Native American Artists Talk About Their Art

” You have to be your own worst critic. Painting is very much a maturing process. This is nice, because at the end of your life you can be doing your best work. Hokusai, the great painter, on his death bed at 102, said: “If I could only have one more day, I could do a great painting.” – Fritz Scholder

With luck, a thousand years from now art historians will still be able to see at least a few works of art created by American artists about the year 2000. If they have the chance,, I believe they will admire the work bycosmopolitan artists with Native American roots – -painter/printmakers like Fritz Scholder, R.C..Gorman and Rick Bartow.

Bartow, a prolific, highly regarded artist with Yurok ancestors, continues to work from his South Beach, Oregon studio near the places his uncle and great-grandfather lived. Scholder and Gorman both died this year. The three artists rank high among the “Native American artists” who have become known since 1950.

My enthusiasm for the very different work of these three artists may sound like the preaching of a wannabe (want-to-be-Indian) so I’ll try to explain simply why I admire their work. It boils down to their skill as artists and their strong connection to their own inner selves and mine. Their paintings and prints are the twentieth century outgrowth of the spirit and design skill of those Native American craftsmen-artists who came before them, making baskets and masks still regarded within tribes and beyond as treasured, beautiful objects. The gaze, dedication and spirit of these three artists remind me of the creativity of the illuminators creating mythological creatures for medieval manuscripts or the sculptor of a Venus in the days of Classical Greece.

As an outsider, I don’t have the same connection to a dance mask as if I were the dancer or her granddaughter, but I can sense the vision of the maker and the beauty of the object. Many other Americans, whether members of tribes or not, feel a similar aesthetic connection to paintings, prints, and sculpture by artists of tribal descent – collectors,Indian teenagers, museum curators, all feel a connection. Even though I am not an artist or a collector, a long time ago I picked up a book of Fritz Scholder’s powerful, unromanticized prints of urban Indians. When I moved to Mexico in 1999, I sold most of my books, but I packed the Scholder book in my suitcase. I had worked in a reservation town in North Dakota and I couldn’t part with his images, works of visual art that combine inner and outer vision.

In 1996, Scholder who didn’t like to be labeled, told an interviewer:

“Today, in our society, everyone has to contend with the media, in which they like to immediately pigeonhole you and say, ‘This is an expressionist, this is this type of artist, or dancer, or whatever. It’s a constant fight. All artists have to fight against what they become known for.'”

I can hear you saying that I probably kept the Scholder book as a souvenir of my experience. But I didn’t have any personal link the night I went to a cultural center in Portland, Oregon where artist Rick Bartow showed slides and talked about his life and work. Bartow is a very articulate, reflective man and you can find his words on the internet:

“There a physicality to the paper, the sound of pastel on paper. I work standing up. That allows for good motion, so there’s a gesture in the process. If I put in a big graphite area it takes a lot to get a line erased back through that. Even when I’m painting, I get my fingers in there to do what I need to do. Mostly what I do is draw and draw and draw. I begin, I listen and I look and maybe a shadow appears.”

I remember Bartow as having everything together: his art, his presentation skills, and, at long last, his life. Even if I hadn’t been sitting a few rows away hearing him talk of his post-Vietnam struggles, I would have found his art compelling. Bartow unites color, the form of the animal spirits, and emotion with an intensity that took my breath away.

Unlike Scholder and Bartow, R.C. Gorman was unknown to me until I read his obituary on the internet this month (November, 2005). Gorman was a rarity, a resident of Arizona, whose death made the obituary page of The New York Times. You will recognize the names of some of his admirers, famous people who liked his work. It captured the brilliant light of the Southwest and the statuesque grace of his Navajo women models. Collectors like Gregory Peck, Erma Bombeck, and artist Andy Warhol all bought Gormans. Jackie Onassis and Rosalind Carter both asked to meet him.

Thanks to the internet, I was able to findt images of Gorman prints and read what he said to interviewer Susan Rich in 1990. There I learned that the Navajo tribal council had given Gorman a grant when he was young to study in Mexico City.

“I went to Mexico and discovered Diego Rivera and myself. In contemporary work, I like the Mexican artists. I’m greatly influenced by the galleries and museums in Mexico City. The artists deal with the same subjects I do: their own people. . . The color is too intense for words”.

There will always be at least two ways of looking at paintings by cosmopolitan Native American artists. Some people say they are out of the mainstream, just a fad. The other is realizing that, in fact, the work of these artists may be the mainstream, tamong the most powerful images twentieth century America leaves to the future..

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