Interviews By Larry Abbott
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Bobby Martin
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LA: How did you go from recording studio owner to artist-in-residence at the Gilcrease Museum?

BM: It was a long and sometimes tortured route. I started out as a musician. I wanted to be a rock star in high school so I picked up the guitar when I was about fifteen or sixteen and that was my life for the next ten years or so. I'd always been interested in art and was selling little drawings in seventh grade for a nickel to fellow students. I've been dabbling in art off and on for awhile. I started college in Tahlequah, right out of high school, and lasted about a year and a half. I wasn't majoring in art; I thought I'd be smart and get a business administration degree and be able to get a job, but it turned out I was totally unsuited for that. I dropped out and played music for awhile in bands and eventually opened a recording studio. I starved at that for about six or seven years in Tahlequah, where I've lived most of my life. In '88 or '89 I decided to go back to the same school that I dropped out of. But that got me interested in art again so I decided I'd take a few art classes. I just kept going to school. I got a B.A. at Northeastern in Tahlequah and I started getting interested in printmaking in my senior year. I decided I wanted to go on to graduate school and work more on that and so I came over to the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville. I finished the M.F.A. in '95. I was fortunate enough to get a fellowship that provides me with a position at the Gilcrease Museum. I've been serious about my art for the last five, six years. Even when I started school way back I wasn't that serious about it. I wasn't making any money at the recording studio. I was getting ready to close it down anyway, so I said, let's take some art classes. Maybe there's a way I can avoid a real job for a few more years. It just grew from there, and took on a life of its own. I finally realized that this is what I was supposed to be doing all along.


Apr 55, Acrylic and graphite on canvas, 1995
30" X 45"
Collection of the Gilcrease Museum
Click link or on image to see larger size
**All images courtesy of the artists**
All images copyright of the artists
**All reproduction rights controlled by the artists**

LA: What do you do at the Gilcrease?

BM: I do whatever they need me to do, anything that involves graphic design on computers, desktop publishing, designing brochures, putting up shows, and teaching kids' classes in drawing and printmaking. It's the first artist-in-residence position since Thomas Gilcrease died in the early '60's. I think the last one was Willard Stone, and before that it was Woody Crumbo. It's nice to think I'm carrying on a tradition of Native artists involved with the Gilcrease.

LA: Are you using computers in any of your own work?


Pursuit of Civilization #4
Digital collage, 1998
Dimensions Variable

Click link or on image to see larger size
**All images courtesy of the artists**
All images copyright of the artists
**All reproduction rights controlled by the artists**

BM: I'm combining computer-generated stuff with hand-done printmaking, and also doing purely computer-based art to be printed on a printer. It looks like the hand-done work, but it's an easier way to do what I have been doing, which is layering text and images. I can scan in actual photographs and manipulate them, layer text, and put all that into a big cyberstew. They're about 8 1/2 x 14"

LA: In addition to the computer-based images you also work in pencil, monotypes, pastels, etchings, charcoal, and mixed media, but much of your work is printmaking.

BM: I don't know why I was originally drawn to printmaking. I started doing it because it was a class that I had to have in undergraduate school. We did woodcuts and etchings and this appealed to me. Creating the imagery like in a painting or drawing is one thing, but the craftsmanship of printmaking attracted me just as much as a means of getting an image on paper. I really like the process, the steps, the building of an image, as opposed to just getting paint on canvas, which I do too, and the idea that you have to be fairly structured and diligent in how you do the processes to get results. I use printmaking now as an engine that can drive other things that might have elements of printmaking but are not necessarily print. Most of the works in the Dwight I.T.S. The Pursuit of Civilization exhibition (1995) have printmaking elements in them some way or another. I've tried to draw things from different areas and combine them into a single flat image. I don't necessarily start with a print and add things. I may start with a painting and add printing.

LA: Given the exacting nature of printmaking, do you approach your work in a highly-planned way?

BM: Originally I did, but lately I've been more intuitive. I think the more I've learned about the processes that are available to me the more intuitive I've become. At first I had to worry about getting the process right to make the results come out, and now that I've mastered more of the technique I let the images flow more. It's given me more freedom to create. That's been a real advantage, learning the technique and then being able to apply the technique. Here I am printing etchings and engravings like Albrecht Durer. Being a Native American it seemed ironic that I was printing my images the same way that they were doing it 500 years ago in Europe.

LA: Maybe we could talk about the show Drawing Closer: Looking Back from 1994. "Legacy Number 3" (1993) is one of the works where you combined a lot of different techniques.


Dawes & Me
Acrylic and oil on canvas, 1995
43" X 29 "
Private Collection
Click link or on image to see larger size
**All images courtesy of the artists**
All images copyright of the artists
**All reproduction rights controlled by the artists**

BM: That was one of the first experiments when I was figuring out a way to combine the different techniques that I'd been learning. I was still fairly new at some of that, like lithography, which I just started learning when I entered graduate school. I've expanded on that since then. I've combined certain techniques like aquatint and etching and then arranged them in a collage to tie all the images together, so it's more a mixed media print.

LA: One of the charcoal pieces from that show was "Degree by Decree" (1993), where you superimposed a blowup of your CDIB card [Certificate of Degree of Indian Blood] over a drawing of a woman in front of a house. You do a lot of superimposition and combining of imagery in your work.


Degree by Decree
Charcoal on paper, 1992
19" X 24"
Collection of Southern Plains Indian Museum
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**All images courtesy of the artists**
All images copyright of the artists
**All reproduction rights controlled by the artists**

BM: That was an early example of stuff that I've expanded on since then, which is layering different kinds of text in the work, and also using old family photographs. Nearly all of my work is based on old family photographs from my aunts, my grandmother, my mom and myself. I frequently layer text, whether it's my CDIB card or the Dawes Rolls. Usually it's a design element, not necessarily something that you want to sit and read, although if you know the history you'll recognize where the imagery or the text is from.

LA: Who is pictured in this piece? She appears in quite a bit of your work.

BM: That is Aunt Kate, and I have used her image over and over. She was my mom's aunt, so I guess she would be my great-aunt. To me she's an icon, a little lady standing there smoking her pipe.

Using her over and over gives me a reference point, a connection. She's like my hero. Another thing I do is recycle images and use them in different ways. I've used this as a drawing and also made an etching of it.

LA: People might think of Indians in photographs as Edward Curtis images, but there's a long history of Native people making photographs of their own families and communities.

BM: I have a fairly large collection of photographs that belong to my mom and aunts that I stumbled on. I knew they existed but I never really looked at them, especially as an artist. They were just family photographs. They are Indian folks in the pictures, but there's also a universal aspect to it. People are posing in front of cars from the period, for example, and it seems like everybody did that at one time or another. Your car was like a prize possession.

LA: The pencil work "At Haskell" (1992) shows this pose, but it doesn't necessarily try to duplicate the photograph. You used essentially this same image in "Dawes & Me" (1994).

BM: I had a shoe box filled with these great images and was reproducing them. It wasn't until I was in school that I started seeing that I could use these images in different ways than simply transcribing them.


We sang hymns in Creek and English

Digital collage, 1998
Dimensions Variable
Click link or on image to see larger size
**All images courtesy of the artists**
All images copyright of the artists
**All reproduction rights controlled by the artists**

LA: The photographs on which this show is based are from the late forties or early fifties. You give them a second life.


Dwight Mission lawn tennis team
Acrylic and graphite on canvas, 1995
78" X 121"
Click link or on image to see larger size
**All images courtesy of the artists**
All images copyright of the artists
**All reproduction rights controlled by the artists**

BM: I try to, and I also try to put a clue in that it is part of my family and part of a Native American heritage, although this heritage is not what people might consider "traditional." The title "At Haskell" refers to a school. It's a four-year college now, but when my mother and aunts went there it was a training school strictly for Native Americans in Lawrence, Kansas. Although there are obviously Indian folks in the pictures some of them may not look Indian, so I try to use a clue so you know that they are.

LA: Your depiction of the dancers in "Pow Wow Number 1" (1993) is more abstract than most of your other work.

BM: The Looking Back show was at a period when I was still trying a lot of different things. I've got kind of a two-track thrust. I do a lot of representational images from the old family photographs using text and combining different things, but I also work in abstraction, like "Pow Wow Dancer." These are images where I get a lot looser, especially when I use monotypes. Maybe it's relaxation or something; I don't have to worry about being representational. It's a nice diversional thing for me.

LA: What is "Credit To A Saint" (1993) about? Again, you use the image of your Aunt Kate.

BM: There's a quote in there that I drew from a resource called The Indian Pioneer Papers. That was a WPA Project from the '30's. The WPA gave people, they weren't ethnographers or anything like that, a note pad and told them to interview the old people. So they interviewed Indian elders and early pioneers. I guess some of the people they interviewed lived back in the 1850's and 60's. They have these volumes on microfilm at the library in Tahlequah. They relate traditional stories and details about life in general, but the quote is an integral part of the piece. I can't recall it exactly right, but the last line of one of the reports is something like, "overall, I've found that Indians, before they were corrupted by the white man, would do credit to a saint." That's where I got the title.

LA: You've also done self-portraits. In "CDIB Self-portrait" (1994) you put text over your face.

BM: That was a little exploration series just to see what would happen. I don't usually do self-portraits but I thought I'd do this as an experiment. You may not be able to see it there but I had collaged some of these old family photographs into the face. I put it on Mylar. The idea was to mount the Mylar on a mirror so when you looked at, you had all these different levels. There was the self-portrait, the collage photograph, and your own reflection.

LA: What were you trying to do in the Dwight Indian Training School : The Pursuit of Civilization exhibition?

BM: What I'm trying to show in these works is a more universal theme. Everybody has a family photo album and can relate to these nostalgic images. I'm trying to build a common foundation, not necessarily to make a political statement about Native people and boarding schools. It's more to reveal a common ground. Certainly the people in the photos had a different background than the mainstream, but I'd rather see more unification and create a link between people whatever the ethnic background. At the same time people can think about what these Native kids went through. People can grab onto the universality of the images, but below the surface are the names, the hymns, the kids, the history. Hopefully people will see that.

LA: You had twelve works in the show but didn't title them.

BM: I went right down to the opening day of the show before I decided that, because originally I was going to have the titles work like captions in an old photo album. You know, something like, "Here we are! Weren't we crazy!" I have to credit my wife. She talked me out of doing that. I agreed with her that titling each one would specify individual works. I wanted the show to be one whole piece. I wanted the viewer to spend time with each one and not worry about a name tag, because naming gives it a different level of existence. I wanted to let the pieces exist as they are and in that way you could relate pieces to each other and have more of a sense of reverence. You simply looked at the piece and didn't have to worry about the title, the dimensions, the media, the date, the usual things that are on the gallery wall.

LA: Two large unframed pieces anchor the exhibition.

BM: Those were originally the main project for the show. I had never worked large before, but I had a big gallery so I had to fill it up. I used the same imagery from the photographs I had been using, and the other smaller pieces balanced them out. I wanted a unified show rather than a bunch of pieces stuck on the wall. I didn't frame the canvases because I wanted more reference to an old photograph with curled edges, and stretching puts them into that gallery realm. It's obviously a gallery but I wanted to get the idea of old photographs. I painted in the cracks to give it a look of paper with the edges curling stuck right on the wall.

LA: On one level this is a history of Dwight Indian Training School, but the subtext is the process of acculturation and assimilation. The title Pursuit of Civilization is ironic, in that "civilization" seems to be pursuing the Indian with a vengeance.

BM: What prompted this show were the only pictures that are left of my grandma, who went to Dwight in 1917 or so. Many of the pictures are of sports teams. They had a tennis team and a basketball team and a football team. But one irony is that people survived before they quote "needed" the boarding school. On the surface the school wasn't any different than other boarding schools, in the sense of all the teams, and I think that's what attracted me to it. There is a universality to these images, although the irony is that they are all Indian students. But these are images that could come from any school. You see a lot of the same faces.

LA: Was this a government-mandated boarding school?

BM: This one wasn't. Dwight Mission was built originally in Arkansas at the request of the Cherokee Tribe to educate Cherokee children. Most of the Southeast tribes were aware that there were going to be great changes. They weren't going to be able to resist. They were going to have to do something to survive and one of the things they did was set up an educational system. The Presbyterians and other denominations came in. Later, when the Cherokees moved to Oklahoma, by the time my granny was in school there, they opened it up to other tribes. But kids weren't forced by the government, although my granny might have been forced by her dad.

There is one photograph of the basketball players, but they are wearing blankets instead of a warm-up jacket. Usually you hear the horror stories about beatings and punishment for using the language, but students were apparently pretty well-treated there. They were taught dairy farming and agriculture and cooking and sewing on the domestic side. The interior scenes in the show came from photographs I took during a trip that I made there. I've tried to combine some of the images that still exist today with those from the time when my granny was there. Just visiting that building was a great experience. There's one building that remains from her days there.

LA: This large piece is about 6 x 10 feet, and you've put different text in the painting.

BM: Actually that text was part of the Dawes Rolls. I also quoted an old Creek language hymn book that my Mom found that belonged to my granny. That's where the psalm quote came from. Some of the names are from a monument at a cemetery right next to the Dwight grounds. They had frequent fires, and because they were out in the middle of nowhere their classrooms and dormitories burned down. A fire killed thirteen boys one of the years that my granny was there, including one of her cousins. I wanted to use those names as a memorial. I wouldn't use the names if I didn't know that one of the people I was related to died in a fire. I used the Dawes enrollment names as a memorial, too. These were impersonal lists of names with the degree of their Indian blood and the numbers they were assigned, but I didn't pick the names at random. I superimposed this over depictions of people who actually went to school there. The show is a memorial, but also it's personalizing history for me and hopefully for the viewer. There's the history of Native American people and their relationship to the government, and the situation of Indians in boarding schools, Indians in the Christian church, all these layers. One of the teachers at Dwight said the best way to convert the Indians to Christianity is to teach the kids and then send them back home and let them spread the message, which is a lot different from the Spanish missions, which was to convert or die.

LA: One piece depicts the inside of a classroom. You put some barely visible lists of names and numbers on the walls, and there are students looking in the windows from the outside.

BM: Those are from the photographs of the sports teams. There's only one piece where my grandma actually appears. She's the little bitty one in the picture on the left. The faces are collaged on. I wanted to show the school as it looks now with the photos from eighty years ago. I took a picture when I was down there and combined it with a picture from her collection. The show revolves around the remaining three-story building. I went to visit it one New Year's Day with a friend of mine. We didn't figure anybody was there, so he opened the front door. It turned out that there's a lady who works in the office, the only office that had heat. The rest of the building was ice cold. On the top floor there's an auditorium, and the other interiors are from this building. A lot of old buildings have their own kind of presence, but this one really had a presence for me, as much for the history that was in it, plus knowing that my ancestors, my grandmother and other people that were related to me, were actually in this building at one time.

LA: In the painting the students are looking in on the present from the past.

BM: I wanted the building to have the feeling of spirits, or whatever you want to call it. Although this building is empty now there were at one time actual presences in there. They're gone now but they're trying to look back at you from a different time. The more I worked on them the more they took on a life of their own, especially when I started plugging into these ghostly figures. They took on a lot more power than I actually expected them to.

LA: That ghost figure comes out in a piece depicting the auditorium. The figure almost blends in with the front of the stage. Do you know who it is?

BM: I use that image again on one of the small pieces. In my grandma's collection there was one picture of a guy, he's really spiffy in his suit and tie and his hair is slicked back, but nobody knows who he was. We suspect he was an old school boyfriend or something of my grandma's but we don't know for sure. There's no writing on it so he actually is a ghost figure because we don't know who he is. But it's a strong image.

LA: The top half of the piece is separated by the two doors of the auditorium. One door leads into a list of students and the other door leads to the unknown.

BM: When I first snapped the picture that's what attracted me, those two doors, especially the door on the right. It had a sort of glow coming from it which I didn't really notice until I got the photograph back.

LA: In the central painting students are posed in a typical team photo, holding tennis rackets, dressed in whites. A man in a suit and bow tie and another sportily-dressed guy flank them. What's interesting is that each figure is presented in a double image, and again you have a quote from Psalms and from the Creek language hymnal.

BM: From the time I started I had an idea that I wanted this image to be the focus of the show because it does present the ideal version of "the pursuit of civilization," the ironic idea that because you dress up somebody, in this case Native Americans, in spiffy tennis outfits, that they become civilized. The fact is that they were already civilized. That ironic imagery was what attracted me to this in the first place. Layering the text reinforces the idea of how an identity was forced on Native people. Although the word "force" is a negative, I'm trying not to be negative on the whole boarding school experience because, like I said, from my perspective and my family's perspective, it wasn't negative. I've talked to a lot of my aunts and they enjoyed the experience. They made a lot of friends. Maybe they just wanted to get out of the house, I don't know. Whenever I talk about this I end up sounding negative, but I think it's a tribute to the people and to my relatives, my ancestors.

Because there was more of a tradition of education for some of the tribes the schools weren't seen as wrenching the child out of the family, at least in my family's case. My great-grandpa sent my grandpa, grandma and her sisters to school. It was understood that you went off to boarding school and learned how to keep the house and the farm and whatever else. I think the main thing was to learn how to speak English and learn a trade to survive. By that time Southeast tribes were pretty much assimilated, and they saw the boarding school as a tool to not only survive but also to thrive. Sequoia was a regular visitor to the school, and Samuel Worcester, one of the main figures in the removal, was located at Dwight Mission. He brought the printing press with him in the 1830's. 2 The school has a long history of education and some of the famous names of Cherokee history either lived in the area or were involved with Dwight somehow.

You asked about the doubling of the images. I originally gridded the images out by hand but didn't like the way that was working, so I got a projector and projected the photographic image on the canvas. It turned out that the blurry projected image was off by a little. Once I started layering the transparent acrylic on I played around with the way the drawing on the canvas had a floating effect. I was interested in working in layers of text and images because it seems like veils. There are different worlds within the painting floating on layers.

LA: The students in the "present" of the photograph are in their posed positions, but the image behind them suggests who they were before they got to Dwight. They were totally different people.

BM: I see it more like the blurring that happens over time. Seeing things from seventy-five or eighty years ago you lose the clarity of the image. It causes a shift in the reality of who they were and where they were. It blurs the past.

LA: The darker acrylic drips down in thin streams. Was that to suggest the effect of age?

BM: Part of that was to have a feeling of age, but more to give clues that it was created in the present. It was a sign from the artist that this was not just the recreation of a photograph, but that there is a human hand involved. It's to give it a painterly look; the image is not simply photographic. The way some of the drips just happened to fall worked well, and some of them I went back and covered over.

LA: You've said that you didn't grow up around the traditions or the language of the Muskogee [Creek], but you still had a sense in your mind of Indian identity. You've written that "this sense of identification from a distance manifests itself in these works through the use of photographic images, inherently once removed from actual experience, that appear and reappear in different forms, guises and interpretations." 2 How much of your work is an exploration of identity?

BM: Maybe all of it on some level, unconscious and conscious. I could continue to explore issues like assimilation, education, and Christianity, and all else that ties into my identity as an Indian because that's my heritage. My tradition is Christian boarding schools and education. I didn't even know about Creek Indian stomp grounds and the tribal towns until the past five or six years. My great-grandfather was an Indian Baptist preacher. He preached his sermons in the Creek language, but he was really a diehard Baptist. I am a Baptist today. That's where I come from in my identity, but that doesn't mean that ancient traditions are any less valuable to me. I draw my identity from both.

NOTES

1 See Angie Debo, A History of the Indians of the United States (University of Oklahoma Press, 1970), pp. 113-14 and 121-22 for a brief summary of Worcester and Worcester vs. Georgia.

2 Bobby Martin, "Artist's Statement," Drawing Closer: Looking Back. Anadarko, OK: Southern Plains, Indian Museum and Crafts Center, unp., 1994.

SELECTED EXHIBITONS

Dwight I.T.S.: The Pursuit of Civilization, solo exhibition, Fine Arts Center Gallery, The University of Arkansas, Fayetteville, AR, 1995

Native American Invitational and Masters Exhibition, group exhibition, The Gilcrease Museum, Tulsa, OK, 1995

Dispelling the Myths: Controlling the Image, group exhibition, American Indian Community House, New York, NY, 1994

Drawing Closer: Looking Back, solo exhibition, Southern Plains Indian Museum and Crafts Center, Anadarko, OK, 1994

CAJE '94: America's Cultural Diversity, group exhibition, Center of Contemporary Arts, St. Louis, MO, 1994

SELECTED BIBLIOGRAPHY

Bobby Martin, Dwight I.T.S.: The Pursuit of Civilization, thesis submitted to the Department of Fine Arts, University of Arkansas, Fayetteville, AR, 1995

_____, "Artist's Statement," Drawing Closer: Looking Back, Southern Plains Indian Museum and Crafts Center, Anadarko, OK, 1994

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