First American Art Magazine No. 21, Winter 2018/19 - Page 54

PROFILE CHOCTAW-CHICKASAW PAINTER NORMA HOWARD By Vicki Monks I F IT WEREN’T FOR HER FATHER’S VOICE in a dream, Norma Howard might never have taken up painting as a career. She had worked hard all her life, giving her best effort to every- thing she did. She’d always loved creating beautiful things but had no confidence that anyone else would appreciate her vision of Choctaw culture as she wanted to express it. She was in her mid-30s when her job as a seamstress for a clothing company in her small Oklahoma town disappeared; the company moved all the jobs to Mexico. She was in a panic—until one night of long dreaming, when she awoke hearing her father say, “You should paint.” So she took up the brushes that she’d used for years as her creative outlet and began to paint in earnest. Today Norma Howard is recognized as one of the premier Native artists of the Southeastern tribes. Her watercolors regularly win top prizes. But she says it was only because of that dream that she took a chance on painting the stories of her childhood, of her parent’s early days, and of her ancestors in Mississippi. She developed a style, similar to pointillism, but completely unique in watercolor—a technique she calls double basket-weave stroke that gives her paintings depth. In all of Norma Howard’s paint- ings, a strong sense of place and of time permeates scenes of work and family— harvesting rivercane, gathering around a campfire or on a stomp dance ground, visiting with friends next to an old pickup truck, guiding children to the next task—a peaceful time without conflict. It’s a vision of the world that she treasures. That’s what she prefers to paint, but for her compe- tition entry this year in the 2018 Santa Fe Indian Market, she went back to the hardest time for Choctaws: the removal from their homelands in Mississippi, sometimes called the Trail of Tears. That was the first removal ever in United States history: 1831. Everybody thinks that Cherokees were the first, but Choctaws were the first in the Southeast to be forced from our homelands. Along the way, a miko—one of our leaders—told a newspaper, “This was a trail of tears and death.” It was the same with all the removals. At your Indian Market booth, I overheard your conversation with a Jewish woman who said she didn’t really know about the Choctaw Removal, but she said this painting gave her chills. The painting portrays a line of Choctaw people passing by a lake or pond, their reflections in the water. Only one man looks toward the viewer. He has the face of Norma’s father, the man with the staff, a leader on a hard journey. VM: This is only the second Choctaw Removal painting you’ve ever done. Why did you decide to do this one now? NH: It’s very emotional. I only did this one because when I saw that Andrew Jackson’s portrait was hanging in the White House, it made me think of that time when Andrew Jackson forced us to leave our homelands. That’s why I did that painting. Over 4,000 of our Choctaw people died on the way from Mississippi to Oklahoma. There was sorrow. But as an artist, I choose not to portray that. I choose to portray my people as, “We’re going to get through this; we’re going to survive.” With their perseverance, they were going to survive. That’s why I chose to paint my father looking outward. He’s watching, taking care of the children, the vulnerable. 52 | WWW.FIRSTAMERICANARTMAGAZINE.COM It does me, too. The story behind the painting makes it more meaningful. The painting goes to the inner soul of the artist: ancestors, culture, traditions. It’s a deeper meaning. And she related this to her own ancestors’ experience. Choctaw Removal happened more than 100 years before the Holocaust. While your painting is specific to Choctaws, it could also be seen as a universal statement about oppression, injustice, and prejudice. Do you see your painting—this experience—as relevant to the discussion today? As Native people we’ve seen it before, with those who are sick and hungry. We’ve all seen it through history. Now they’re trying to take children away from Indigenous people coming here. History is being repeated, same as old days. You get heartbroken; it’s always embedded in your heart. Your technique has been compared to pointillism, but that is rarely done with watercolors. It’s extraordinary. Watercolor is the hardest thing to work with because everything gets muddy. If you notice around my house, you’ll see a