Nocona Burgess paints Native American people with stories to tell
By Bonnie Gangelhoff
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!
Ask New Mexico-based painter Nocona Burgess to name the most important thing a reader should know about him and his work, and he has a ready answer. “The most important thing is that I am proud of my heritage and that I like to promote the history of not only my family and the Comanche Nation but all tribes and their stories,” he says.
This seemingly simple, modest reply belies the fact that Burgess is a talented painter with works in the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, DC. He also has a family history that is legendary—the stuff of movies and history textbooks. In other words, there is more to his contemporary portraits than meets the eye. Take the painting QUANAH IN RED TIE. A classic example of Burgess’ work, the painting portrays his great-great-grandfather, Chief Quanah Parker, who is considered the most respected chief of the Comanche Nation.
Quanah Parker was also the son of Cynthia Ann Parker, who, as students of American history know, was a young Texas girl kidnapped by the Comanches in 1836. Cynthia grew up with the Comanches, married Chief Peta Nocona, and had three children before she was found and returned to her Texas family. But Parker kept running away, trying desperately to get back to her Comanche family. Her story inspired the 1969 classic western film with John Wayne, The Searchers.
Burgess grew up hearing these legendary stories in his own family long before he read about them in school books. Today, when he is not painting, the artist lectures on Comanche history and culture at schools, museums, and book clubs. His mission is to dispel myths about Native Americans in both his lectures and his art. Burgess likes to joke that Native Americans “are not people who just spend their days praying to the mountain gods. In my historical portraits of Native people, I am telling viewers that these are human beings, not mascots or romantic images,” he says. “These people survived atrocities and loved, fought, made music, and had lives. I am here because of these people and what they endured.”
He is quick to add, however, that he doesn’t believe in always casting Native Americans as victims. Most cultures and civilizations throughout history, including his own, he says, have been guilty of extreme cruelty and inhumanity. “It is the nature of the beast that is man,” he says.
Christi Bonner Manuelito, founder and co-owner of Bonner David Galleries, which has represented Burgess since 2010, says the artist’s painting skills combined with his passion for his subjects consistently attract collectors to his work and often leave them thirsting for more knowledge about Indian cultures. “Nocona paints from his soul, and he is a voice of our nation’s Native ancestors,” Manuelito says. “While other artists may paint images of Native Americans, Nocona paints actual Native Americans with stories to tell.”
Burgess grew up in a home where art and music were highly valued. His father, Ronald, is an artist, holds a master’s degree in art and a doctorate in education, and taught art before founding the Comanche Nation College in Oklahoma. His brother, Quanah Parker Burgess, is also an artist. “We got drawing pads rather than coloring books,” Burgess says. “Art in our family was never secondary. I just had to figure out my career path on my own.”
The family moved frequently, and the young Burgess boys lived in Arizona, Montana, and Texas while both of their parents pursued college degrees. Today the artist makes his home in Cochiti Lake, NM, a rural town of 500 people between Albuquerque and Santa Fe—a rugged terrain where coyotes walk across backyards and, on occasion, eagles fly overhead. The area is also blessed with spectacular scenery, with the Sandia Mountains to the northeast and the Jemez Mountains to the northwest. As this story was going to press, Burgess was at work in his studio with about 10 paintings in progress, some destined for shows this spring and summer. But Burgess says he doesn’t really paint specifically for shows. He just paints. He is fond of quoting artist Chuck Close on the subject: “Amateurs wait for inspiration. The rest of us just go to work every day.”
While finding his career path in art, the artist took some side trips. In 1987 he entered the University of Oklahoma in Norman to study for a degree in architecture. But Burgess says fine art was also calling to him. So he moved to New Mexico, where he enrolled at the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, eventually earning his associate degree in fine arts in 1991. Reflecting on his years at the institute, Burgess says it was an influential period when a whole new world opened up—a time when he saw works by contemporary Native American artists, such as John Nieto, Dan Namingha, and T.C. Cannon, as well as paintings by artists in the Bay Area Figurative Movement like Wayne Thiebaud and Nathan Oliveira.
While studying at the institute, Burgess began working at a casino to pay his bills. Initially he thought it was just temporary, but he kept receiving promotions until he rose to the position of general manager. The salary was seductive, and slowly his art career fell by the proverbial wayside. “At some point I had an epiphany and realized that the casino was not something I wanted to do for the next 20 years or so,” Burgess says. “I literally woke up one day and started to figure out how I was going to get back to doing art again. I just walked away from the casino and never looked back.”
In 1997 he moved back to Oklahoma and enrolled at the University of Science and Arts in Chickasha, where he earned a bachelor of fine arts. Burgess met his future wife, Danielle, a ceramist, at the university. And soon after graduation the couple returned to New Mexico, where Burgess began his professional art career anew.
The painter has traveled to and lived in many places in this country, and interestingly enough he says that his name means “to go and then return or to be nomadic.” But these days Burgess is content to spend most of his days in New Mexico ensconced in his studio, painting or reviewing the voluminous collection of vintage and contemporary photographs of Native Americans he has amassed over the years. Burgess uses the images as reference material for his signature paintings—graphic portraits of Native American men, women, and children, often characterized by bold colors, unexpected compositions, and generous amounts of negative space. While he uses photographs in many cases, if he is painting a full, standing figure he may ask a friend to pose. In fact, Burgess plans to ask a few women artist friends to pose for him for works that will appear in the Power of Women exhibit, his solo show scheduled to open in August at Giacobbe-Fritz Fine Art in Santa Fe.
Burgess says the idea for the show sprang from how Native American women have been overlooked in history books. “In reality, all the great tribes were influenced by women,” he says. “Many were matrilineal and the clan mothers (elderly matriarchs) were dictating what was happening in their societies. With a powerful tribe like the Comanche, the future warriors and chiefs were spending time at home with mothers, sisters, aunts, and grandmothers. What they were getting from them was very important and influential in their lives. This is a way for me to honor women in history and today.”
Gallery owner Deborah Fritz is looking forward to the show, saying that Burgess is like no other artist the gallery represents because his paintings combine historical imagery with the more contemporary qualities of vibrant color and bold line. “His work has a classic feel with the lights and darks playing off each other, and the overall images seem to reach out to the viewer from a past era, communicating with their expressions,” Fritz says.
While the Power of Women show is on view, Burgess will also present paintings at the annual Santa Fe Indian Market. This year it’s a family affair—his father and his brother are showing their artworks a few booths away. In the meantime, he is toiling away in his northern New Mexico studio. Burgess says he still gets a thrill every time he walks into his studio and sees his paintings: “I say to myself, Wow, I did that.” He relishes hours spent researching Indian history and painting Indian people, capturing details—clothing, folds of fabric, headdresses, and hands. “I have such a passion for it all, and it pours out onto the canvas,” he says.
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