Three men ride on painted ponies, the youngest surging ahead to take the lead, excited about his first hunt or war. The two veterans tolerate his zealous – and perhaps overconfident – enthusiasm, but one turns to the viewer as if to say, "Here we go again, another rookie." Youthful exuberance versus seasoned experience: the universal sentiment transcends the activity. Even one of the horses turns an almost disdainful gaze of tortured patience toward the viewer.
It would be easy to imagine the veteran rolling his eyes ... if he had any. But the artist, Dolores Purdy Corcoran, of the Caddo Nation of Oklahoma, purposely didn't paint faces on the warriors in order to allow the viewer to imagine their attitudes and personalities.
Here We Go Again, Corcoran's ledger painting, has been selected as the signature image for this year's Eiteljorg Museum Indian Market and Festival, based on its originality and craftsmanship.
Jaq Nigg, festivals manager at the Eiteljorg Museum of American Indians and Western Art, explains the process of selection: "First, [experts in Native American art] look at all of the artists who have received the highest scores during the artist selection. We then review the images, keeping in mind that the piece we choose has to work well on the cover of the program, in print ads, on billboards and banners and on merchandise. This can be a very difficult task, but this year Dolores' painting jumped out at everyone on the selection committee because of its energy and whimsy."
Whimsy in the form of humor is an important aspect of the painting, and of Indian culture. Corcoran explains Indian humor as a delight in "making fun of people. You have to be thick-skinned." In fact, native culture laughs at itself too, as witnessed by her brightly clad warriors. "Humor is universal," she believes. "It brings everyone together."
Bringing people together is just one of the purposes of her art. Ledger art reaches across cultural and historical boundaries, preserving tradition and oral history as it simultaneously welcomes new audiences. It's a way to see Indian history told the Indian way, but in a manner that all races can understand and appreciate. "That's why someone looks at the viewer," the artist explains. "I usually have someone looking at the audience, inviting them in. The viewer is not just an observer. That's the fun part."
The painting is Corcoran's way of reconnecting with the past. Historical Ledger Art was originally created by Plains Indians from the 1860s to the 1930s, using the pages of accounting ledger books as a canvas. The style evolved from Plains hide painting, which emphasized narrative action while eliminating unnecessary detail and background. Figures were often drawn in hard outline and filled in with solid color. Traditionally, women painted abstract, geometrical designs; men created more representational works, often depicting scenes from battles or hunts, as well as courtship and religious ceremonies.
The most celebrated ledger artists were prisoners of war at Fort Marion in St. Augustine, Florida. Kiowa, Comanche, Arapaho, Cheyenne and Caddo warriors fought the U.S. Army in the Red River War in 1874 to protect the last free herd of buffalo and to assert their autonomy. During their captivity, they were encouraged to produce ledger paintings to record battle details.
When Corcoran attended the Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania, she researched Caddos imprisoned at Ft. Marion and discovered ledger art. "It's deceptively simple, but it's very sophisticated." Her own piece has "layers, story lines and a deeper meaning ... or it could just be a pretty picture. It depends on the viewer."
Inspired by the Ft. Marion images, Corcoran blends traditional topics with contemporary methods, blazing a new stage of ledger art. "The great thing about contemporary art is that it's constantly changing." Corcoran's paintings provide a fresh take on a traditional theme. "Pre-rez art used a lot of very subtle humor," she says, pointing out the polka-dot blanket in her painting. "No one weaved polka-dots!"
In another departure from tradition, Here We Go Again is acrylic on canvas. It invokes a contemporary look with more vibrant, bolder colors. On other pieces, Corcoran uses colored pencils on genuine antique ledger paper, which allows the viewer to read the handwriting through the drawing. "You get two stories in one. It's a snapshot of what was happening in the non-native and native worlds."
Most of the ledger paper she uses dates to pre-1900. Corcoran takes special care with the pre-1880 linen or cotton paper she's sometimes lucky enough to acquire. "It's difficult to find the paper," she acknowledges, "but that's part of the fun. I go to antique malls to look for it." When she finds it, she tries to match the topic of the ledger to the subject of the painting so there's a correlation between the two stories. For example, when she found paper in Missouri that recorded the digging of graves for the poor farms, she appropriately painted a Ghost Dance on it.
Top artist, top show
This year marks Corcoran's eleventh at the Indian Market, where she's been a juried artist since 2000. Dividing her time between Kansas and New Mexico, this accomplished artist serves on the Standards Committee for the Santa Fe Indian Market and has been a featured artist at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.
Professionally trained in watercolor, she also makes gourd masks and dolls, in addition to the ledger art. Although she has won numerous awards and ribbons, the humble artist says she is honored to have her painting selected as the signature piece of this year's Market. "I keep pinching myself. I feel very blessed. There are other artists out there not getting recognized. This is among the top three Indian art shows in the U.S. and a lot of artists try to get into it."
The Eiteljorg Indian Market is the only one of its kind east of the Mississippi. "Being one of the top Indian Markets in the U.S. that's juried, Indy should be very proud," Corcoran says. "Indy will get to see the best artists." Too modest to admit it, Corcoran can count herself among them.
The 18th annual Eiteljorg Museum Indian Market and Festival takes place June 26-27 from 10 – 5. Tickets cost $8 for adults advance sale or $10 at the gate, with children 17 and under free. Museum admission is included in the ticket price.
Music is provided by Blue Stone Project, a blend of native rhythms mixed with rock-based blues and Casper Lomayesva, influenced by reggae and traditional Hopi culture. Other entertainment includes award-winning author and storyteller Richard Van Camp and the Living Traditions Dance Troupe, feature five-time world champion hoop dancer Derrick Suwaima Davis.
Hands-on activities include decorating bracelets and wristbands, creating pottery tile, making a woven mat with microfiche and hoop dancing.