I moved off campus my junior year at Long Island University into a second-floor room of a home in the cheerful village of Sea Cliff, one square mile of artists, Victorian architecture, and a small cliff park overlooking Hempstead Bay. My space, with an adjacent half room, boasted two walls of picture windows with ample light and openness to support studying, reflecting, and launching myself into independence.
I explored the town’s steep hills and beaches and dreamed about what my life could be. The lapping waves of the Long Island Sound lured me, as did the multicolored lattice woodwork of its homes, many tucked into the hillside. Here was a town honoring natural beauty and mindful construction. Here fanned my pursuit of an artful life, my own creative inklings spurring stories, poems, and choreography.
I needed a bar to call my own, and I found such a place several blocks away in Café Harlequin, a classy establishment with glass tables and food priced beyond my student budget. More importantly, though, it had a dance floor.
Many a weekend, I sipped a Black Russian at the bar, impatiently waiting for patrons to swallow their last bites of mousse or strawberry-topped cheesecake and pay up so the staff could push tables to the side and the DJ could spin Stevie Wonder, The Police, Earth, Wind and Fire, or whatever tunes moved the crowd. The rhythms of the music, the polished brass rails, and birds of paradise behind the bar allowed me to forget class deadlines and my job with a psychoanalyst and to dance among those whose life missions and careers were further along than mine.
The walls showcased many local artists, and I met a few, like Miriam Cassell, with her paintings of Japanese-inspired silk robes and a kitchen floor that brought me to my knees. But it wasn’t until a T.C. Cannon exhibit that I felt an unfamiliar stirring. His bold use of colors activated something. I danced, and then I walked to the wall. His work called me to look, to look closer, to wonder about the gold and metallic embossed circles framing the images and the flat backgrounds. His characters, all Native Americans, floated in a rooted yet vibrant, almost psychedelic space. I was drawn to “Two Guns Arikara,” which depicted a Native American of the North Dakotan Arikara tribe in traditional clothing sitting on a Victorian chair, two guns crossed on his lap, his contemplative gaze looking one direction while his legs faced another.
“How much?” I asked the bartender, who thought I was ready to settle my bar tab. Several nights later, with money borrowed from my parents, I slid the “Two Guns Arikara” framed poster into the backseat of my car.
I did not know that Cannon died a year previously, at age 31, in a car accident in New Mexico and that the Aberbach Fine Art Gallery in Manhattan, which represented him for several years, intended to host a one-man exhibit but changed it to a memorial show. I did not know that he attended the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe and his peers considered his work, which blended traditional Native American and modern, mostly Anglo-influenced art, as groundbreaking. I did not know that he was an Oklahoman with a growing national and international audience. This was still the B.I. Period — before Internet, before iPhones, before the contagion of immediate gratification of a few clicks and swipes to answer all manner of questions. What I did know was those vibrant colors and patterns, the crossed guns, and proud position of the man on the chair of “Two Guns Arikara” spoke to me.
I had yet to delve into the history of my own family’s immigration from Poland, Russia, and Austria, to appreciate my grandparents’ inability to either pronounce or spell my name. I had yet to understand why an arsonist painted swastikas on the synagogue my family attended in Connecticut before the building collapsed in flames. I was a second generation Come-Here, a recent arrival compared to the character wearing Native garb, likely speaking his grandparents’ tongue, and holding onto his ancestral ways while sitting in the chair of a colonizer. In his collision of cultures lay seeds for recognizing my own familial displacement. We shared a holocaust, though on opposite sides of the Atlantic. We were survivors.
I placed my acquisition on the wall between my bed and dresser. The poster stayed there for several years, guarding me during sleep and studies. It followed me into the foyer of my house in Virginia, where it watched me stuff dance clothes into a bag for a performance and place a completed manuscript into the mail slot. When I loaded the moving van for Tulsa, I didn’t realize how taking the poster initialized a homecoming for Cannon until I stumbled into “Woman in Window,” a woodcut print of his at the Gilcrease Museum.
• • •
Born in Lawton in 1946 and raised in Gracemont, Oklahoma, by a Kiowa father and Caddo mother, Tommy Wayne (or T.C., as he is better known, or “Pai-doung-a-day,” his Kiowa name that means “He Stood in the Sun”) showed great talent from an early age. After high school, he spent two years at the Institute of American Indian Arts, formed a few years earlier under the Department of Interior’s Bureau of Indian Affairs, the first school to provide a bold, innovative approach to arts education steeped in Native American culture. He studied the art and artifacts of many tribes, works of the Kiowa Five, and under the tutelage of Fritz Scholder, a successful abstract expressionist artist, the work of artists like Matisse and Gauguin, which birthed T.C.’s distinctive style, visible in “His Hair Flows Like a River” and “Collector 5 (Man in a Wicker Chair).”
There were early omens of T.C.’s future. His father, Walter Cannon, witnessed light emerging from a photo of his son, and an elder explained it as a vision predicting T.C.’s fame as a painter. T.C. experienced premonitions about his own death at an early age, which he regularly mentioned to friends and wrote about in poetry.
He left the Institute of American Indian Arts to attend the San Francisco Art Institute. He dropped out two months later to enlist in the army and served from 1967 – 69 in Vietnam, for which he received two Bronze Stars. On his return, he studied philosophy, literature, and art and finished his degree at Central State University in Edmond, Oklahoma, in 1972.
Interest in his sketches and paintings grew, catapulted by a show through the Southern Plains Indian Museum in Anadarko and a two-man show with Fritz Scholder at the Smithsonian. This latter show, which toured Europe, attracted the attention of the Aberbach Fine Art Gallery in Manhattan, which represented T.C. until his death.
T.C. refused to create cute, prancing deer and chipmunks, or what he and fellow artist Sherman Chaddlesone referred to as “Bambi Art.”
“Tradition in art is now for the simple fact of tomorrow,” Cannon said. He honored his heritage, especially the work of the Kiowa Five, yet he also recognized the larger art milieu. He painted political images like “As Snow Before a Summer Sun (Village With Bomb),” which shows a parent and child sitting in front of an exploding atom bomb. And then there’s sketches like “Big Foot in the Snow,” based on the iconic photograph of the frozen Sioux leader during the battle of Wounded Knee. Through his mastery of color, design, and subject, T.C. succeeded at placing Native American art on the world stage.
Whether in my Tulsa dining room or in my foyer after I returned to Virginia, “Two Guns Arikara” always gets me to look closer. The backdrop of circles, or dots, suggest a dimension beyond what is known or familiar. As a symbol, circles represent sun, moon, planets, a balance of male and female energy, and the process of individuation. Circles suggest totality and perfection, the completion of a cycle — no beginning, no end. T.C. explained to friend Mike Lord that dots symbolize the way Native American sun dancers view the world. In his poem “The Circle,” T.C. writes:
the circle is the only tangible reason
i have for continuing the work.
it is the impetus for my life and its
supporting roots of religion, art, music,
there are no angles or unkind directions
within a circle
…there is a beautiful honesty about the
presence of circle in art works of man
and the god-works of nature.
the circle is the essence of forever.
Joyce Cannon, T.C.’s sister and executor of his estate, believes if her brother were still alive that “maybe he would be writing movies. He was writing a play when he passed, but no one has found it. Or maybe he would be teaching at a university and showing the young people how to be.” In 2014, she sold the last of his paintings and continues to make his sketches available.
Originally published in This Land, Vol. 6, Issue 4, February 15, 2015.