David Simmonds, author of Blackbear Bosin: Guardian of the Indian Spiritspeaks of the life and legacy of the artist who kept the Aboriginal spirit alive.
If you’ve been to Wichita, Kansas, you’ve no doubt seen The Keeper of the Plains. At the confluence of the Big and Little Arkansas Rivers, the statue rises monumentally from its pedestal, a Native American with headdress, face thrown back, arms raised, giving thanks, pleading, protecting.
It is the work of Francis Blackbear Bosin, also known by his Kiowa name, Tsate Kongia (meaning “black bear”). Born in Cyril, Oklahoma, near Anadarko, in 1921, Blackbear Bosin moved to Wichita at the age of 19 and eventually set up his studio there. The statue honors his Comanche-Kiowa roots; conceived in 1968, it was designed to share its culture with Wichita, where the Mid-America All-Indian Museum mounted an exhibit as part of its two-year “Bring the Bosins Home” campaign to collect and nurture its original art .
Bosin’s path to permanently settling in Wichita and engaging in the arts had a few twists and turns. He married and had young children. To support his family, he turned down a college art scholarship and instead attended trade school to learn sheet metal work. Then he enlisted in the Marines. While on a troop ship bound for Hawaii, he fell ill and had to be hospitalized. It was then that he returned to painting.
During his rehabilitation in Honolulu, Bosin, who until then had worked mainly in watercolor, discovered gouache (he would use the more opaque technique all his life, until eye problems forced him to switch to acrylics). ). His style evolved from static and flat representations to a more fluid symbolic approach. A fellow Marine suggested he sign his work with the name Blackbear.
After his release and divorce in 1946, Bosin moved to Wichita. That same year, he participated in the first Indian Artists Annual of the Philbrook Art Center, where an honorable mention for his painting green corn dance sparked more painting, exhibitions and competitions. The early 1950s was a time of discovery and development that allowed Bosin to learn more about his Indian heritage and become more serious about his art.
As he became more accomplished, he began to win awards and recognition. In 1951, at the Denver Art Museum, he won the Purchase Prize. In 1952 at the Philbrook, he won 1st place for bird of death; in 1953, still at the Philbrook, he won 1st place for prairie fire.
prairie fire put it on the art world map when National geographic published it as a centerfold with a long accompanying article. Close to The Keeper of the Plains in Wichita, it remains the work most closely associated with the artist.
We spoke to David Simmonds, author of Blackbear Bosin: Guardian of the Indian Spiriton the life and legacy of the artist.
Reflections of Rainy Mountain by Blackbear Bosin, courtesy of Arlyn and Lois Huesinkveld.
Cowboys and Indians: Blackbear has certainly had a busy career. What was he particularly proud of?
David Simmonds: Although he got the most recognition for the sculpture he made – The Keeper of the Plains – in Wichita, it was his only sculpture. He clearly identified himself as a painter. I think one of the highlights of his career was when his painting Prairie Firwas the central page of National geographic in May 1955. The magazine had a major feature on Native American art, and prairie fire was chosen to be the central double page. After this appearance, requests for reprints of the painting, which belonged to the Philbrook in Tulsa, arrived from all over the world. This painting was hailed, essentially, as a new departure in Plains Indian art because before that paintings tended to be still. Blackbear himself did a number of paintings of katsina dancers and fire dancers and subjects like that, but there was no sense of movement in the work. prairie fire showed incredible movement, both of the horrible fire itself and of the running animals and Indians on horseback. It was a very significant painting, and it was recognized as such. prairie fire hanged in the White House for a while.
THIS : Another big recognition came 10 years later, when he was invited to the White House. …
Simmond: One of his greatest recognitions as an artist came in 1965, when he was the only Native American guest at the White House Festival of the Arts, hosted by President Lyndon Johnson and Ladybird Johnson.
THIS : I love the story of Ladybird so seduced by Blackbear’s outfit that she invited him to her table.
Simmond: Yes, her belt and bow tie were beaded by her mother, actually. Ladybird noticed them and invited her to sit at her table. It was an important thing. [Imagine] what it meant to get to this table: Other people at this table included Helen Hayes, Duke Ellington and Gene Kelly. Blackbear brought home the program for the evening, and it was autographed by Gene Kelly.
prairie fire by Blackbear Bosin, featured in National Geographic.
THIS : Interesting stories you can share about his work?
Simmond: He did all his paintings at home. He owned a commercial art studio for a number of years, but he did his paintings from home. I would say it probably took about a month to do a painting. During this month, about half of this time was spent reading. Once, quite early in his career, there was an exhibition of his paintings somewhere, and an obviously Caucasian guy walked up to him and asked what tribe those Indians were in the painting. Blackbear was pretty flippant, I guess, so he said, “Kiowa, Comanche,” which he was. And the guy said, “Well, that’s weird, because they’re wearing Sioux moccasins.” At this point Blackbear decided he needed to be much more meticulous in his background for his painting. Over the years, he acquired a very large library of books on American Indian history, and before making a painting centered on an Indian ritual, he put a lot of effort into getting the details right.
THIS : You’re not just the author of a book on Blackbear Bosin – you’re his stepson through his marriage to your mother, Nola Simmonds. How was he on a daily basis?
Simmond: He was quite easygoing. During the week, he spent his time at the store. His art studio actually moved from place to place due to urban renewal. This is where he spent most of his working week, making commercial art. Particularly in his last gallery, on North Douglas, he had the facade laid out as a kind of living room with display cases of Native American art of all kinds. He sold jewelry. Of course, her paintings and prints were for sale there, along with pottery, beadwork, and beadwork supplies, since there wasn’t much available in the Wichita area. He tried to keep supplies available for people who wanted to continue Indian crafts.
THIS : How did he handle it wWhen did he develop eye problems towards the end of his life?
Simmond: I think it depressed him, certainly. He got away with it as best he could, but it changed his style of painting. He could not do the detail that he had done before in his paintings. Towards the end of his life he switched from using gouache to using acrylics. Acrylics were more forgiving I guess you would say. There’s a quote in a magazine interview [where the] the guy interviewing him asked him what effect it had on him [and he said], “If I tilt my head the right way, I can make an entire building disappear.” It was like a horizontal band across his vision. …and he was still relatively young.
THIS : Despite all the health issues he went through, he still had an incredible career.
Simmond: He considered himself to have two contemporaries in American art: Allan Houser and Oscar Howe. … There was a time when Allan Houser, Blackbear and Oscar faced off in the annual Philbrook Indian Art Competition.
Torches of Soul Seekers by Blackbear Bosin.
Bring the Bosins Home — The Journey Continues is on view until June 4 at the Mid-America All-Indian Museum in Wichita, Kansas. Bosin was one of the founders of the museum, which houses the largest public collection of his works in the world. The museum’s Bosin Society actively located and obtained donations of the artist’s work to archive it for posterity. theindiancenter.org
Photography: Courtesy of Mid-America All-Indian Museum and Visit Wichita.