When many teenagers turn the magic age of 16, getting a car is usually the first priority. But in the case of Tom Farris, it was the gift of art that changed the course of his life. That gift, the painting “Fancy Dancer” by Kiowa artist R.W. Geionety, would become the catalyst for Farris’s future in the Native art business.
“Native American art is just one of those things I’m real passionate about,” said Farris, now 32, an enrolled member of the Otoe-Missouria Tribe and of Cherokee descent. “I’m such a fan of everybody who can do it and who creates it. I’m always interested to find out what’s new and what people are doing and also to learn. There’s so much to learn about what’s already been done.”
Growing up in North Carolina and North Dakota—far away from his Oklahoma tribes—Farris learned about Native culture on visits his family would make to the semi-annual Otoe-Missouria Encampments in Red Rock, Oklahoma.
“When we’d come back, we would be greeted with open arms as family,” said Farris. “People would pull you into camps. They’d feed you. They would talk to you and tell you how their year has been. We’d catch up. I really appreciated that family touchstone here in Oklahoma when it easily could have deteriorated, being so far away.”
By the time he was a teenager, Farris returned to Oklahoma, where he could be a part of powwows and dance in the Northern Traditional style. After high school, Farris enrolled at the University of Science and Arts of Oklahoma in Chickasha, where he first majored in communications. However, a summer job at Norman’s Jacobson House Native Art Center—the original home of the Kiowa Five’s art professor Oscar Jacobson—furthered his interest in Native art. The summer job was then extended for Farris over the next four years, where he would eventually move to the position of assistant director.
“I really cut my teeth in that location,” said Farris. “I learned a lot about creating exhibits, managing collections and the business side of things. It was a great opportunity for me, because I was really given free rein. I was allowed to do a lot of things that, in any other kind of museum or business setting, a kid of 18 or 19 years old probably wouldn’t have been allowed to do. They threw me into the deep end and let me go.”
Farris’s tenure at the Jacobson House was followed by a three-year directorship of the Cherokee Art Market. In January 2008, Farris opened Standing Buffalo Gallery in downtown Norman, taking the name from a translation of his Otoe name, “Chadonayhe.” One of the key events of Standing Buffalo was the “live paint,” where artists had two hours to begin and end a painting from a blank canvas.
When Farris found an opportunity through the Otoe-Missouria Tribe to return to college, he decided to shut down the gallery and enroll at the University of Oklahoma, where his interests include museum and Native American studies. When not in class, Farris maintains an online gallery and art brokerage service, retaining the name of “Standing Buffalo Gallery.” His goal upon completing his bachelor’s is to re-open what he calls the “brick and mortar” version of the gallery and make Oklahoma a stronger market for Native artists.
“Oklahoma, I always felt, should be where people come for Indian art,” said Farris. “It’s always frustrating to hear lamentations of artists saying, ‘I have to go to Santa Fe to sell things.’ Here, you’re fighting against a long tradition of people saying ‘Santa Fe’s the place to go.’”
In addition to his pursuits in the Native art business, Farris also enjoys work as a DJ, going by the name of “DJ Ruckus,” playing occasional gigs in the Norman area. For nearly ten years, Farris—as Ruckus Entertainment—has also served as the coordinator of Halloween screenings of the Rocky Horror Picture Show at downtown Norman’s Sooner Theater.
Years down the road, Farris sees himself involved with educating upcoming generations.
“Anything that I learn, I’m always happy to pass on,” said Farris. “I would like to be that source of information for whatever the topic is. I’d like to be that person who can help guide young people and to be a source of information about whatever they need.”