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Where Everything Grows

The Two Bulls family leads an Indigenous art renaissance

The Lakota family’s first group show is a celebration of tradition and experimentation.

The Rev. Robert Two Bulls Sr., an 85-year-old Episcopal canon, former autobody painter, grandfather and artist, removes his black cowboy hat and approaches the mic stand to deliver the invocation at the opening reception of the Two Bulls family show. Tatanka Nunpa Owe Okele, which roughly translates from the Lakota as “Following the Two Bulls Tracks,” features works by 21 members of the family, representing four generations of kin and their tiospaye, or kith. The crowd of about 50, gathered in the atrium of the Dahl, a community arts hub in Rapid City, South Dakota, stands as he prays. “Today, I look at the world with eyes of love,” he says. “Close my ears to all gossip. Guard my tongue from all slander.”

 

Two Bulls wears a collared shirt, gray blazer and Wranglers — an all-purpose getup that evokes the stately grittiness of well-aged Western masculinity and suits almost any church service, court date or rodeo between El Paso, Texas, and Edmonton, Alberta. He reminds me of my late grandfather, another good-with-his-hands Indian cowboy who could rock the hell out of a ten-gallon hat and fix (or wreck) a truck like no other. In the corner of the room, tinfoil-covered bowls loaded to the brim with frybread and sweet berry wojapi rest on a table, ready to be served when Two Bulls punctuates his invocation with a hearty: “Amen! Ohitika!”

When he’s finished, the Wake Singers, a garage band composed of four members of the Two Bulls family — Reed, Marty Jr., Micheal and Doug, together with Lee Strubinger, the drummer and group’s “token white guy,” in Reed’s words — get back to arranging and tuning their instruments.

The Two Bulls family moves at a deliberate pace uncommon to the haute monde of contemporary art but germane to the interior life of Indigenous gatherings — a rhythm designed to accommodate elders and children. Some call this “Indian Time.” In The Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell claims it takes 10,000 hours to master a craft. It took Picasso 35 days to paint his masterpiece, Guernica. As the Two Bulls art show gets started (about 30 minutes behind schedule), I wonder what the equivalent of 10,000 hours and 35 days might be in Indian time — how we might meter out mastery and masterpiece on clocks that tick to the beat of generations and relatives, rather than hours and minutes.

I pull Micheal away from the instruments to walk the show, past walls plated with 40-plus years of Two Bulls family creations. We regard his sculpture Death, a wireframe and papier-mâché buffalo with giraffe-ish long legs and a rawhide-tan body emblazoned with red silk-screened skulls. Willow branches gathered from the Badlands jut from the creature’s back like decaying wings. The piece is the third in a triptych; the first two, not displayed here, are Life, a buffalo with flowers sprouting from its shoulders, and Middle, a buffalo shot with arrows. Death, with its string-bean legs and translucent chest, appears delicate — an unusual rendering for such a formidable beast — but also fashionable with its elongated profile, fit for an album cover or hoodie.

Micheal is a third-generation artist. His mother, Twila Two Bulls, worked in beads and textiles; a stole she beaded for her father, Robert Sr., a Korean War veteran, is part of the show. Micheal included Death in the exhibition to honor the legacies of ancestors like Edward Two Bulls, a noted Lakota painter known for pre-reservation landscapes in oils with distinctive peach skies. One of his pieces, Winter Camp in Pines (1995), depicting a rider returning to three tipis on the edge of a snowy forest, a craggy butte in the background, is on display at the left entrance of the gallery. “There’s life after death in art,” Micheal says.

Lori Ann Two Bulls’ paintings Star Quilt Series #3 and #4.
Kristina Barker for NewTowncarShare News

I ask Micheal which family pieces he most admires. He directs me to his aunt Lori Ann Two Bulls’ paintings Star Quilt Series #3 and #4, near the entrance to the gallery. Both depict Native matriarchs gazing with purpose, their hair loose, rendered in mosaic-like blocks of color. A star quilt design — a distinctive eight-pointed pattern stitched from colorful swatches — is incorporated into each portrait. The women look a bit like Storm from the X-Men, if Storm was Native. Lori Ann helped raise Micheal, who, as a child, watched her make art every night. This evening, she stands to the side, hands stuffed in pockets, head cocked back just so — fierce, like the subjects in her series.

In Indian Country, art has long been a hereditary practice, with the scene dominated by families such as the Hunts, Kwakiutl carvers from Vancouver Island; the Martinezes, San Ildefonso potters from New Mexico; and the Edenshaws, Haida carvers from Haida Gwaii, an archipelago off the coast of British Columbia. Art became a family business in part because rites of song, dance, ceremony and other types of intellectual property are, in many communities, held by lineages and societies that have preserved and strengthened these traditions against destructive missionaries, predatory collectors, trinket-hungry consumers and culture-appropriating corporations. This is especially true of “traditional” arts like carving, weaving and pottery, but it is also true for more “contemporary” media like painting and printmaking. The family — more than the gallery, museum or university — has been a driving force in the current Indigenous artistic renaissance.

Twenty-one family members spanning four generations have works displayed in the mixed media show, on display through March 9.
Kristina Barker for NewTowncarShare News

MOST NATIVE ART FAMILIES PRACTICE TRADITIONS that are interpreted by critics and audiences in anthropological terms that confine Indigenous art to particular media like beadwork, carving and weaving (often demeaned as “crafts”). Inherited traditions often look a lot different through the eyes of collectors: Prospective buyers used to begin conversations with my own father, a Salish carver, by asking who his family was — like they were examining the pedigree of a racehorse or dog — because in their eyes, the Indigenous artist is still an ethnographic object. Critics and curators didn’t care who Picasso, Matisse or Warhol’s daddy was. But in the Indigenous art world, that sort of thing can make a career. To buy “Native” — or more precisely, Kwakiutl, San Ildefonso, Haida, etc. — means to buy something representative of a culture, community or last name. In the market, white tastes tend to essentialize the commodity form at the expense of the art form, a catch-22 that maroons the artist in the curiosity cabinet: the metaphorical Indian in the cupboard.

“The commercial artist makes a series of compromises to sell art,” explains Robert Sr.’s son, Marty Two Bulls Sr. “It’s always a give-and-take.”

Marty worked as a graphics editor for the Rapid City Journal and Sioux Falls Argus Leader and a cartoonist for Indian Country Today in the early 2000s. Pens, computers and printing presses are his tools of choice. Four of his cartoons are included in the show: One, titled Whites, shows the Cleveland Indians logo, altered to sport a beard and black top hat; another, titled Mr. Diabetes, depicts a personified syringe holding a tray of fast food, while a third, titled Indian Economy, portrays a Native man on horseback galloping and firing an arrow, a whirlwind of dust coalescing into dollar signs — $, $, $ — as he charges. A fourth, titled Global Warming, shows a surfing Inuit. All were drawn in a single pass, no mistakes.

Marty Sr. combines incomes from graphic design and fine art. “You have to be a businessperson,” he says. “Some of the old masters’ business ledgers still exist. Rembrandt had an art school.” He finds the tension productive. As a graphic designer, for example, he realized that computers are conducive to Lakota geometric designs. For him, the commodity form has, at times, advanced the art form in surprising ways.

The Two Bulls are unusual (and cool) in that they fit Indian Country’s familial patterns but buck the anthropological trends invented by outsiders.

In the ’70s, when Lori Ann was young, she watched her father, Robert Sr., paint cars and airbrush murals on vans. His 1993 piece, Door to Survival, a passenger-side Model T door painted with a pastoral scene depicting a windmill backed by forests and snow-capped mountains, is displayed just behind Death at the center of the gallery. Robert Sr. hauled the rusted door out of the Badlands. The verdant landscape he painted on its refinished black surface looks more like the Tetons at the western edge of Lakota territory than the buckskin plains of the Dakotas. The art of airbrush car-painting is hardly recognizable as an “Indigenous” art form in the beads-and-feathers sense of the term, and the piece’s material, subject and title suggest an ambiguous reflection on assimilation, as if to say: The door to survival required us to change our way of life — for Robert Sr., even the Creator he worshipped. The sentiment is dissonant with contemporary Indigenous zeitgeist, but not uncommon among older generations, who mind their scripture.

Door to Survival won best-in-show at the Red Cloud Indian School art show two decades ago. Today, there’s something both authentic and iconoclastic about putting a refurbished and airbrushed car door at the center of a Native art show. The piece’s existence defies and complicates racialized expectations of a genre still often trapped in the annals of “natural history.” Who’s to say that the working-class craft of autobody painting, which provided Robert Sr. fulfillment — and a living — in the same way that more recognizably Lakota forms like hide painting, beadwork and ledger art, did for other artists, is not Indigenous art? And who’s to say that devout Christians — like Robert Sr., who walked through the door of survival and into a life of piety — are any less Indigenous?

“Auto-painting is an art,” Robert Two Bulls Sr. tells me. “It’s altogether art.”

Say Wut! by Molina Parker, née Two Bulls.
Kristina Barker for NewTowncarShare News

Molina Parker, née Two Bulls, Robert Sr.’s granddaughter, is a beadworker. She learned the art from her mother, Twila, and contributed a series of beaded collars to the show. My favorite, Say Wut! (2016), a sky-blue piece with a floral composition and buffalo-track border trimmed with elk teeth and dentalium shells, is named after an Albuquerque beatboxer and inspired by the floral embroidered pillowcases she used to watch her grandmother Delores Two Bulls sew. Molina’s husband, Brian Parker, a Muscogee Creek, Mississippi Choctaw and White Mountain Apache painter and Two Bulls-family admirer turned in-law, helped organize the show.

Nineteen-year-old Reed Two Bulls, granddaughter of Robert Sr., is the youngest Two Bulls in the exhibition, with three works in the show. Talking Amos (2016), an acrylic portrait of a gender-ambiguous Native person divided into four bold color schemes, a white and blood-red “X” painted over the mouth, is the most striking. Reed recently graduated from high school in Minneapolis and wants to attend the Institute of American Indian Arts (IAIA) in Santa Fe, as almost every member of her family has.

Her father, Robert Jr., who could not attend the opening, creates works inspired by his Episcopalian faith, like X Dies on the Cross II (aka Diet) Station VII from 2012. The piece, painted in acrylic on a three-ply board panel, shows the Christ surrounded by symbols representing changes in the Lakota diet, from pre-reservation foodstuffs like buffalo to reservation-era commodities and the slow-boil health crisis that shift hatched. Junior, like Senior, is a minister.

Kahwoka by Doug, Marty Jr. and Micheal Two Bulls.
Courtesy of Rapid City Arts Council

The family even included videos produced by Richard Two Bulls for KOTA Territory News and Black Hills Fox (a crowd-pleaser for this journalist, to be sure). One was about Lakota language immersion in preschools; another highlighted a skateboard contest, and a third told the stories of Native American veterans. These days, the art scene is wide open when it comes to mediums and methods, but the Two Bulls family might be the first to put on a show that ranges from beadwork to airbrushed car doors to TV clips. “Art — I think about it as storytelling,” Richard tells me.

Other relatives, like Marty Jr. and his cousin Doug, produce what might be described as Indigenous “pop art.” Doug Two Bulls produced a triptych of silk-screened images of suit-and-tie-wearing bovine skulls, Untitled #1. Marty Jr. has a ceramic milk carton with a red star quilt design emblazoned on it, cheekily titled Traditional Object #3 (2016).

Doug and Marty Jr. teamed up with Micheal to produce a piece called Kahwoka (wind) specifically for this exhibition. It features a large painted Double-Bubble gum wrapper that reads “Tatanka Nunpa” atop a star quilt pattern painted by Marty Jr. Below the wrapper, Doug added a red silk-screened Wranglers commercial from a 1960s issue of Vogue, and below that, Micheal painted a winged buffalo drifting through clouds. At the bottom, the word “Kahwoka” in big stylized cursive. The cousins laid down their sections independently, moving from the top down. As they described the process to me, I imagine it as a sort of visual parallel to their Wake Singers jam sessions. The collaborators are also founding members of the HUMBLE Collective — a DIY art space formed at IAIA in the mid-2000s as a sort of anything-goes escape from an art market ruled by stereotypes. The collective just closed an exhibition at the Bronx Art Space, a gallery that introduces artists to the New York scene. One of the group’s members, Cannupa Hanska Luger, recently won the inaugural $50,000 Burke Prize from the Museum of Arts and Design.

 

Micheal and Doug Two Bulls at Racing Magpie, a creative community space and gallery, in Rapid City, South Dakota, where they have their own studios.
Kristina Barker for NewTowncarShare News

THE TWO BULLS FAMILY'S ART IS NATIVE — Lakota from Red Shirt Table on the Pine Ridge Reservation, more precisely — sometimes in form and subject, but more in style and substance. It is not their art that makes them Native, as is the case for some artists and wannabes. It is their Native-born-and-bred family habits-cum-traditions that make them artists. When I ask them why they picked up art and whose work inspires them, they all give the same response: family. “It came naturally to us,” Molina Parker says with a chuckle. “It’s something we’ve all kind of done,” says Marty Two Bulls Jr.

But pulling off a family show incorporating so many relatives did not come without conflict. It’s hard to organize anything to satisfy 21 people — let alone relatives, artists or even more challenging, relatives who are artists. Two weeks earlier, Marty Sr. gave a passing quote in a Lakota Times review of the show describing his late uncle Edward as living “hand to mouth.” Taken out of context, the phrase could be read as demeaning, and Edward’s widow and daughter — Marty’s aunt and cousin — took offense. The day before the reception, Marty Sr. wrote a column in the same paper clarifying his comment and apologizing to his auntie. “Making a living through your artwork is hard. I have a lot of empathy, having been there many times in my own efforts to sell my work,” he wrote. “Such is the life of an artist.”

Despite the peace offering, a sense of anxiety hung over the reception. Would Marty’s apology be enough? And would all the family members, including a few who could not participate, be satisfied with the show? One of the many difficulties of making art in a family (or cooking dinner, for that matter) is that families have dynamics. In addition to the politics of institutions like museums, galleries and universities, Native artists also must navigate the complicated politics of kinship. Our relations — as many Indigenous authors have written — are beautiful, but beauty rarely comes without complexity.

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Toward the end of the night, I sit and listen to the Wake Singers’ knee-bouncing, moody garage rock. Marty Jr. is on bass, Doug and Micheal are both on guitar and Reed is the group’s lead singer. They play a melancholy song with a minor chord progression called “Bad Art!” and another — about paint — with a more exuberant, slightly overpowering chord sequence. Amp feedback fills the air.

As the atrium empties, I sit with Robert Sr. and Lori Ann on a bench in the gallery. He is an open man, and without much prompting, he describes some of the experiences that have defined his life: the Korean War, the autobody shop, the church, the family. Mid-conversation, a man wearing a First Cavalry Vietnam hat and matching Vietnam veteran blazer greets him. “Hau, my friend,” Robert Sr. says.

As our conversation wends its way to conclusion, Robert Sr. discusses the peace-making intentions of his opening prayer. “We’re all poor,” he says. “I consider myself just as good as everyone else.” Despite the difficulties, he’s pleased with the show. “I’m really proud. My wife would be really ecstatic about it,” he says, referring to his late partner, Delores.

After the show, I wander into downtown Rapid City, where I park myself on a barstool to review my notes over a few too many drinks, something I chalk up to the weight of my own artistic Indian (and Irish) family. When 10,000 hours and 35 days of Indian time have passed and the Indigenous Guernica is made and acclaimed, I speculate its true maker won’t be an individual; it will be a family.

[GALLERY:1]

Julian Brave NoiseCat is the 2017 recipient of The HCN/PLAYA Diverse Western Voices Award. A proud member of the Canim Lake Band Tsq’escen and a descendant of the Lil’Wat Nation of Mount Currie, he writes from Washington, D.C. 

Note: This story has been updated to correct that Twila Two Bulls beaded a stole for her father, not her brother.