Native Arts | Norma Howard

By Dottie Indyke

Her family was poor, so when Norma Howard wanted to buy art supplies, she picked blueberries or did odd jobs. With the little bit of cash she earned, she purchased cheap watercolors and poster board at the local five-and-dime store. Despite her shyness, her lack of self- confidence, and the fact that she’d never even met another artist, as a young girl Howard was clear about her future. When she told her dad she wanted to paint women and children when she grew up, he wholeheartedly encouraged her. “Don’t ever let anyone tell you what to do,” he counseled.

If not for her father, Howard might not have achieved her goal. When she was a teenager, her dad, without her knowledge, took a precious day off from his job as a house painter to show several of her paintings at a town-wide event. Everywhere he went he showed off the drawings of Norma’s that he carried in his billfold. “I didn’t go to any Santa Fe school to study,” the entirely self-taught artist acknowledges. “The backbone of where I am now is my dad and mom being proud of what I do.”

Her rise to success is a real-life rags-to-riches story. At the turn of the 20th century, Howard’s Choctaw grandmother was forced to relocate from Mississippi to Stigler, OK. She settled on a 40-acre plot of land where Howard and her siblings live today. Her mother dropped out of school in the second grade; both parents struggled to raise their six children.

“At school the kids would have baby dolls and shoe boxes full of doll clothes,” Howard remembers. “When I came home, I’d draw what I’d seen and that made me feel like I had those things.” She also painted detailed scenes of the blackjack trees, wooded trails, and creeks where she played as a kid—elements that have dominated her paintings ever since.

Starting a family forced her to abandon her art in order to earn a living. For more than a decade she worked in a sewing factory, but panic set in when the company moved to Mexico and she faced a future with no real job skills. “I woke up one night in a sweat,” she says. “I had heard my dad’s voice saying, ‘Paint. That’s what you always wanted to do.’ I couldn’t just let that go.”

When she told her husband the dream, he insisted they travel to an art supply store in a neighboring town. It was a financial splurge for a family that was barely making it, but Howard purchased paper and five basic watercolor paints—black, white, red, green, and blue—that she could use to create a range of colors. She began painting nostalgic images of children on tricycles and women toiling in the fields, a scene inspired by her parents’ early work as sharecroppers. Without much hope, she applied for entry in Red Earth, Oklahoma’s Native American art market. Not only was she accepted, but her paintings proved to be a critical and popular success.

“When they announced the winners, I was staring up at the chandeliers thinking, ‘Wouldn’t it be great if they called my name?’ When they announced the first place for watercolor, my heart went right to my toes. I put my hands around my face. Everyone was clapping. I had people passing notes to me saying ‘Where are you from?’ and ‘What kind of painting do you do?’ I walked up there and I was crying.”
That experience was repeated at Red Earth the following year. In 1997 she participated in her first Indian Market in Santa Fe, and the next year she applied for and won a fellowship. Collectors from prestigious institutions began to seek her out. Disproving her lingering fears that her success was fleeting, Howard has taken top honors at Indian Market every year from 1998 through 2002. The pinnacle was 2001, when she received the ribbon for Best of Painting.

Asked about the inspiration for her realistic style, Howard mentions a View-Master she encountered as a child. “I’d look and see how pretty things were, and I decided that when I got older I’d paint like you’re looking through a View-Master—something that was real like you could touch it. And it’s rare that I do a painting without people in it. You can do real beautiful scenery, but to me if there’s no people, there’s no life.” Every day, remembering the legacy her father left her, she expresses her authentic voice in her artwork and strives to believe in herself and her future.

Norma Howard’s work may be seen at Blue Rain Gallery in Taos, NM.

Featured in January 2003

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