Sharron Ahtone Harjo
This mural was commissioned by the Oklahoma Historical Society in 1985 to be a welcoming piece for a new Native American Gallery. Funded in part through grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Noble Foundation, the vibrant colors drew visitors into the gallery’s entrance.
In her statement about the painting at the time, Kiowa artist Sharron Ahtone Harjo said she wanted to communicate with the viewer on as many levels as possible. “Levels of communication can be found in abstract designs, compositions, treatment of texture and mass.” She also presented elements of realism as a bridge to additional levels of communication.
The mural includes many symbols and traditional designs depicted in bright, bold colors conveying the artist’s thoughts and feelings about contemporary Oklahoma. “I am reflecting my environment, traditional and symbolic nature of my heritage, and concerns of past, present and future. I feel this piece of work is a statement of our time and could also make an additional statement to generations to come.” Her words now seem prophetic as a new audience experiences her painting nearly three decades later.
The piece is intended to be viewed from the upper left to the right in a spiral manner. The first image is the Kiowa shield featuring the traditional divided color space of red and blue with the four horses in red, blue, white and yellow. The oak leaves symbolize Kiowa men and women. The eight pink and five white vertical marks beneath the leaves stand for the year the painting was created: eight and five. Six is a lucky Kiowa number, so there are six symbolic tipis. The rectangular object that serves as foundation for the tipis is a parfleche case, a rawhide bag used to carry dried meat. The name derives from the French words for “defend” and “arrow” because the hide was tough enough to double as a shield. Designs on the bags sometimes represented geographical features of a particular area.
Below the case are floral, then geometric beadwork designs. Traditionally, designs worked from the beads carry personal significance for both the wearer and the creator of the piece. On the lower right are the seven stars of the Pleiades cluster featured in the Kiowa legend of the seven sisters who ascended skyward to escape a bear. Two tipi designs separate blue horses, which are representative of Harjo’s personal style. More beadwork designs draw the eye up the left edge of the painting. The cross was originally a decorative adornment, but also has religious meaning. The United States, Oklahoma and Kiowa flags flow into a green outline of North America. The map shows the original home of the Kiowa tribe with migration marks leading to what is now Oklahoma.
The handprint on the horse is that of the artist, Sharron Ahtone Harjo. The smaller handprints above come from “one daughter,” Tahnee Ahtone Harjo Growingthunder, who is now an artist herself.
“In my art I try to bring the past into the present and record the present for the future. Painting is never tedious to me. I paint, indeed I must paint, when I am happy,” Harjo said in a 1985 interview.
Harjo earned an art education degree from Central State University (now the University of Central Oklahoma) and taught art for a number of years. Her first solo exhibition was held in 1966 and sponsored by the Bureau of Indian Affairs in Billings, Montana. Two years later, she was named Miss Indian America. Harjo was later recognized as Outstanding Indian Woman of Oklahoma. When Harjo created the painting in 1985, her work was featured as part of a traveling exhibit, along with seven other Native American artists. Daughters of the Earth opened in Oklahoma City, then traveled to Atlanta, Durango, and Tulsa. The show also garnered an eight-page feature in the summer 1985 issue of Oklahoma Today. One Daughter of the Earth is on permanent loan from the Oklahoma Historical Society.
Source: Oklahoma Art in Public Places archives; Oklahoma Today, July – August 1985, p.16-23; “Tepee Cleaned for Museum Opening, The Oklahoman, October 23, 1985.