Interview by Judy Fleming
I was drawn to Marcus Amerman’s beadwork immediately. I was intrigued with his use of traditional technique in contemporary modes, addressing political and social issues regarding his Choctaw Nation heritage. While the objects themselves are deeply rooted in meaning, taken out of context they remain shockingly beautiful in both color and design. Along with his visual work, Marcus Amerman continues to create unconventionally with performance pieces such as “Buffalo Man.” The images below are courtesy of the artist.
Buffalo Man in Labyrinth, 2008
Tanned Buffalo Head
Judy Fleming: I want to learn more about your performance piece with “Buffalo Man.” Did that become an artist persona of yours? What political ideas did you wish to touch on wearing the buffalo head?
Marcus Amerman: Buffalo Man is controversial. I’ve had people walk out of my performances. But a medicine person I talked to said to me that my detractors couldn’t argue with the fact that I have that head. The Creator and the Buffalo People made sure that it got into my hands, into the hands of someone who would use it. I traded a bracelet for this tan buffalo head. I fit it to my head and attached my horns and then I let it take over. I am a mere accessory to my buffalo head mask. I feel that the Buffalo Man is a spirit of the Earth and pushes me to speak for the Earth and for balancing man’s relationship with nature. I saw in anarchaeology magazine an illustration of a Buffalo Man carved into a pillar in a cave. It was 36,000 years old. My theory is that the Buffalo Man reemerges into society when it has reached a critical crossroads. If that society accepts the Buffalo Man into it, it signifies hope and redemption for the culture. If, on the other hand, he is rejected by society the society is doomed.
JF: So, when you wear the Buffalo head, you let it take over. What does an experience like that feel like? You also mentioned that the Buffalo Man reemerges when a society is at a critical crossroads. Has your experience led you to believe that our society might be doomed?
MA: Wearing the Buffalo head simply makes me think that that’s who I am and that’s how I look. The thought process parallels the same experience. It makes you think, “What would Buffalo Man do?” The future is uncertain. The potential for change in consciousness on a massive scale increases at these times. So the outcome could be the opposite of doom.
JF: I noticed that there are many artists in your family; can you describe the meaning to you about how family plays a roll in your work?
MA: Indian people are from a very creative culture. When I was growing up everyone in my family made things. We made many things for our participation in powwows. Everyone knew how to bead. My aunt sewed quilts and shirts, my uncle taught me Hopi overlay silver work and katsina doll carving, my cousin and my uncle taught me feather work and bustle making. It was a very natural thing to create. My cousins Dan and Linda Lomahaftewa are known painters/printmakers. I often think that my exposure to the Hopi culture of my relatives informed my color sense. I notice that many Hopi painters have a similar color sense. Some of my other cousins are in arts administration.
I suppose art is simply the family business. In another sense I theorize that before I was born I chose to be reincarnated into a creative family that would somehow influence and lead me to my own creativity.
JF: I often feel that mistakes and failures can lead to better work, have you ever had a similar experience where set-backs have led to greater successes?
MA: Deciding whether something is a mistake or a success requires judgment. I try to avoid being judged and being judgmental. I’m sure what you’re saying definitely has some bearing on my life but I simply think of it as my life, something I did because I had to do it. I don’t know if I was smart enough to step back and think whether something worked or not. I simply went ahead to the next thing. I definitely would not change anything about my life for fear that whatever the event, good or bad, might have influenced the point to which I eventually came. I think I read somewhere that mistakes are the only thing you can truly call your own. I believe that. My life has been a series of successful mistakes.
2006 Iron Horse Jacket, 1985
JF: At what point did you start using beads as portraiture? What inspired you to make portraiture or beadwork unconventionally, like your beadwork with Brooke Sheilds on the back of the leather jacket?
Buffalo Bill and Sitting Bull, 2006
MA: Some of the first pieces I did were the Arizona state flag, a Hopi sun katsina and Mickey Mouse, so I began doing whatever I wanted to do in beadwork. Portraiture came around age 23 during my time at IAIA simply because I wanted something cool for the back of my motorcycle jacket.
JF: Are there any artists with whom you identify yourself, or other artists who have inspired your work?
MA: I always really liked Andy Warhol because he took commonplace things and recognized the beauty in them and elevated them to art. I used to like Leonardo Da Vinci quite a bit also because he seemed like someone who knew he could do whatever he wanted to do. He seemed to approach his art as a science. Creativity wise, art and science are two branches of the same tree.
JF: I read that you have experience doing documentary film work; does film continue to manifest itself in your life?
MA: I make short films to back projects behind my performance pieces often. But I primarily just do films for myself, now.
JF: For me as an art student I often struggle with what work is really my own while doing assignments for classes, what part of going to art school helped you with your process? Were any parts of it stifling to your creativity or style? Lastly, do you have any suggestions for a potter who wants to bring more meaning into her work?
MA: I enjoyed art school and got a lot out of the diversity of assignments. I still think of life as a school. Often I’m curated into shows that have a particular theme. This is almost like getting an assignment in a class, and I usually enjoy the challenge and embrace the creativity I must put into the assignment. For advice: be fearless, know that you can do it before you even start.
The Gathering, 1997
JF: I see that your piece, “The Gathering” is a spin on Portland, Oregon. The juxtaposition of a Native Tribe coupled with a city scene backdrop is intriguing to me, why did you decide on Portland as being that city?
MA: This piece was done specifically as a poster piece for the first Indian Art Northwest held in Portland, OR. I combined a Major Moorehouse photograph (of Nez Perce taken at a fourth of July celebration) with a photograph of Portland. The idea is that the Native energy still resided there. It’s almost like a Twilight Zone episode where the past is given a glimpse of the future and the future is given a glimpse of the past.
Vision of Crazy Horse, 2007
JF: Your piece, “Vision of Crazy Horse,” is haunting and beautiful; can you write a bit about what inspired this work?
MA: Many times images just seem to belong together. That was the case with this piece. I’ve had the three images separately and in the same folder for a while. But somehow they just migrated toward each other. It seems to incorporate the idea that the bigger the event, the further back it can be foreseen.
JF: Will you be planning more performance work in the future?
MA: I have no plans for future performances, but the need to create is always looming on the horizon.
JF: Do you think of yourself as a “Contemporary North American Indigenous Artists?” Do you think terms like that one are useful or not?
MA: I suppose if I need to be categorized and cross-referenced and Googled, I would fit all of those specifications. The terms are useful if you need to pinpoint something, but I look in the other direction and see myself as an artist of the world. I don’t mind being classified as an “ethnic” artist, as society seems to do, because my aesthetics are rooted in my being an Indian.
JF: Do you feel like there is a separation between contemporary indigenous artists and the rest of the art world as represented by mainstream art magazines, biennials, art fairs, etc.?
MA: I think there is a separation, but it’s artificial, and only because the mainstream art world has made one. I anticipate more crossing over in the future. I think creating is just creating.
JF: Can you recommend another artist that we should interview for this blog in the future?
MA: America Meredith (Cherokee Nation)
Marcus Amerman is an enrolled member of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma. He was born in Phoenix, AZ and grew up in the Pacific Northwest before settling in Santa Fe, NM. He received a BA in Fine Art at Whitman College in Walla Walla, WA and took additional art courses at the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, NM. He credits the Plateau region and its wealth of talented bead artists with introducing him to the “traditional” art form of beadwork. He quickly made this art form his own, however, by creating a new genre of bead artistry in which beads are stitched down, one by one, to create realistic, pictorial images, not just large color fields or patterns. Amerman draws upon a wide range of influences to create strikingly original works that reflect his background of having lived in three different regions with strong artistic traditions, his academic introduction to pop art and social commentary, and his inventive exploration of the potential artistic forms and expressions using beads. Although he is best known for his bead art, he is also a multimedia artist, painter, performance artist (his character “Buffalo Man” can be seen on the cover of the book Indian Country), fashion designer, and glass artist, as well. His work is in the permanent collections of museums such as the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian, the Portland Art Museum, and the American Museum of Natural History, among many others.
Artist’s Statement:To define my concept of art is much like defining my concept of God. It is something elusive. It is something that is constantly changing, evolving, and growing. It is a Great Mystery. The act of creating art is a process that consciously embraces this mystery of life. To participate in this creation called life is to look for clues. One clue leads to the next clue. I must constantly challenge my own thoughts, emotions, and opinions in order to find/create the next clue. The plot unravels. This mystery, this divine conspiracy, grows larger and more inclusive as you explore it. It becomes increasingly obvious that everyone and everything is involved. Eventually, you realize that you are an integral part of the mystery. You are the Great Mystery.