Walt Wooten | Confronting Convention

By Gussie Fauntleroy

Walt Wooten likes to envision the scene, in 1845, when a group of Ojibwe Indians from Iowa toured the Louvre Museum in Paris. The event took place when American painter George Catlin invited the Indians to accompany him on his tour to several European cities, where his portraits of Native Americans were being exhibited.

Wooten wonders what it might have been like for the Ojibwe to experience European art for the first time. He imagines them standing in awe—and perhaps puzzlement—before a painting such as Jacques-Louis David’s Intervention of the Sabine Women, a furious battle scene with a cacophony of lances, shields, and Roman helmets. Front and center in the painting, a group of women and children thrust themselves between two opponents, halting the action. “What would they have thought?” Wooten asks.

Wooten thinks about how the group would have responded to other, more fantastic images, too—paintings with winged figures or mythological creatures like the half-man, half-horse centaur, for instance. The artist is amused at one particularly anachronistic thought: He imagines one of the party, like a modern tourist, stationing himself proudly in front of a favorite painting and calling to his buddy: “Take a picture of me with this one!”

Which is essentially what Wooten has done.

Visit to the Louvre LI, oil, 50 x 54.

The 71-year-old artist—whose own mixed heritage includes Choctaw, African American, Irish, and French—has gained national attention with his Visit to the Louvre series. In the large-scale paintings, blanket-clad Indians pose before masterworks from the famed museum’s collection. It’s a surprising juxtaposition, and one that generates intriguing associations and questions.

In an essay accompanying a 2004 show of Wooten’s work at the Heard Museum in Phoenix, art historian Robert McGrath raises one of these questions: What does it mean to pose Native Americans, romanticized in the 19th-century European mind as the “noble savage,” before Neoclassical artwork—paintings that were created to symbolize the highest standard of idealized civilization and yet which contain images of brutal violence?

Wooten, in turn, offers some queries of his own: What would the Ojibwe recognize as familiar, and how would they interpret scenes that were utterly foreign to them? What might their response be to a painting of Napoleon astride a rearing horse? Wooten imagines them turning to each other with raised eyebrows and quiet smiles of admiration, observing, “Isn’t that a fine-looking horse!”

Perhaps placing American Indians in seemingly incongruous contexts comes naturally to an artist who grew up feeling out of place himself. Wooten was raised in a religious family in a working-class African-American neighborhood in Southside Chicago. His father was a minister and steel worker; his mother stayed at home to take care of the seven children. Wooten grew up hearing his mother talk about her Choctaw father, whom he never met. The artist’s paternal grandfather was African American, and yet, one of Wooten’s brothers had blue eyes and blonde hair. Today, sitting in the studio attached to his home just south of Santa Fe, Wooten remembers, “People didn’t know if we were black or Indian or white.” For a time, neither did he.

As a young teen, however, Wooten began to discover an identity through art. In an annual citywide art competition, teachers selected their most promising students to compete in an on-the-spot painting contest. First prize was eight weeks of Saturday art classes at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Second prize was $50 and third prize was $25. “I tried to get second or third because I wanted the money,” Wooten says, laughing. Instead, he won first prize.

“So here I am, a 13-year-old kid from Southside Chicago going to Saturday classes at the Art Institute,” Wooten recalls. “They gave us charcoal to draw with and there was a live model. I knew how to draw and I tried to make it perfect, but this guy would come by and say, ‘No, no, no. Hold the charcoal this way.’ I was a kid who was very naïve and had never had any instruction, so when I got instruction, I took it all in. I was a star at the end. It was just a little Saturday class, but it made a big difference.” As a bonus, each week after class, young Walt would spend the afternoon roaming the museum’s galleries, soaking up centuries of art.

Later, in the early 1970s, Wooten studied art with Don Baum at Chicago’s Roosevelt University. There he received not only strong encouragement to continue painting, but also an invitation to give free reign to his imagination. At the time, Baum was associated with a group of young Chicago artists determined to gain attention and distinguish themselves from the New York art scene. Their paintings emphasized the wildly grotesque, and while it was not an aesthetic that appealed to Wooten, exposure to such work liberated him from the constraints of a purely academic approach to art.

Following his art training, Wooten entered a career in advertising illustration, which lasted 22 years. But even while he was immersed in the commercial end of the art business, he made frequent visits to the Art Institute, using the museum’s vast reservoir of paintings as a resource for continued self-instruction. “When I was an art director, if I was having trouble painting hands, for example, I’d go to the Art Institute and just walk around for hours and look at hands in paintings,” he relates.

In the latter years of his illustration career, Wooten worked on a freelance basis and enjoyed having the means and time to travel and paint. He married at 48, and he and his wife, Mary, began making annual visits to the Southwest. Mary’s mother, as it turned out, owned an extensive collection of Southwestern art. For Wooten, seeing those works and experiencing the Santa Fe art scene was nothing short of a revelation.

In all his years of study at the Art Institute, Wooten had not been exposed to Southwestern art. In Santa Fe, however, he encountered contemporary images of American Indians by “happening” Native American artists such as T.C. Cannon [1946-1978] and Fritz Scholder [1937-2005]. With his own natural inclination for painting the figure, Wooten felt an instant connection. “I thought, ‘Wow, I can do that!’” he says. “It made so much sense, I wondered why I hadn’t thought of it before.” After shifting to Native American subject matter, it also made sense to live in the Southwest, so in 1988, he and Mary settled in Santa Fe.

1940 Indian 4 Motorcycle, oil, 40 x 40.

Wooten’s approach to the figure combines his classical art training with a modern sensibility. Added to this is the tendency—a result of his advertising training—to always strike out for the different and new. In his Rich Indians series, for example, Wooten challenges conventional expectations in images that picture a wealthy Indian with a Cadillac or with a collection of Custer memorabilia. “It kind of confuses people, but that’s okay,” he says of the series. “You want to stir them up a little.”

A book about the diaries of 19th-century French Romantic painter Eugene Delacroix triggered the idea for Wooten’s Visit to the Louvre series. In a description of the 1845 visit to the Louvre by the Ojibwe, Delacroix was quoted as saying, “Somebody should paint these people!” The statement lit up a light bulb in Wooten’s imagination.

Now, after 10 years, the prolific artist has created—along with hundreds of other paintings—58 works for the series, reveling in the challenge of reproducing a range of celebrated masterpieces within his paintings. He has received much acclaim for the work, including his selection in 2002 as the featured artist in the New Art of the West exhibition at the Eiteljorg Museum of American Indians and Western Art in Indianapolis, IN.

Other Wooten paintings feature Navajo sheepherders with wildly colorful clothing—in the manner of T.C. Cannon—based on the artist’s personal aesthetic, rather than cultural authenticity. In other recent works, Wooten places the figures on a simple, dark background, focusing his artistic talents on capturing the details of folds in robes or the angle and effects of light.

Regardless of the setting or dress, virtually all of Wooten’s subjects bear a strong resemblance to each other and, it turns out, to the artist himself. Wooten remembers Fritz Scholder noticing this at a show once and asking about it. “Fritz said, ‘They all look like you.’ I said, ‘They are all me.’ And he said, ‘That’s good!’” The reason is simple: Wooten dresses up and poses, his wife takes photos, and Wooten uses the photos for reference.

Yet even while painting from the same model, Wooten tweaks the facial details, changes the figures’ expressions, and ends up with characters that assume distinct personalities. It reminds him of his illustration days, when he had an oil company as a client and created the character of a little talking truck. The company used the character in its ads for 20 years. “You invent this person and then you say, ‘Wow! Who is this person?’ That’s the fun part, because you don’t know what’s going to come out,” Wooten says. Then he grins, taking obvious delight in the path his life has taken, and rhetorically asks: “Is this more fun than most people have?”

Wadle Galleries, Santa Fe, NM; Duley-Jones Gallery, Scottsdale, AZ; Mountain Trails Gallery, Jackson, WY.

Featured in January 2011.