In 2007, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor was honored with a traditional blessing at the annual Sovereignty Symposium. This portrait captures the moment she was greeted by Traditional Caddo Spiritual Healer Thompson Williams while Cheyenne Chief Gordon Yellowman looks on.
In 1981, O’Connor made history when President Ronald Reagan appointed her as an associate justice of the United States Supreme Court. The United States Senate unanimously approved her appointment as the country’s first female justice. O’Connor served twenty-four years on the United States Supreme Court before retiring in 2006.
As a pioneering woman in a male-dominated field, O’Connor faced numerous challenges throughout her career. After finishing third in her law school class at Stanford University in 1952, she worked without salary for the San Mateo county attorney. She then accepted a civilian attorney position with the Quartermaster Center in Frankfurt, Germany. After returning to the United States, she worked in private practice in Arizona before returning to public service. From 1965 to 1969, she worked in the state attorney general’s office before being appointed by the governor to fill a vacant state senate seat. O’Connor was re-elected to two more terms and became the majority leader in 1974. Later that year, she was elected as a judge for the Maricopa County Superior Court. After five years, she was appointed to the Arizona Court of Appeals. After two years on the appellate bench, President Reagan selected her for the United States Supreme Court.
The painting was unveiled on June 5, 2013, during one of O’Connor’s return visits to the Sovereignty Symposium. During the presentation, Yellowman conducted a traditional Cheyenne blessing ceremony, calling on the spirits who dwell in the four directions.
Yellowman called on the thunder and lightning, nonóma’e, in the Cheyenne language. They give us energy and show us the power in our everyday lives. He called on the spirit of the cyclone, hevovetāso, to keep us in balance. The cyclone urges people not to fear him, but to respect him. The four Holy Men who dwell in the northern Plains, Notamota, were asked to take care of the physical aspects of our lives. The spirit of the turtle, ma’ēno, was asked to provide patience, to teach us to never rush, taking time to enjoy life, to seek out its mysteries and to be thoughtful when making judgments. Finally, Yellowman called upon God Almighty himself, who brings us life, to bless the object. “The painting begins its new beginning now because it now has a life.”
Artist Thompson Williams is a member of the Caddo Nation who was drawn to art very early. As a child, he often used pencils for drawing. In grade school, his father bought him paint by numbers sets, but he found that he didn’t care for oil paint. “I wasn’t patient enough,” he said. In high school, he experimented with tempura and watercolor paints before hitting on acrylics, a medium he has stuck with ever since.
After high school, Williams attended classes at Bacone College. There he had the opportunity to meet many artists working in different styles, in addition to studying the classics. He met fellow Oklahoma Judicial Center artist Kelly Haney, see page 165, and had the opportunity to watch him paint. “I was fascinated by his work.” Williams became particularly intrigued by the work of Salvador Dali and his surreal depictions of real objects. To him, surrealism offered the perfect style to express the spirituality of tribal people.
He continued studying art at the University of Oklahoma and later completed an art education degree at the University of Central Oklahoma. Williams says he’s been influenced by artists in many different genres, including fellow Oklahoma Judicial Center artists dg Smalling, pages 138 and 146, and Brent Greenwood, page 35, who is also Williams’ brother-in-law. “When you look at the work and it makes you feel, you know it is powerful,” he said. “I love all forms of art. It is an expression from that individual’s heart, mind and soul.”
For Williams, art is a form of communication, an expression of how he feels, so he only paints when he is in a positive frame of mind. While working on the Justice O’Connor piece, Williams drew on his background as a Spiritual Healer and called upon the Great Father to imbue the painting with a sense of harmony. “I asked that when people look at it, they feel balance and peace within themselves,” he said. “The painting shows people of different backgrounds interacting in a positive way. I want people to take those positive feelings and then give them away to someone else.”
It is this sentiment of caring for others and spreading positive energy as a Healer, doing ceremonies, prayers, talking circles that Williams is best known for and how he spends most of his free time. His positive energy spills over into his work as the Indian Education coordinator for Jefferson County, Colorado, the largest school district in the state.
His paintings have been exhibited in numerous shows, including the Lewis and Clark Bicentennial Celebration in Fort Atkinson, Nebraska, the Jacobson House Indian Art Market, the Colorado History Museum and the Red Earth Festival. He has garnered first place honors at the University of Oklahoma Student Show, the American Indian Exposition and the North Park Mall Art Show in Joplin, Missouri. The portrait of Justice O’Connor was commissioned for the Oklahoma Judicial Center and is Williams’ first piece of public art.
Source: Interview with Gordon Yellowman, June 5, 2013; personal interview, June 11, 2013.