Woody Crumbo spent six decades of the mid-20th century promoting Native American art to the mainstream, where often it was seen as a novelty or niche by wealthy collectors. Through printmaking, he mass produced his depictions of animals, dancers, and other vibrant images so that anyone could afford his work. Yet despite his prolific career, which included participating in hundreds of exhibits, painting murals inside the US Department of Interior, and having hundreds of his pieces acquired by museums like the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Smithsonian, Crumbo’s art has, somewhat ironically, become a niche interest, often overlooked even when his influence in bringing Native American work into the contemporary art world remains a powerful presence.
Currently at the Oklahoma History Center out in Oklahoma City, Crumbo Spirit Talk is a small, but dense, exhibition that brings together his paintings, prints, drawings, and some personal artifacts in a rare exploration of his work. It was co-sponsored with the museum by his daughter Minisa Crumbo Halsey , who, along with his son Woody Max Crumbo, has work in the show. But alongside the exuberant work of Woody Crumbo, where deer and horses soar like weightless spirits and figures swoop into dance and buffalo runs, everything else feels subdued.
Spirit Talk opened early in 2012 to mark what would have been Crumbo’s 100th birthday year. He was born near Lexington, Oklahoma on January 31, 1912 as Woodrow Wilson Crumbo on his Potawatomi mother’s tribal allotment of land. Unfortunately, by the time he was seven he was an orphan, but his nomadic early life, living with different Indian families, including Creek and Sioux, and later becoming friends with a group of Kiowas with whom he studied art, instilled an appreciation for the diverse and disappearing cultures and traditions of the country’s tribes. With art, he found a way to honor, promote, and preserve this history.
While studying at Wichita University and later the University of Oklahoma, he supported himself as a dancer, learning different tribe’s dances from across the nation. This is probably why out of all his portrait paintings, the dancers feel the most present and alive, the detail on their costumes studied down to each feather tip. He was also a flute player and maker, even performing with the Wichita Symphony. But while he had a knack for any and all art forms, with painting and printmaking Crumbo found distincition. He was one of the first Native American artists to dive into oil painting as a medium, adding dimension to the flat figure style popularized by the Kiowa Five in tempura. While capturing traditional symbolism and ceremony were a major focus, his experimentation progressed with his career, becoming less and less what was expected from Native American art. This was especially true with his animals.
None of Crumbo’s work was aimed at figurative realism, but with the animals he especially brought out what he saw as their spirit, often in vivid blues and lunging, long steps. His most popular of his elaborate silkscreens, which he often made with up to 16 screens, was his “Spirit Horse,” a charging animal with a tumult of hair that would make it all the way to the collections of Winston Churchill and the Queen of England. Yet as many artists have found, widespread success isn’t a guarantee for financial security, and he had a plan, a rather outlandish plan. In 1954 he ordered a mineral identification kit for $3 from a catalogue in 1954 and started prospecting with Max Evans, a Western artist. Even with their inexperience, in two years they’d discovered deposits of uranium, copper, and one of the biggest known finds of beryllium worth millions, freeing Crumbo to focus exclusively on art.
Looking at the wide-eyed deer and rainbow-hued stallions, it is probably not much of a surprise that peyote and its spiritual visions inspired Crumbo. In 1938, he became director of art at Bacone College (the oldest college in Oklahoma, founded as the Indian University in 1880), taking over from Acee Blue Eagle, another artist who had an inclination towards gravity-defying blue deer. While there, he created a stained glass window for the chapel, which is one of the very few Native American-made church windows in the world, and definitely the only one to feature a peyote ceremony motif right in the middle of a Baptist church.
Some have criticized Crumbo’s work as “Bambi art,” and while there is some truth to that, the sincerity of Crumbo’s in striving to capture views and culture than was vanishing gave his work a bristling power. “Spotted Wolf’s Last Request” (1955), one of his most famous paintings, is a tribute to all Native American soldiers, but was created to honor Private First Class Clarence Spotted Wolf, a young Sioux indian killed in Luxembourg who wrote a letter to his parents before he died saying that if he was killed and they had a victory parade, he wanted a soldier to go first carrying the American flag, and a cowboy to go next and lead his saddled horse for his spirit to ride. Spotted Wolf received a traditional scaffold burial before his military funeral, and in the painting he rises up from the prone pile of traditional burial items draped with a flag on a spirit horse, each brushstroke has been applied with a palpable force.
When Crumbo died on April 4, 1989, he’d spent years working as a curator at museums like the Gilcrease Museum in Tulsa and the El Paso Museum of Art in Texas to expand and establish their Native American art collections, and he’d been a fierce support of preserving culture, including being involved in constructing cultural centers and even aiding the Ysleta Pueblo indians in New Mexico to get back their tribal status. His art also remains affordable thanks to Crumbo’s interest in accessibility, and even if their mass production has contributed to their devaluing, the loving portrayals of a culture that even as he painted it was fading gave it an undeniable value. As Crumbo once said:
“I have always painted with the desire of developing Indian art so that it may be judged on art standards rather than on its value as a curio — I am attempting to record Indian customs and legends now, while they are alive, to make them a part of the great American culture before these, too, become lost, only to be fragmentarily pieced together by fact and supposition.”
Crumbo Spirit Talk is at the Oklahoma History Center (800 Nazih Zuhdi Drive, Oklahoma City) through May 29, 2013.