Open­ing a world with oils

Pasatiempo - - Art And Photography - Michael Abatemarco For The New Mex­i­can

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.

Im­ages cour­tesy Chick­a­saw Press

Woody Crumbo: Ea­gle Dancer,

silk screen

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

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