using pictographs to denote particular years. After the 1850s, muslin and canvas were also used as a support for paintings previously applied only to hides.

sliverhorn by marion koogler, painting, southwest art.
Sliverhorn by Marion Koogler

In the late 1800s, drawings and paintings done on paper taken from ledger books were created specifically for sale to non-Indians. The most famous of the ledger book art was created by Arapaho, Cheyenne and Kiowa people interred in the Fort Marion, FL, prison [SWA MAR 97]. Battle and hunting scenes done in stylized stick figures some, like those of Buffalo Meat, quite sophisticated were tremendously popular among locals as well as the jailers who oversaw the prisoners.

Ledger-style drawings and hide paintings continued to be made into the 20th century. The Kiowa artist Silverhorn (Haungooah), who started painting on muslin and ledger papers in the late 1800s, continued until his death in 1941, creating watercolors on paper for commercial sale to non-Indians. Silverhorn’s older brother, Charlie Buffalo (Oheltoint), also continued in the ledger style after 1900, mainly painting miniature tepees.

Basket Dance by Fred Kabottie, painting, southwest art.
Basket Dance by Fred Kabottie

Oklahoma School. As early as 1889, a teacher at the Shawnee Indian Boarding School, Shawnee, noted the artistic leanings of young E.L. Spybuck. Teachers at other Indian schools made similar observations about the natural artistic abilities of their students. In the early 20th century, when anthropologists arrived in Indian country, former students like Spybuck were employed as artists for the anthropologists. Spybuck painted with watercolors on paper, depicting Shawnee religious ceremonies and social life. The contact between scholars and Indian artists created a small but important market for works by artists throughout Arizona, New Mexico and Oklahoma.

With dozens of tribes located in Oklahoma, numerous researchers descended on the state, employing Kiowa and Shawnee artists. Among the Kiowa, a style of painting emerged around 1920 that derived some stylistic techniques and subject matter from the ledger art of the late 1800s. A group of artists known as the Kiowa Five became the focus of much non-Indian patronage.

Kiowa Squaws by Monoroe Tsatoke, painting, southwest art.
Kiowa Squaws by Monoroe Tsatoke

Working under the guidance of Susie Peters, the field matron at the Kiowa Agency, and Sister Olivia, a teacher at St. Patrick Mission Day School in Anadarko, OK, the Kiowa painters started painting in 1918. Later that year, Peters carried a number of their drawings to Taos, NM, where she sold them probably the first sales for Stephen Mopope (a great-nephew of the ledger artist Silverhorn), Spencer Asah, Jack Hokeah, Monroe Tsatoke and Lois Bougetah Smoky (later replaced by James Auchiah). Like Mopope, all of the young Kiowas were from important families in the tribe. In 1926, they left Anadarko to study at the University of Oklahoma, Norman, where they were provided studios and support from Oscar B. Jacobsen, chairman of the art department.

In 1927, the Kiowa artists had their first exhibition at the University of Oklahoma, and before the year ended, their paintings were also exhibited at the American Federation of Arts convention in Denver, CO, earning the group national recognition. In the 1930s, members of the group were selected by the Works Progress Administration to create public murals in government and state buildings such as the Oklahoma Historical Society.

Using tempera on paper, the artists painted works roughly 11 by 14 inches in size. The figures, typically portrayed in profile, were done in flat colors and were pieces of larger narratives about the tribe. The subjects were engaged in ceremonial activities, most often dancing. Most of the Kiowa painters danced extensively themselves, performing in Oklahoma, New Mexico and throughout the Plains. At the dances, the artists sold their paintings to non-Indian buyers at a cost of $2 to $5 apiece. Marion Koogler McNay, who later founded the McNay Art Museum in San Antonio, TX, purchased a number of paintings by the Kiowa Five at a dance exhibition in New Mexico.

Creek Women Cooking by Acee Blue Eagle, painting, southwest art.
Creek Women Cooking by Acee Blue Eagle

The exposure and commercial success of the works of the Kiowa painters resulted in their work being copied by other Indian artists. The influence of the Kiowa Five painting style continues today, especially among the southern Plains tribes of the Kiowa, Comanche, Cheyenne and Arapaho.

New Mexico School. In the American Southwest of the 1890s,  similar interactions occurred be-tween Indians and non-Indians. Researcher Jesse Walter Fewkes employed Hopi people to illustrate his research on Hopi kachinas. Just after 1900, students at New Mexico’s San Ildefonso Day School were encouraged to produce artworks exploring their own interests using traditional European art materials.

In 1918, Elizabeth De Huff, the wife of the superintendent of the U.S. Indian School in Santa Fe, conducted watercolor classes in her house for a group of seven Pueblo students. The students, including Velino Herrera, Fred Kabotie and Otis Pololonema, achieved a mastery of painting reached by few American Indian artists. De Huff’s support was condemned by non-Indians and her husband was transferred to another position, but interested scholars and intellectuals in Sante Fe continued to support the local Indian artists by purchasing their works.

Cheyenne Sun Dance by Dick West, painting, southwest art.
Cheyenne Sun Dance by Dick West

By 1932, the “Studio” art department was established at the U.S. Indian School in Sante Fe, with Dorothy Dunn as director. Murals in the school were painted by Jack Hokeah of the Kiowa Five, and intertribal influence became a norm at the institution. The opening of the Studio marked the acceptance of American Indian art by formal institutions.

Three years later, Bacone College in Muskogee, OK, which was primarily a college for Indian students, opened its art department under the direction of Creek artist Acee Blue Eagle. Blue Eagle was the first of a number of prominent Indian artists to head the school, where Woody Crumbo, Richard “Dick” West and Ruth Blalock Jones also taught. The influence of the Studio and Bacone College on the world of American Indian art is immeasurable.

In 1962, the Institute of American Indian Art opened in the building previously occupied by Dorothy Dunn’s Studio. The institute immediately became the most important Indian art school in the United States, producing artists of the stature of Fritz Scholder and T.C. Cannon. Today, lack of government support and petty politics threaten the existence of this once important art institution.

Museums. From the 1930s through the ’60s, exhibits of American Indian art were presented at various museums including the Museum of Modern Art, New York, NY, and several in Europe. The exhibits were usually viewed by the general public with the same curiosity as 19th-century Indian art and garnered little critical acclaim from the mainstream art world.

Starting in 1946 in Tulsa, OK, the Philbrook Art Center’s Indian Annual provided Indian artists a major annual venue to exhibit their paintings and sculptures (see Visions & Voices in the Recent Books article, page 154). The show encouraged the styles practiced in Sante Fe and Oklahoma and provided financial rewards for the best artists of each style. The Philbrook Annual also created a market for selling Indian art to a small but enthusiastic group of collectors, mainly from the Southwest.

Across town from the Phil-brook, the Gilcrease Museum mounted exhibits of the best western and American Indian artists. Former Bacone College Art Department Chairman Woody Crumbo advised Gilcrease to build a collection of major works by Indian artists and then helped select the works and curate an exhibit.

Since the 1980s, a number of museums have been founded that are exclusively devoted to American Indian art and culture, among them the Museum of the American Indian, Heye Foundation, New York, NY; Heard Museum, Phoenix, AZ; Museum of American Indian Art and Culture, Santa Fe, NM; and the Southern Plains Museum, Anadarko, OK. In 2002, the new National Museum of the American Indian will open its doors in the nation’s capital, celebrating Native American art both past and present.

Changing marketplace. In the late 1970s, paintings by important artists such as Dick West and Fred Kabotie rarely brought more than $1,500. Small paintings by the surviving members of the Kiowa Five could be had for under $100. With the oil boom of the early 1980s, the market slowly began to change. New collectors and museums, like the Five Civilized Tribes Museum in Muskogee, OK, held sales and exhibitions that brought attention to the artwork as well as higher prices. Paintings began selling for several thousand dollars, with important large works bringing prices over $5,000. With the deaths in the 1980s of most of the major early artists came a realization of the importance of their works. Since 1990, prices for major artists have skyrocketed, with a large painting often bringing over $20,000. As with any art form, only the best art brings a good price. “Best,” in this case, means a painting by a recognized, published Indian painter such as Monroe Tsatoke or Fred Kabotie. Size is a major factor, with anything over 11 by 14 inches considered a large work, as is desirable subject matter such as scenes of ceremonial or domestic tribal life.

Skilled execution and condition are also important, of course. Older American Indian paintings were often created on cheap paper, which becomes brittle and tears easily. Such works were often poorly framed and are turning brown from acidic mattes and backboards. Restoration is often difficult and expensive.

The resurgent interest in fine American Indian painting is a boon to collectors who purchased works years ago, but it has also resulted in a proliferation of fakes. Copies of classical-era paintings have appeared on the market, and the flat style, so widespread in Oklahoma, is often seen in works by second-rate artists who re-signed the paintings with the signatures of more important artists. Attribution and authenticity are critical factors in purchasing artwork from this period.

At the close of the 20th century, the past has come back into style. Ledger-style drawings are again prevalent among Plains Indians, as are painted objects and painting on natural surfaces such as hides. While some self-taught artists crank out flat-style copies of Kiowa Five paintings with little depth and creativity, others such as Valjean McCarty Hessing bring remarkable freshness to the style, using tradition as a stepping stone to creating the art of the future.

Other artists have also used tradition as a stepping stone, among them Jerome Tiger, who attended colleges and universities that didn’t have schools with traditional Indian instructors. As these artists have broken through old style barriers, so too have the venues for their work. T.C. Cannon marketed his paintings through a New York gallery that didn’t specialize in Native art, and today the galleries in Oklahoma and New Mexico are exploding with all kinds of material, including traditional and modernist. As visibility increases, prices for Indian art are moving in line with works by non-Indians.

Featured in August 1997