Indian artist Bunky Echo-Hawk is an old soul in a cutting-edge suit -- his bright paintings, slabbed with blocks of blinding color, mix traditional and pop imagery and ideas, resulting in a body of work that's funny, sad, stridently satirical and very smart. He's therefore an excellent choice as alecturer for the University of Colorado's Center for the American West's Modern Indian Identity series
, because he's taken a broad paintbrush to the subject, bringing it to life in ways nobody else can.
And when Echo-Hawk appears in the Glenn Miller Ballroom in Boulder Thursday night at 6:30 p.m., he won't just be talking. He'll be wielding said paintbrush, building a painting from scratch -- as well as a participatory conversation with the audience.
The idea for his live painting programs is rooted in a native tradition: Braves spent their winters reliving conquests while an artist recorded everything on a hide for the tribal annals. He's changed the gist a bit -- well, a lot -- and substituted modern issues for old hunting reveries, but you get the point.
We had a chance to chat with Echo-Hawk while he was still in Oklahoma Indian country about his community-building art-oeuvre; the Q & A follows. But first, this:
And now, this:
Westword: How did you come up with the idea for these live-painting programs?
Bunky Echo-Hawk: It's an extension of an old tradition. I'd already been doing art in front of people, and I decided to try to bring an audience-participation element into it to update that age-old tradition. I usually begin with a talk and an overview of my art where I engage in dialogue with the audience. We talk about my community and issues that might be facing that community; I also have the audience chime in and create the concept of the painting for me. And I paint throughout that dialogue.
Can you describe what happens? And what kinds of works have come out of the discussions?
It depends on where the conversations go. There have been a wide variety of issues covered. Some of the images I've painted live include one of Obama wearing a feathered headdress, from the Democratic National Convention, and another one of a priest wearing a McDonald's logo and an Uncle Sam hat.
Your paintings generally mix those kinds of metaphors. Where do your ideas come from?
I'm enslaved to my own sketchbook. I write down my thoughts and sketch them out, and I make it a point to visit my sketchbook at least three times a day. That way, I'm able to play around with an idea before I put the images together. I tend to create bodies of work.
To me, it's like a visual research project for for developing an idea or concept into work. It might end up becoming a series of 25 different paintings.
When did you first realize you wanted to be an artist?
I was pretty young, maybe three or four. It's what I wanted to be, and it's been a pretty ride so far. I've tried a lot of other different things - manual labor, nonprofit work - but I've been making art full time since 2006.
You also work with youth, don't you?
I do a lot of youth outreach, mainly focused in Indian country. But I do programs in mainstream society, too . Over the years, I've developed art workshops, and I co-founded a nonprofit club called Envision. As a group of native artists from different backgrounds, we all come together to focus on native art and multimedia art-forms.
What's your story?
I was born on the Yakama res in Washington state. I grew up a little in Oklahoma on the Pawnee res, and then we moved to Colorado, where I spent many years in the Lyons/Boulder area.
I understand you often auction off the painting to the crowd after the presentation is over.
I like the idea of giving back to the community, to thank the audience for offering their ideas. They end up not paying as much as they would in a gallery, and it's a cool way of paying them back. Each painting really signifies the experience of being there -- it's more than just a painting, each one has a whole story behind it that you can take home with you.
Will you be doing that in Boulder?
I don't know, yet. I usually donate the money made directly to whatever organization it is that brought me in, but some groups have rules about how they handle that. So I leave it up to the host. Regardless, I'll leave behind the finished painting.
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Admission to Echo-Hawk's program is free; find more details here, or call 303-492-4879.
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