Editor's note: The following essay was rekeyed and reprinted on November 15, 2002 in Resource Library Magazine with permission of Zaplin / Lampert Gallery. The essay, written in 2002, was previously included in an illustrated catalogue for the August 3 - August 30, 2002 exhibition T.C. Cannon: Personal Canon. Images accompanying the text in the illustrated catalogue were not reproduced with this reprinting. If you have questions or comments regarding the essay, or if you have interest in obtaining a copy of the catalogue please contact Zaplin / Lampert Gallery through either this phone number or website:


A Personal Canon

by Sally Monahan Zogry


Innovator, commentator, poet, painter, musician, lover, friend, warrior, cowboy, Indian, American; artist T.C. Cannon was all of these and more. Born in an Oklahoma Indian hospital to a Caddo-French-Choctaw mother and Kiowa-Scotch-Irish father near the Kiowa ancestral sacred lands in the Wichita Mountains, Tommy Wayne "T.C." Cannon embodied the contradictory nature of life as a Native American in America from the moment he entered the world. A baby-boomer, T.C. spent his formative years in the post-World War II era of security and stability, albeit in a poor farming family, and came of age during a time of turbulence, growth, and change in the 1960's and early 1970's. T.C. represented the fulfillment of both eras. A self-made man, a true success story who made the most of the opportunities given him, he also at times rebelled against that success and the notoriety it brought. He had a strong love and reverence for history and the grounding it provided as well as an undeniable need to break free from the restrictions and stereotypes engendered by it. He was both an insider and an outsider, an Indian living in an Anglo world, a pacifist who went to war, a reticent spokesman for a generation of native and non-native artists alike, and a man who exerted tremendous discipline and control over particular aspects of his life and who was also content to see where life took him. In the midst of these contradictory aspects of T.C.'s character and personality, it is certain he had a strong sense of self to which he remained true throughout his life. The words and images in his notebooks provide a glimpse into what was at the core of that self, namely, a sensitive, sincere, compassionate human being who was literally bursting with creativity; a man who exhibited a disciplined exuberance in his introspection and self-awareness; a creator, in the truest sense, of art for art's sake.

In Native American cultures, art is an element of life rather than a separate aesthetic expression. T.C.'s personal canon exhibits this outlook. T.C. carried a notebook or sketchbook with him at all times so that he could jot down a thought, a poem, a lyric, or a sketch as it occurred to him. These notebooks provide an insight into his creative process, a glimpse into T.C.'s personality and how his mind worked. The images are whimsical (Points of Reference, Buffalo Meat Chunk), musical (Willie Nelson, Lovers & 2-Steppers), ironic (These Shoes are Killing Me), biting (Accusing Indian, Indian with Apple and Bomb ), political (Sioux-Soldier-Sold, Cross the Powder River, Chief Joseph), and historical (Man with Bird Hat, "Indian" portraits). Executed in pencil, felt tip, ink pen, charcoal, pastel, and watercolor they represent his command of many styles and media. All are evocative, beautiful, vibrant, bursting with life and imagination. As William Wallo, Cannon's former art instructor at Central State University in Oklahoma explains,

"[t]he notebooks became an index of his life, a way of keeping a degree of control on a flowing universe of things and ideas and finding the means to integrate them. Draftsmanship was thought in action and almost always a positive unedited act for him. Curiosity, delight, and wonder outweighed doubt. Introspection became insight when made concrete by his hand."

T.C. exerted control over many areas of his life through his work, perhaps to compensate for the lack of control he experienced early on. Growing up Native American in the 1950's and 1960's was difficult and disheartening at times. T.C. was a minority in a mostly Anglo school and community in Oklahoma. When he went to the Institute of American Indian Arts (IAIA) in Santa Fe from 1964 to 1966, his life and world changed. The young student explored his new world by reading history, philosophy, and political science on his own, in addition to taking art history, studio, and design classes and by engaging in legendary discussions with fellow students and teachers. He also found his spiritual home in Santa Fe, the place he most loved to live and where he would die. As a result of this exploration and growth, T.C. emerged as the school superstar at IAIA. He was the vanguard of a new method of self-expression using a variety of media, originating an integrated multicultural artistic vision. Most importantly, T.C. developed a non-derivative style. As a result, emulators quickly followed. In the 1960's, Native American artists were beginning to shape and define their own written, visual and performing arts and students and instructors alike at IAIA recognized him for the innovator and social commentator that he was. In a sense, T.C. created himself and, as a result, he simply was not like anyone else.

Another way in which he asserted control over his life was in choosing to be tribally enrolled as a Kiowa, an unusual choice given that his mother was Caddo and his lineage derived from her family and background. Since he expressed this desire at an early age, T.C.'s father chose a Kiowa name for him, Pai-doung-u-day, which means "one who stands in the sun." This name seemed incongruous for a man whom friends and colleagues described as reticent, somewhat shy, and hard to get to know. Yet it absolutely fit a person who expressed his innermost thoughts and feelings through a variety of artistic forms and who became a friend for life to many. A person standing in the sun is fully exposed, and through his art Cannon bravely exposed himself to the world at large.

His drawing, Sundancer (plate 30), depicts that exposure. Participants in the sun dance spend days exposed to the harsh summer sun in hopes of achieving a life-changing spiritual experience. Artistic expression provided that experience for T.C.; as he wrote in a letter from Vietnam, "how thoughtful of God to provide a life-stream such as art. A most important life-stream." The works in his notebooks attest to the fact that he achieved visionary status, and he courageously shared his visions with a variety of people in both his public and private lives. He felt that "every piece of real art, made for the sake of making real art, is a declaration of love and guts."

By risking full exposure, he laid bare all of the contradictory aspects of his personality and character: he was a Caddo by lineage who became a Kiowa by choice; a child of the plains who lived and died in the mountains; a humane warrior "at war with humanity and in love with people"; a cowboy-Indian; a self-exposed public persona who was shy at the core; a womanizer with "the inability to fall out of love"; a reluctant leader with natural charisma. In other words, T.C. Cannon achieved the goal for late twentieth-century Native Americans; he became assimilated yet remained distinct. By expressing his fears and doubts in this way, T.C. also became the social conscience of a generation.

Cannon's works frequently presented a combination of the past and the present. T.C. studied Native American history and heroes extensively on his own because he did not learn about them in school. He integrated and bridged the gap between past and present in many of his historic portraits (Woman in Window, Hopi with Manta, Study for Man with Stove Top, Indian Headdress, Indian Woman with Apron, Indian Man Giggling, Woman With Two Bags) by presenting these figures as beautiful, venerable predecessors for twentieth-century Indians. "While continuously immersing himself in Native American history, he was able to take symbolic motifs and use them freshly, retaining their cultural meanings, yet finding a way to energize them in a contemporary context."

This is evident in his use of motifs like the beaded blanket strip in Sun Band Landscape (plate 54) and traditional Pueblo textiles in Hopi with Manta (plate 39). The irony and embarrassment of the stormy relations between Anglo- and Native Americans comes through loud and clear in his portraits of chiefs all dressed up with nowhere to go. Studies like Self-American (plate 13), which eerily foreshadows the two bronze stars he was awarded in Vietnam, show that he was the product of a mixed culture and background proud of an Indian past and an American future.

In a sense, T.C.'s canon was a modern-day ledger book hearkening back to an earlier medium of Native American artistic expression. Traditionally, Plains groups used ledger books and drawings to visually document events in their individual and collective lives. T.C. Cannon used his notebooks in a similar way. He could document ideas, thoughts, and feelings that he may not have been comfortable expressing verbally, as echoed in this line, "[m]y determined eye, my resolute heart, my singular searching soul . . . all have windows from which I watch, endlessly." A highly literate man, he sometimes used images rather than words to convey his emotions more effectively. Cannon's contemporary ledger books also represented the meeting place between the artist's public and private lives. He sketched or wrote down ideas and images so as not to lose their immediacy, so arguably many of these works were for his eyes only. On the other hand, many of these sketches fostered larger, more important and complex works designed for exposure to a wider audience. In the end, one man's private musings told a public story.

This is why T.C.'s work still resonates more than twenty years after his death; the imagery is still fresh because it is personal. His work is a documentary of his life as an Indian, an American, and an artist in the 1960's and 1970's. Art is not separate from life in his world, it is his life and we see that with his notebooks, his personal canon. He translated his feelings to the page using both words and images, unafraid to expose his soul. He stands in the sun still.


About the author

Sally Monahan Zogry is a freelance arts writer in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

Search for more articles and essays on American art in Resource Library. See America's Distinguished Artists for biographical information on historic artists.

This page was originally published in 2002 in Resource Library Magazine. Please see Resource Library's Overview section for more information.

Copyright 2012 Traditional Fine Arts Organization, Inc., an Arizona nonprofit corporation. All rights reserved.