By Bonnie Gangelhoff
Viewers can almost hear the distant drums, battle cries, and gunshots. They can surely see armies of horses, soldiers, and Indians whose faces are striped with war paint. Can an oil painting be considered action-packed? If the narrative piece is one of Allan Mardon’s large-scale, intricate tapestries of history like dancing back the buffalo, the answer is certainly yes.
Mardon didn’t set out to become a cinematic chronicler of American history. In fact, the former high-powered New York illustrator moved to Tucson, AZ, in 1988 to retire, sit back, and watch the cactus grow. After 25 years in the business, he wanted a serious respite from the fast-paced advertising world. But that sentiment lasted only about two months—perusing prickly pear cacti eventually grew boring for this energetic soul.
Hence, the illustrator soon reinvented himself and began a new career—this time devoted to fine art and the exploration of Native American culture, history, and traditions. Mardon’s passion for the light, landscape, and lore of his new home in the Southwest fueled his creativity in ways he couldn’t have imagined. But it was his sheer proximity to the symbolism of Native American culture that inspired him to pick up a brush and approach his canvas in an entirely new way.
Today, Mardon’s complex, colorful works feature the brilliant purples, golds, reds, and oranges of Arizona’s sprawling deserts and skies. His paintings have been compared to those of many other artists, ranging from Hieronymus Bosch to Paul Klee. Some observers even make reference to Where’s Waldo, the children’s book, when viewing certain highly detailed works.
To understand this wide range of comparisons, the viewer simply has to gaze at one of Mardon’s paintings for a few minutes. His multi-figured, densely packed, narrative compositions bring to mind Bosch’s garden of delights, while the often joyful collage of symbols, animals, and colors in others are reminiscent of Klee. And there is so much information buried in a Mardon piece that the viewer familiar with his work constantly looks for surprises and reoccurring elements. For example, look closely at Mardon’s images on the pages of this story. Can you find a hummingbird—Mardon’s trademark image—in each one? Such playful touches often elicit childlike fervor similar to what one experiences upon finding the elusive character Waldo in a sea of people.
Mardon’s reason for embedding the birds in his paintings is simple: “I have always liked them. They are fast, beautiful, and feisty.” In Native American cultures they often represent speed, too, he adds. It’s rare to find a painting by the artist in which the symbol does not appear. In fact, Mardon says, one collector actually called and asked him to paint a hummingbird into a work—the buyer realized it was missing after taking the piece home.
Although the speed of the tiny winged creature intrigues him, the artist himself is known for the slow, painstaking research that goes into each piece. For example, the mural-size painting the battle of greasy grass took Mardon a year to research and another year to paint. The piece, which conveys the story of Custer’s battle at Little Big Horn, hangs in the Whitney Gallery of Western Art at the Buffalo Bill Historical Center in Cody, WY.
While most of his pieces don’t require two years to finish, Mardon is obsessed with accurately portraying the Native American experience. He is well aware that an Anglo artist dealing with Indian subject matter is an easy target for criticism. But he considers himself a historian first and foremost. “History is there for those who want to study it,” he says. “And do you have to be a Roman to be a student of Roman history?”
For those knowledgeable about Native American culture, Mardon’s work conjures up imagery of North American Indian ledger art. But as Kenneth L. Schuster, director of the Bradford Brinton Memorial and Museum in Big Horn, WY, pointed out in a 1988 catalog accompanying a show of the artist’s work, Mardon transcends a copycat role because he combines his visual talent with empathy for the Native American plight. “He uses this so-called primitive or naive style, along with intensive research and his highly developed sense of design, to create beautiful compositions of myth, legend, and history,” Schuster writes.
dancing back the buffalo is a good example of the way Mardon unites the full scope of his artistic abilities and vision with his intimate knowledge of history. It is also the artist’s favorite painting. In the piece, he depicts the gathering of beleaguered Indian nations that came together in the late 1800s to mourn the loss of the buffalo—dubbed the Ghost Dance by the American military. As European culture spread across the continent, Indians were fast losing their lives and land as well as their most important food source. Wovoka, the founder of the Ghost Dance movement, which mixed Christianity, Mormonism, and Indian beliefs, occupies the center of the painting. Mardon encircles him with depictions of more than 30 tribes, including the Arapaho, Shoshoni, and Sioux, performing the sacred dance “to bring back the buffalo.”
Mardon explains that believers in the Ghost Dance movement thought the day would come when all Indian tribes would be reunited and live happily forever after—free from death, disease, and misery. The U.S. government feared an uprising because the tribal movement was so popular, and thus, Mardon portrays the threatening wall of soldiers that surrounds the Indians on all four sides of the frame. “In the past, we whites have portrayed Indian life from our point of view, forgetting our greed, forgetting the incredible atrocities we committed against Native Americans,” the artist says.
As in most of his paintings, the viewer’s eye takes in the images inside the piece and then travels out to the frame, where the story continues. For Mardon, the frame is an integral part of the painting, an element he began featuring in his work since his first painting created in Arizona, mission san xavier del bac, a portrait of a church built by Franciscan missionaries in the late 1700s. “I didn’t know how to end the San Xavier painting at the borders, so I made the frame an extension of the work, such as artists sometimes created in the past using decorative borders,” Mardon explains.
In the mission piece, he encrusted 600 milagros in the frame. Milagros are small metal fetishes, shaped like a person or body part, that worshippers at Latin American churches pinned to clothed statues to give thanks for a milagro, or miracle. In similar fashion, Mardon affixed soldiers that he cut from tin to the frame in dancing back the buffalo . He also uses other materials in the creation of his frames, including leather, painted skin, and cotton.
Mardon’s interest in a primitive, narrative painting style developed many years ago, and by mere chance. As a child he once saw a reproduction of Paul Klee’s painting fish magic in a book. The whimsical montage of fish left an indelible impression on him. “I had no idea who Klee was, but he had created something different from anything I had seen,” Mardon recalls. “I knew from that moment I wanted to be an artist.” He eventually studied art in his hometown of Welland, Ontario, and later at the Slade School of Fine Art in London before embarking on his career in commercial illustration.
Early one recent morning, Mardon quaffs a cup of coffee in his studio and reflects on the meaning of fine art in his life. “These paintings and their subject matter have offered a gigantic historical and spiritual lesson for me,” he says. “Painting these scenes has brought an important quest to my own life. Even though a white man can in no way fully understand the complexities of Indian spiritual life, they impress me mightily.”
Indeed, Mardon is a man on a mission these days, exploring Native American legends and myths and translating them to his canvas. And he is seldom at a loss for ideas. “Somewhere in the painting I am working on, the next one appears,” he says. “It’s never, ‘What’s next?’ but always, ‘How can I get it all done?’” The days of sitting around staring at cactus are but a fleeting memory.
Mardon is represented by Meyer Gallery, Park City, UT, and Jackson, WY; Mardon Frost Gallery, Tucson, AZ; and Bradford Brinton Memorial and Museum, Big Horn, WY.
Featured in February 2005