Mike Larsen paints an American visual history
By Rosemary Carstens
This story was featured in the April 2014 issue of Southwest Art magazine. Get the Southwest Art April 2014 print issue or digital download now–then subscribe to Southwest Art and never miss another story!
“You can’t know your future if you don’t know your history,” states painter and sculptor Mike Larsen. “I’ve always used history as a starting point in my art, and through the years, my study and research have necessarily deepened.” Larsen’s career as an artist has spanned more than 40 years so far. Although his subject matter includes landscapes and religious topics, he is most celebrated for his paintings, murals, and life-size bronze sculptures depicting American Indian culture, especially that of his own Chickasaw Nation heritage.
Born in 1949, Larsen grew up in farming communities in Oklahoma and Texas. His grandfather and his uncle were his primary male role models and taught him, by example, the virtues of hard work and responsibility that still guide his life. In high school, Larsen says his art teacher knew “less about art than bingo.” But the room was filled with art supplies, and he began experimenting on his own. Instruction improved when he attended Amarillo College, where he had an “incredible sculpture teacher,” and one of his most influential painting teachers emphasized strong drawing skills and required students to work only in black and white. At the University of Houston he enrolled almost exclusively in art classes; the foundation for his future had been laid.
For several years following college, Larsen took odd jobs that allowed him time to paint, and he showed his work first at street fairs, then at national art festivals and a few galleries. But by the early 1980s he began to feel something was missing in his work. “I had seen a demo by master artist David Leffel,” he says, “and it inspired me to study with him at the Art Students League of New York, in an effort to better understand paint quality.” Consciously deciding not to emulate Leffel’s style, he focused on applying the principles he learned to develop his own voice. “I’ve never taken workshops,” he emphasizes. “I find it dangerous for a working artist. You can walk into any major exhibition and immediately spot those who are imitating top teachers and artists. Echoing someone else’s style inhibits the development of an artist’s own. Three qualities are essential to an artist’s success: Keep it simple, be disciplined, and don’t pay attention to what other artists are doing.”
It was during this period that Larsen and his wife, Martha, began what would become a lifelong study of the Chickasaw Nation’s early history in the Oklahoma territory and its evolving culture through modern times. Eventually their investigations extended to other tribes. They delight in discovering new sources, poring over photographic archives and historical records, and traveling to interview tribal members, looking for defining characteristics and ornamentation that are unique to each group. Larsen is now in high demand to produce commissions reflecting Native American history for governments, corporations, and individuals.
In 1991 the artist was commissioned by the State of Oklahoma to paint a 26-foot-long mural depicting five internationally renowned Native American ballerinas, all born in the state, for the capitol rotunda. FLIGHT OF THE SPIRIT marks the birth of Larsen’s interest in painting and sculpting dancing figures, and he lyrically portrays the grace and beauty of the five women against a muted background depicting the Trail of Tears, the forced relocation of Native American nations from the southeastern United States following the Indian Removal Act of 1830. FLIGHT OF THE SPIRIT symbolizes both the tragedy of Oklahoma’s Native American history and the hope and renewal of its contemporary accomplishments.
It’s not unusual for Larsen to place colorful and detailed Native American figures in the foreground while relegating subsidiary figures to the background. It is a characteristic of such works as 1541, a recent painting depicting an imagined first meeting of conquistador Hernando de Soto and a Chickasaw warrior along the Mississippi River. “Chickasaw warriors were allowed to wear a dramatic swan-feather cloak, perhaps styled as shown here,” he says. “The scarlet feathers in the headdress came from a now-extinct woodpecker, and the wearing of shell necklaces was typical.” Note that the warrior is shown in full regalia and in rich color, gazing directly out at the viewer, yet the Spanish explorer faces away and is monochromatic, pushing him backward as though into the past.
In the two decades between FLIGHT OF THE SPIRIT and 1541, Larsen has completed an astounding array of murals, paintings, and monumental bronze works. While the Chickasaw Nation features prominently in his subject matter, his reputation for responsible authentication of detail has brought him commissions for projects that include members of 36 of the federally recognized tribes in Oklahoma plus Plains Indians and some of the northeastern tribes.
In August 2004, Larsen approached Chickasaw Nation leaders with an idea to honor living Chickasaw elders—he wanted to hear their stories, to connect with their strength and wisdom, and to create a visual and oral archive of them and their experiences. This became one of Larsen’s most notable ventures, not only for its contribution to the art world but also for its contribution to Native American and United States history.
The Chickasaw Nation’s Living Elders Project consists of 48 portraits of its oldest surviving members. “It was a wonderful project,” relates Larsen. “The first group of 24 paintings, commissioned in 2005, were so well received that we were asked to do another 24 the following year. Martha and I did not choose whom to interview, nor were we told we had to paint every elder we interviewed. Since we did not know the elders, a member of the tribe who knew them well went with us to facilitate and, in the case of one subject who spoke only the Chickasaw language, to translate. Questions were asked by all of us. I sketched while Martha took photographs. As the project went on and greater trust developed, we were privileged to hear stories that even the subjects’ children had never heard before.” The Living Elders Project resulted in a two-book series highlighting Larsen’s portraits: They Know Who They Are (2009) and Proud to Be Chickasaw (2010).
In 2006, Larsen created the first of his monumental bronzes—a 9-foot-tall symphony conductor and an 8-foot-tall ballerina—commissioned by the Oklahoma State Centennial Committee to honor the state’s arts. Since then Larsen’s recognition as a sculptor has soared. Among his major pieces, THE ARRIVAL—more than 9 feet tall, weighing 3,000 pounds, and consisting of nine figures—was produced for the Chickasaw Cultural Center and exemplifies the artist’s fearless approach to size and complexity.
“Mike’s connection to his Chickasaw heritage is a driving force in his work,” says Lona Barrick, executive officer of the Chickasaw Nation. “THE ARRIVAL depicts four generations of a family forced to leave their ancestral homelands in Mississippi, Alabama, and Tennessee to what was then called Indian Territory and is now the state of Oklahoma. This beautiful work of art symbolizes the unconquerable spirit of the Chickasaw people, who today are determined their heritage will continue for hundreds of years to come. Mike’s expressive storytelling through his art is a gift he brings to us all.”
Each new challenge fills Larsen with excitement. In the immediate future, he’s particularly enthused about a mural he’s preparing for the Oklahoma History Center depicting an 1863 Civil War battle. THE BATTLE OF HONEY SPRINGS will be 6 to 8 feet tall and 20 feet long. It will depict a pivotal Oklahoma battle—the largest of more than 107 documented hostile encounters in the territory. Cherokee and Creek regiments fought on both sides. There were approximately 9,000 men involved, including other American Indians, veteran Texas regiments, and the 1st Kansas Colored Volunteers. Larsen’s composition will include 50 to 75 people sharply delineated, with masses of other participants serving to support that focal point. It is an epic undertaking but one the artist relishes.
Larsen works seven days a week, and his art is both intellectually and physically demanding. More than a career, he and Martha have created a rich and fascinating lifestyle that continues to sustain them. His art sparks our imaginations and illuminates a more complete and inclusive history of the American past. “With the creation of each of these works, we have developed strong relationships,” Larsen says. “The series of paintings and sculptures we have done and will do for the Chickasaw Nation provide me with a direct and powerful relationship with the people of my personal history. We find comfort in this.”
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