Mike Larsen | Shamans of the Nations

Above:  Yuchi [1997], acrylic, 45 x 80.,painting, Southwest Art.
Above:  Yuchi [1997], acrylic, 45 x 80.

By Kent Leslie Whipple

In the early 1830s, the United States government began relocating almost 40 Native American tribes from across the country to what was known as Indian Territory, part of which later became the state of Oklahoma. Along with the loss of the native people’s land came a loss of their culture, as each tribe’s customs and dress took on characteristics of other tribes and of the pioneers.

Oklahoma painter and sculptor Mike Larsen, whose own Chickasaw ancestors were moved from Mississippi to south-central Oklahoma in 1836, has spent the last three years working on a project that pays tribute to his roots and to the Native American tribes of Oklahoma—the Apache, Semi-nole, Osage, Cheyenne, Pawnee, Chickasaw, and others. In his Shamans of the Nations series, Larsen has painted portraits of traditionally costumed shamans from many of the tribal nations. “We have a tremendous resource of Native American culture here in Oklahoma, as well as a large base of art collectors interested in regional work,” says Larsen. “This project allowed me to dig deep into our cultural history.”

Chickasaw [1997], acrylic, 40 x 50.,painting, Southwest Art.
Chickasaw [1997], acrylic, 40 x 50.

Larsen describes the shaman as an important member of the tribe—“a healer, medicine man, protector, and knowledgeable person.” The ancient shamans had visions of the future and other wisdom that helped their tribes survive. “I love the idea that these people were able to live partly in the physical world and partly in the spiritual realm, pulling knowledge from other dimensions into the present,” Larsen says.

“Many ancient peoples believed that a child who became seriously ill but survived had been touched by the gods,” Larsen says. “Sometimes these children would become shamans or be apprenticed to a practicing healer and grow up to become one. Shamans were often  poor; they sought no wealth in what they did.”

When I Was a Young Man [1997], bronze, edition  20, h 22., sculpture, southwest art.
When I Was a Young Man [1997], bronze, edition  20, h 22.

Larsen’s paintings represent the shamans as they dressed before their relocation to Oklahoma. “I’ve tried to present them accurately in both costume and attitude,” he says. “I want each work to portray not the individual man or woman but the emotion and power of those who seek answers, who reach out with acceptance and gather back what they have been given with gratitude.”

As Larsen began researching each tribe, the Oklahoma Tourism Department, the Oklahoma Historical Society, and the Bureau of Indian Affairs provided him with extensive information. Poring over photographic archives and historical records and traveling across the state to interview tribal members, Larsen looked for characteristics that distinguished each tribe’s costume. In one old photograph, for example, he discovered a Pawnee head-dress that was unusually large and made of fur and quilted fabric with intricate beadwork. In another photograph he found a Pot-awatomi costume which stood out because of the Christian influence in the beadwork. Still, Larsen often found more similarities than differences. “Native peoples loved costuming, and when they met up with a friendly neighboring tribe wearing clothing or or-namentation that they liked, they often adopted it for themselves,” says Larsen.

Buffalo Singers [1997], acrylic, 50 x 40.,painting, Southwest Art.
Buffalo Singers [1997], acrylic, 50 x 40.

Although Larsen has painted shamans and ancient peoples for most of his career, he had no idea how absorbing this series would become for him. “Getting in touch with the thoughts and feelings of the ancient ones became my quest,” he says. “The individual beauty and wonder of each of these tribes has added to the power of my work. This project has carried me on the wind to places I still don’t understand.

“These people are part of our history—our contact with the past that, in turn, is in touch with the ancient, with the long ago, with people who sought truth in nature’s simplicity,” says Larsen. “I believe that the Shamans of the Nations series is important because it documents part of the history of these cultures that is in danger of being of lost.”

Collectors who have purchased paintings from the series over the last three years have agreed to loan the works to the Oklahoma City Art Museum for the current exhibit. Along with each painting, the exhibit will include a preliminary acrylic study on 30-by-22-inch watercolor paper, a small head study on canvas, and records of the narrative and historical data that went into the development of each work.

Seneca [1997], acrylic, 48 x 36.,painting, Southwest Art.
Seneca [1997], acrylic, 48 x 36.

After devoting himself to the project for the past few years, Larsen says, “In studying the different tribes—their attitudes, desires, and dress—I’ve become closer to the people than I was before.” He calls the series “a gift to the people of the Nations and to Oklahoma—and to all the people who flow into our lives.”

Kent Whipple has written for the Santa Fe New Mexican, Cowboys & Indians, and Focus Santa Fe and is a gallery director in Scottsdale, AZ.

Mike Larsen [SWA JUN 91] was born in Dallas, TX, in 1944 and raised in Wynnewood, OK. He spent much of his youth divided between Texas and Oklahoma. Larsen began his artistic studies at the University of Houston and completed his course work at the Art Students League in New York City.

Larsen’s honors include being named a Master Artist by the Five Civilized Tribes Museum in Muskogee, OK, in 1996. He received the 1994 Best of Show award from the American Indian and Cowboy Artists and the Spirit of Oklahoma Award at the 1997 Masters show at the Five Civilized Tribes Museum. In 1991 his mural Flight of the Spirit, a tribute to five Native American ballet dancers, was unveiled as a permanent installation in the Oklahoma State Capitol.

Mike Larsen. Southwest art.
Mike Larsen

After he completes the Shamans of the Nations series, Larsen will begin another project in Oklahoma: eight murals for the Oklahoma Art Institute at Quartz Mountain in Lone Wolf, OK. On 8-by-10-foot canvases, he will chronicle the history of the region and the people who have populated it—in addition to paying tribute to such former institute instructors as Allan Houser and Fritz Scholder.

Photos courtesy the artist and Ray Tracey Gallery, Santa Fe, NM; Gallery A, Taos, NM; Martin-Harris Gallery, Jackson, WY; and Larsen & Larsen Studio, Oklahoma City, OK.

Tribes Represented in the Shamans of the Nations Series: Apache Tribe  ·  Arapaho  ·  Caddo Tribe  ·  Cherokee Nation  · Cheyenne Tribe  ·  Chickasaw Nation  ·  Choctaw Nation  ·  Citizen Band of Potawatomi  ·  Comanche Tribe  ·  Delaware Tribe  ·  Eastern Shawnee Tribe  ·  Fort Sill Apache  ·  Iowa Tribe of Oklahoma  ·  Kickapoo Tribe  ·  Kiowa Tribe  ·  Muskogee (Creek) Nation  ·  Osage Nation  ·  Otoe-Missouria Tribe  ·  Pawnee Tribe           · Ponca Tribe  ·  Sauk & Fox Nation ·  Seminole Nation  ·  Seneca Tribe  ·   United Keetoowah Band of Cherokees  ·  Wichita Tribe  ·  Yuchi (Euchee) Tribe

Featured in May 1998