On June 18th, during the Cultural Encounters evening event, I sat down with current artist-in-residence, Michael Horse, to find out more about his background and artistic influences. Born near Tucson, Horse is of Yaqui, Mescalero Apache, Zuni, European, and Hispanic descent and comes from an artistically talented family of jewelers, potters, and painters. Not only is he a talented jeweler and painter, but he is also an actor and stuntman who has appeared in many movies including Twin Peaks, Passenger 57, Lakota Woman, and Smoke Signals. His art has been shown internationally as is currently available at the Southwest Museum in Los Angeles, the Autry Museum of Western Heritage in Los Angeles, the Eiteljorg Museum in Indiana, Kiva Fine Art Gallery in Santa Fe, and Gathering Tribes Gallery in Albany, California.
Naomi Huth: You grew up surrounded by different types of arts from your parents and the elders in your tribe. How did you go from art to acting and back into art?
Michael Horse: Art was always a part of my background. My mom was a potter and a kachina carver so I always grew up with art and was always drawing but never thought of doing that for a living. I never wanted to be an actor. I was a pretty bad rodeo rider but started doing some stunts in some films and just kind of fell into it. I did a couple of films and thought I would just pick up a little bit of money and then thought this is interesting to me. It is also pretty frustrating because most of the roles dealing with indigenous people are pretty stupid. I have been doing it for 30 something years—some good, some bad. I have had a chance to work on some pieces of art and some works that changed the face of the way people look at television. There wouldn't be a lot of the cutting-edge shows that are on cable now without opening up those doors. I did a wonderful series in Canada, for Canadian television, a prime time drama that ran for 7 years of which I did 3 years of it, about indigenous people. Nobody was a medicine man and it wasn't about ceremony. It was about people who lived North of the 60 parallel and how they survived and kept their poetry intact and it was just wonderful.
I have always been into arts. The acting was something that I had an opportunity to do. Art is my passion; it's my life. I grew up doing jewelry. I used to work for the Heye Foundation at the Museum of the American Indian in New York and when no one was looking I used to go sneak and look at stuff. That was where I first found this tribal art, the ledger art that I do. I was fascinated that first time I saw it and thought this is my history. Even though this was a plains style I knew that this was the way that all of us had recorded our history at one time. I used to just do this because I was a fan of the art form but now I am pretty much an authority on this art form. The last few years of doing this I thought to myself wherever you physically and culturally repressed people, this art exists. I am trying to put together an exhibition for the Smithsonian about the artwork that comes out of internment camps. The Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles has a lot of drawings, similar to the ledger art, from the concentration camps. Similar works also exist from times of slavery in the South, on Angel Island, and now from Darfur.
NH: Could you explain a little more about the ledger drawings? You have mentioned to me that when it started, the images didn't have anything to do with the writing but over time became related.
MH: It was just scrap paper. We would get a piece of paper and draw on it. Especially on the reservation, which was a pretty bleak time, people would not want to see a painting of hunting or battling. So they weren't about that; they were about freedom. They were all about the repression of being incarcerated. You are a free person; you have no boundaries, only where the wind and the buffalo take you. All of a sudden someone says you can't go out of this area. Not only can you not go out of this area, but also you can't sing, you can't dance, and you can't pray. So you get a hold of a piece of paper and you draw things you miss or what is around you. Over the years I found myself putting the drawing with the text. It is a fascinating art form with many layers to it.
NH: Are there any other types of art, besides the ledger art and the jewelry, that you enjoy creating?
MH: Oh yeah. I am not really a painter. I went to school to be a sculptor.
NH: Why types of sculpture do you do?
MH: I don't do much anymore because it's a little bit too messy. I started working in stone so you need a big area. But I am basically known as a jeweler. I have been making jewelry ever since I can remember.
NH: Do the images you use in the jewelry have any connection with the images used in your ledger art?
MH: Even though the ledger art is a plains art form I will take some of these images. Mostly my jewelry has to do with my Southwest background. I do kachinas and traditional Navajo style.
NH: Thank you so much Michael for taking the time to speak about your work.
(Naomi Huth currently works as an intern for the Public Programs Department at the de Young.)