John Balloue | Indian Market Poster Artist

Delegates for Peace by John Balloue. southwest art.
Delegates for Peace by John Balloue

By Bonnie Gangelhoff

California painter John Balloue drew inspiration for this year’s Indian Market poster from a photograph taken at the turn of the century by John Choate [1848-1902] at the Carlisle Indian School in Carlisle, PA. “What struck me about the photograph was the intense body language and personality of the people,” Balloue says. “I wanted to capture that in my painting.”

Delegates for Peace depicts five Sioux Indian chiefs from the Rosebud Reservation in South Dakota—Black Crow, Two Strike, White Thunder, Spotted Tail, and Iron Wing. Originally Balloue intended to render the work realistically, but it evolved into a far more dramatic expressionistic statement than he had first envisioned.

For starters, he decided to use bold colors, he says. The color of each chief’s robe represents a different direction according to Cherokee tradition. The red robe signifies east, the black robe west, and the blue robe north. “Normally white represents the south, but for artistic purposes I chose to use gold for one of the robes instead,” Balloue says.

One chief is dressed in a robe made from the American flag. Balloue leaves the meaning of that visual statement up to the viewer. “You can read as much or as little as you want into it,” he says. “The flag is an American icon that means different things to different people.”

Balloue’s goal in creating the painting was to “convey the powerful presence of the chiefs—their dignity, pride, and willingness to stand up against all odds for what they believe,” he says. “I’m not Lakota Sioux, but I wanted the painting to be respectful.”

Born in 1948 in Richmond, CA, Balloue is the son of a Cherokee father and a mother of English and Irish descent. He grew up in the San Francisco suburbs and has remained in the Bay area except for a 14-month stint in Vietnam. After returning home from the service, he attended college on the GI Bill, graduating with a degree in art from California State University at Hayward in 1975. He was the first member of his family to graduate from college, he notes proudly.

While studying art, the photo-realism of painters James Bama, Richard McClean, and Robert Bechtle captured his imagination, as did the visionary work of Fred Martin. Their works had a lasting impact on his art. Although he began his career painting abstract canvases, he was gradually drawn to creating more realistic paintings that reflect his Native American heritage. The occasional whimsical touches he employs are a result of a Northern California influence, he explains. “In the 1970s, artists like Harry Fonesca executed technically advanced but artistically whimsical pieces,” he says. “There was a spirit or philosophy about them that said you shouldn’t take yourself too seriously. You are not as big as you think you are.”

For the past 20 years Balloue has focused exclusively on Native American subject matter, which he describes as his passion in life. “I like to think of my work as traditional in style yet thematically contemporary,” he says. “I’m interested in rendering the modern or urban Native American and mirroring a culture in transition.”

Balloue’s works have been shown in galleries and museums across the country, including the Triton Museum in Santa Clara, CA; the Philbrook Museum of Art in Tulsa, OK; and the Cherokee National Museum in Tahlequah, OK. He completed his winning entry for this year’s Indian Market poster just a week before the May 1 deadline. News that he won the competition was a wonderful surprise. “I’ve been at this a long time. Sometimes it has been a struggle,” he says. “But to be recognized by the biggest and best show in the country is very satisfying.”

Balloue is represented by Shell and Stone Turquoise Gallery, Fayetteville, NY; Gathering Tribes, Berkeley, CA; Indian Village Gallery, Palo Alto, CA; Tribes Gallery, Walnut Creek, CA; and Reyna American Indian Gallery and Museum, San Juan Bautista, CA.

Featured in August 2000