UPDATED, March 31, 2016: Corrected final photo caption that was labeled as The Half King when it is of Cherokee chief Cunne Shote (Standing Turkey).
Painter Clark V. Fox cried like a baby when he saw the Chris Eyre film Smoke Signals. Though his family, Cherokee on both sides and Powhatan on his father’s, had never lived on a reservation per se, according to Clark his early family life was similarly blighted and bleak. “Same violent father, alcoholism, super poverty, every Friday night is the fights.” Born in Colorado on the way somewhere else, his father’s “alcoholic geographics” forced the family to bounce around, every year a different locale: Honolulu, Galveston, Houston, and eventually Alexandria, Virginia. Fortunately the museums in neighboring Washington, D.C. had free admission, and could offer a refuge where Clark remembers finding solace and inspiration in creativity on a grand scale. “Me and my brother went to museums all day long, every day we could.”
Remarkably, by the time Fox (originally named Michael Clark) was in his early 20s he was exhibiting in some of those very same safe havens: major institutions such as The Corcoran and The Phillips in Washington, D.C., as well as The Baltimore Museum and The Philadelphia Museum of Art. When he was only 21 his abstract work hung on the same walls as Wassily Kandinsky, Willem De Kooning, Arthur Dove, Max Ernst, Arshile Gorky and Paul Klee in the 1968 Smithsonian Institute show “The Art of Organic Form.”
In those heady years of early acceptance as a fine artist, Fox was also the drummer in an art band named Twisted Teenage Plot, (1966-1985) whose other members were also DC-area visual artists. Artworks by TTP’s musicians will be shown by the Alper Initiative (April 2 through May 29) at the Katzen Art Center at American University. Fox describes TTP as a punk rock band whose members all had different musical aspirations for the group. While it was often associated with the more successful Urban Verbs, and at its zenith opened for Pussy Galore at DC Space, it never really made much money for the musicians. “The art egos prevented us from getting off the bottom rung of the music business ladder,” Clark explained. “But that’s okay, it kept us all laughing a lot.” Indelible laughs, like the time TTP opened for Fugazi in an outdoor show in Lafayette Square just across from the White House; after only two songs President Reagan’s Secret Service commanded them to turn the volume down.
Fox, whose work art curator Jane Livingston once famously likened to French pointillist Georges Seurat’s, is collected in the National Gallery, the Library of Congress, The Carnegie Institute, The Cooper-Hewitt and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, among numerous other major notable collections. While many of those collected works are still-lifes, architectural subjects, or portraits of history’s icons, such as U.S. presidents and other world leaders (Hugo Chavez, Chairman Mao, Fidel Castro), Fox has been reluctant to offer for sale his Native-American themed works. He says he is “highly sensitive to rip offs of Native American culture,” and prefers “to go with the Great Spirit.”
A spirit he encountered almost by chance in 1971 on Alcatraz Island. It was March or April, just a couple of months until the electricity and water would be turned off by the U.S. government effectively bringing to an end the 19-month occupation of the island by Natives trying to uphold treaty rights, and Fox found himself in San Francisco with one of his private students who knew the way to catch the boat to tour the island. “I had very long straight black hair and a Ho Chi Minh goatee, so I got a pretty friendly reception. It was my first brush with the plight of the First Nations People. The occupiers on Alcatraz Island had the old spirit going, and visiting them connected me with the roots of my Indigenous culture.”
Before that almost-chance visit Fox feels that his Native American artist self was floating up from his subconscious to be expressed in his abstract works. But, he says, “those don’t look like ‘Indian paintings.’ After Alcatraz it became crucial to keep the truth alive for people who aren’t aware of the record of ripoffs of Indian lands, resources, histories and peoples.”
Setting the record to rights is an important impetus for Fox whose portrait of U.S. Army Specialist Lori Ann Piestewa was a centerpiece of his 2009 Cue Foundation show in New York City. “There was a lot of media attention to soldier Jessica Lynch for sustaining injuries in the same campaign in which Piestewa was killed, but how many people remember Lori Ann’s name?” A Hopi, she was the first Native American woman killed in the history of U.S. combat, and the first woman soldier killed in the 1993 Iraq invasion.
For Fox, puncturing the myth of White-only heroism is “not exactly a revenge thing, but it’s just too bad that things got weirdly screwed over like they have. All we’re served up is vanilla ice cream about how the Indians were treated, while the truth has been dismissed and often deliberately erased. For me the conceptual part is to make sure that historical narratives are written by Natives, not the pretty picture thing, oh god, they look so cute in their outfits.”
Fox, who was the only Native American artist included in the recently acclaimed “Corpocracy” show at Houston’s Station Museum of Contemporary Art (October 10, 2015 – March 13, 2016), is concerned about the continued viability of museums dedicated to exhibiting Native artists. “Sometimes I think that if I were to sell my Native-themed paintings, I’d like to step out of the transactions altogether and have the proceeds go directly to the Museum of the Cherokee Indian in Cherokee, North Carolina, for instance. We can’t just let these kind of places get shuttered for lack of generosity.”
Years ago in an Indian museum to remain unnamed, after hours, and only because of a special and trusted personal connection, Fox had the occasion to hold in his own hands a black eagle headdress that had belonged to Crazy Horse, one that Crazy Horse had likely made himself. The abundant feathers went in all directions and the headdress was encircled with many small mirrors, all potential points of reflected light.
“It’s vitally important that Indian museums endure everywhere into the future,” Fox emphasized, “so that Native artists can continue to tell the truth about the past. If we don’t, who will?”
Frances Madeson is the author of the comic novel Cooperative Village and an arts and social justice writer.