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The First 100 Years: Southern Plains Painting and Drawing

May 26 - October 8, 2006


(above: Acee Blue Eagle (Creek-Pawnee) (1909-1959), Mother, Child, and Deer, 1950, gouache on board)


In 1978, Oklahoma City collector Arthur Silberman organized an exhibit at the Oklahoma Museum of Art that was titled "100 Years of Native American Painting." In the accompanying catalogue he wrote:

Until approximately one hundred years ago, Native American painting was a form of religious expression and a kind of shorthand used mainly to record personal and tribal histories . . . . Painting was part of a lifestyle in which art, refined by a keen sense of aesthetics, permeated every aspect of Indian life from birth to death. Then, under the pressures and stresses of their disintegrating world, Indian artists transformed painting into an expressive and vital art form. Individualistic artists, deeply rooted in the past, absorbed from the surrounding dominant culture many of the aesthetic elements of world art. Native American painting, a spiritual affirmation of Indianness, became the most innovative and creative of any of the forms of Indian art.

"The First 100 Years: Southern Plains Painting and Drawing," opened at the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum on May 26, 2006, and will remain on view until October 8, 2006. The exhibit revisits the decades of work that were first considered in Silberman's 1978 retrospective. The centennial that is celebrated in the display honors the graphic art tradition of Oklahoma's first residents. It predates by almost 30 years the 100th anniversary of Oklahoma statehood that is being celebrated in 2007.


(above: Bear's Heart (Cheyenne), (1851-1882), Buffalo Hunt, 1875-1878, colored pencil on paper)

Four major artistic traditions are considered in the "First 100 Years" exhibit: Southern Plains ledger-style art, the work of the Kiowa artist Silver Horn, paintings done by the Kiowa Five, and material created within the sphere of Bacone College.

During the 18th and 19th centuries, Plains Indian men had recorded their war stories and spiritual encounters on clothing, robes, shields, and other surfaces. These images were not overly realistic but provided visual narratives that were affirmed and articulated through oratory. As outsiders began crossing the Plains, they brought paper, pens and pencils with them. Indian artists quickly adopted these new mediums. Lined accounting books provided an early and abundant source of drawing paper. Early Plain Indian works of art on paper have subsequently been referred to as "ledger art."

A large quantity of ledger-style art was produced in St. Augustine, Florida, between 1875 and 1878. During these years, 72 Arapaho, Cheyenne, Kiowa, and Comanche men who participated in the 1874 Red River War were imprisoned there at Fort Marion. Captain Richard Pratt, who had charge of the prisoners, believed it important that the men be occupied and he sought local employment for them. By the 1870s, St. Augustine was already a tourist destination. Pratt discovered that the sale of Indian drawings to tourists was a moneymaking concern. He encouraged the prisoners to draw, and he secured supplies for them from New York. (right: Silver Horn (Kiowa) (1861-c. 1941), United States Cavalry Being Pursued By Kiowas, 1890-1895, colored pencil on paper)

A brother of the Kiowa artist Silver Horn was among the prisoners who were incarcerated at Fort Marion. Between 1889 and 1894, Silver Horn served as a scout for the Seventh Cavalry at Fort Sill, Oklahoma. An army officer, Lieutenant Hugh Scott, collected oral histories and drawings from Silver Horn that recorded Kiowa culture, mythology, and the Sun Dance. In 1891, the artist produced the first-known illustrations of the peyote ceremony. After 1901, he was employed by Smithsonian ethnologist James L. Mooney reproducing illustrations and models of Kiowa shield and tipi designs.

Silver Horn was a beadworker, a silversmith, and a maker of diverse traditional items. His two-dimensional works included small drawings done on paper and larger hide and muslin paintings. His subject matter included traditional Plains heraldic imagery -- warfare, hunting, and courtship -- and extended to mythological subjects, daily life, and ceremonial activity. He was also influential in encouraging the later work of the Kiowa Five artists. He was the granduncle of Stephen Mopope. Mopope and James Auchiah said that he was their first teacher. Spencer Asah was also a relative and Jack Hokeah was a frequent visitor to his home. (left: W. Richard West, Sr. (Cheyenne) (1912-1996), Self Portrait in Dog Soldier Costume, 1949, tempera on paper)

The work of the Kiowa Five artists represents a watershed in 20th-century American Indian art. In about 1914, Sister Olivia Taylor, a Choctaw woman, began providing art instruction to Stephen Mopope, Jack Hokeah, Spencer Asah, and James Auchiah at the St. Patrick's Mission School in Anadarko, Oklahoma. Several years later, Susie Peters, a Field Matron for the Kiowa Agency, organized a fine arts class that provided informal art instruction to these and other Kiowa young people. Peters then arranged for six students to enroll in art classes at the University of Oklahoma. Several began attending the university as early as 1926.

During the late 1920s and the 1930s, the Kiowa Five lent their skills to the creation of a variety of murals in public buildings throughout Oklahoma. Jack Hokeah also assisted with the painting of murals in a new arts and crafts building at the Santa Fe Indian School that preceded the founding of an art program at that institution.

The Art Department at Bacone College in Muskogee, Oklahoma, was founded in 1935, with Acee Blue Eagle as its first director. Much of Blue Eagle's early work was stylistically similar to that of the Kiowa Five. His refinement of the Kiowa Five painting formula helped produce what became known as the "Bacone," or traditional Oklahoma style. The Bacone artists continued working in the Kiowa tradition: they looked to the romantic past for painterly inspiration. They depicted figures from legends, mythology, and ceremonies and presented them in theatrical and mysterious forms. Their paintings were subsequently more dramatic than those of the Kiowa and Santa Fe artists. (right: Stephen Mopope (Kiowa) (1898-1974), Young Mother, 1929, tempera on paper)

After a brief tenure, Woody Crumbo succeeded Blue Eagle as department chair. Crumbo was in turn succeeded by W. Richard West, Sr. Bacone's art program provided a positive, encouraging, and creative environment for its students. It directed the training of two generations of young Indian artists who greatly enhanced the reputation and visibility of Oklahoma Indian painting.


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