Opening a world with oils
Woody Crumbo was 16 when he left Sapulpa, Oklahoma, to attend the Chilocco Indian School near the Oklahoma-Kansas border. Until then, except for when he went to school to learn to read and write, Crumbo had mostly resisted pressure from adults to attend school. Perhaps it was because he had discovered self-reliance at such an early age. “Any time he came to a point in the road where he could be tied down or choose freedom,” author Robert Perry said in an interview with Pasatiempo, “he chose freedom.”
In Uprising! Woody Crumbo’s Indian Art, published in October by Chickasaw Press, Perry paints an intimate portrait of Crumbo as seen by those who knew him, including Crumbo’s wife, Lillian, and his close friends. Perry’s straightforward chronology emphasizes Crumbo’s lifelong conflict between personal freedom and restraint. It’s a story of one man’s rise to prominence in a world in which Indian art was equated with folk art and in which Indian artists mostly worked in anonymity. Perry makes a convincing case that Crumbo did much to change that.
Named for the 28th president of the United States, Woodrow Wilson Crumbo was born in 1912 to a mother who was half Potawatomi and half French and a father of German descent. He exhibited artistic talent early on, drawing animals in great detail on paper sacks. His father died when Crumbo was 4. Soon after his mother died of the flu in 1919, Crumbo, the youngest of 11 children, left home to find work. He resisted entreaties from the adults he worked for to adopt him and lived for a time in a cave near a river, where he fished and caught rabbits for food until taken in by a family of Creek Indians. He later lived withWilly Sapulpa, founder of the Oklahoma town that bears his name.
“One day, Mr. Sapulpa told him he needed to go to school and Woody agreed,” Perry writes. While attending the American Indian Institute inWichita, Kansas, where he finished high school, Crumbo met and befriended artist Stephen Mopope, one of the “Kiowa Five” artists encouraged by Kiowa Indian Agency field matron Susie Peters to pursue their artistic talents after high school at the University of Oklahoma. From Mopope and the others Crumbo learned the details of Indian dance regalia and symbolism that were later reflected in his paintings and silkscreen prints of traditional dancers. Crumbo learned more about it while still in high school, when he led a team of more than a dozen singers and dancers on a Civilian Conservation Corpssponsored national tour.
Crumbo’s schoolmates introduced him to Kiowa elders who appreciated his interest in spiritual matters and in visually recording traditional ceremonies. His friendship with Kiowa elder Belo Cozad led to Crumbo being given the duty of official flute maker, an honor, according to Perry, that “carried the lifetime responsibility to care for the flute as one would an honored person.” This act meant the Kiowa considered Crumbo a medicine man, Perry writes.
Although not one of the Kiowa Five, Crumbo was also encouraged by Peters. In 1936, he won his first national art award for a painting of two deer while still a student at the University of Oklahoma, the place where he solidified his artistic vision. “Woody wanted to increase the understanding between Indians and other races through the use of art,” Perry writes. “He considered this
his personal mission.” Crumbo’s dedication to art would lead to numerous professional opportunities, including the position of art director of Bacone College in Muskogee, Oklahoma.
In 1948, Crumbo moved to Taos, where he encouraged younger artists, including New Mexico writer and artist Max Evans, who also became his friend. “When I first saw his work at the Sagebrush Inn in Taos, I knew I wanted him to be my mentor,” Evans said in an interview with Pasatiempo. “When I saw those big oils, I was never so astounded. The sun was coming in the huge picture window, and it hit the paintings in such a way they gleamed like jewels. Practically all Indians used watercolors at that time. He painted with oils; he was really good at it. He became kind of an outcast for breaking tradition. Other artists began to paint with oils after he made the sacrifice. There is absolutely no question that he opened the whole world to it.”
While in Taos, Crumbo made a series of “shotgun paintings” by loading shotgun shells with paint and firing them at canvases. Intended as a critique of abstract American modernism, some of these paintings were well received. Modernists such as Emil Bisttram, whose work emphasized composition and design, had a greater influence on Crumbo than abstract artists did.
In the early 1950s, Crumbo experimented with lithography. He sold work in this medium in the lobby of the Taos Inn, where Crumbo and Evans both painted. Lithography led Crumbo to silk-screening, the medium, along with oil painting, for which he is best known today. But he had to overcome critics who said his designs were too detailed to translate well from paintings. The cover of Perry’s book features Spirit Horse, a complicated design that conveys Crumbo’s skill as a silk-screener.
Crumbo and Evans worked together on artistic and other ventures for seven years. When a weak art market slowed sales of their artwork, the two men started a mining business to pursue Crumbo’s interest in treasure hunting. When that effort failed due to falling stocks, Evans became a writer of adventure stories and Crumbo headed to El Paso to become assistant director of the El Paso Museum of Art. For Evans, the seven years with Crumbo contained a lifetime of memories. “When you’re young, seven years is like an eternity,” he said. “I feel very fortunate to have known him so long. He had no prejudice about anybody or anything. He just admired talent.”
Perry’s introduction in Uprising! is preceded by Evans’ memories of Crumbo, and the book ends with more recollections by Evans. One story is of their last meeting in 1989 when Crumbo visited Evans in Taos — about three weeks before Crumbo died. The two stayed up all night recounting stories from their shared past. “We recalled the wondrous insanity of our buried treasure hunts,” Evans writes, “mirthfully even, with a little nostalgia of two old men still planning more searches.”
Uprising! falls somewhere between a traditional biography and a typical artist monograph. The book is a complete portrait, not just a few short essays followed by plates making up the bulk of the volume. Crumbo’s artwork is peppered throughout, bearing witness to the artist’s development.
Crumbo’s art is in collections belonging to the queen of England, U.S. presidents, and numerous museums, including the Museum of Modern Art in New York. In 1976, as chairman of the Oklahoma Indian Bicentennial Commission, he persuaded the Gilcrease Museum in Tulsa to sponsor a major traveling exhibit of Native art that featured some of his own work.
But it’s the human stories that stand out above Crumbo’s considerable professional achievements. Although he was part Potawatomi, Crumbo spent his life learning the ways of other tribal peoples, including the Creek, Kiowa, and Crow. His work became an amalgam of these different influences, uniting them into one inclusive vision of continuing Native traditions. His paintings and silk screens are as much a record of Indian life in the 20th century as they are a record of the artist’s own journey.
Woody Crumbo: Eagle Dancer,
Returning War Party, 1985, oil painting
Crumbo in his Taos studio, circa 1955; photo by Tyler Dingee, courtesy Palace of the Governors (MNM/DCA), Negative No. 091843
Man on Horse, silk screen