My work shows what really bothers me. My feelings come out – that way it’s not so boring.
-Frank Big Bear, Jr.
Although Frank Big Bear, Jr. has not widely exhibited his work, his unique and bright artistic style and interesting subject matter has been embraced by the art community. His use of Prismacolor pencils as a medium has resulted in very vibrant compositions, which are reminiscent of the pencil and ledgerbook drawings made by Indians while incarcerated by the army. So while his work exhibits a rejection of the “traditional” representation of Indians, it is clearly situated in his ties to membership in the Chippewa community. His pieces are presented in a collage style where several small images come together to create one work. Each of the smaller images could be seen as an independent picture, but they combine to highlight the message of the entire piece. Big Bear often leaves parts of the drawings unfinished until right before they are needed for an exhibition, claiming that “it’s just better that way.”
Reservations about Life is a broad-reaching commentary on Big Bear’s life as an Indian and as an artist. There are countless different subjects depicted in this piece, but some of the main themes that Big Bear examines are stereotypical Native Americans, how he feels about other artists, problems within the Indian world, and the injustices Native Americans have experienced in the past and in the present.
Native Americans are portrayed in various guises throughout the piece. Portrayed on the right side are two present-day stereotypical reservation Indians, and above them is a traditional reservation Indian from the early 1900s having cross words with a stereotypical Indian businessman that has left the reservation. Then there are the historic American Indians in full dress, either riding a horse, doing a ritualistic dance, or participating in a self-mutilating ceremony. Big Bear presents these different figures both realistically, as well as space-age looking.
The way Big Bear feels about other artists is also very pronounced in this work. In the very center is Fritz Scholder, one of the first famous artists to paint Indians in a contemporary style. In the drawing Scholder is portrayed next a piece of paper that says, “I don’t consider myself an Indian artist. I consider myself an artist who happens to paint Indians.” Big Bear seems to be making a commentary that Scholder has abandoned his Indian roots. Next to Scholder is George Morrison, an artist who had a huge impact on Big Bear’s personal life. Morrison looks deep in thought, perhaps contemplating his next painting. Next to him is a piece of paper that says, “I refuse to paint Indians with feathers – it’s not my style.” On the left are busts of other European artists whom have influenced Big Bear, like Picasso, Van Gogh, and Alice Neel, and while their styles have had an impact on Big Bear, lightening bolts that seem to symbolize cross words are being directed towards all of them as well, perhaps because they too don’t incorporate any sort of Indian style into their artwork.
Big Bear portrays problems facing the Native American world throughout his painting as well. There is an Indian smoking, as well as one drinking, both looking ill and out of sorts. One figure in the drawing has a sign on his back that says, “Ask me how to lose weight – live on a reservation,” highlighting the problems with hunger and malnutrition that many Native Americans face. He also shows how difficult it is to be accepted in both the Indian world and the white world, as can be seen in the conflicts between the different “types” of Indians. Another problem facing Indians that Big Bear faces in this drawing is how they can hold on to their traditional culture while at the same time get involved in non-Indian culture, Star Trek.
And finally, Big Bear depicts several incidents that show the many injustices that have been afflicted upon Indians. In the upper-left hand side are nine Indians hanging, representing the Mankato mass lynching of 1862. In his drawing, however, the Indians are all wearing modern day clothing, perhaps symbolizing that while Indians are not being publicly executed any more, they are still dying unnecessarily because of untreated diseases and the high rate of suicide among Indians. In the upper-right hand corner there is a picture of a nuclear plant with green sludge oozing over the sides. This represents the reservation in Minnesota that allowed to have a nuclear plant built on their land because they were too poor to politically resist the construction. A tornado rips through the background of the piece, perhaps an omen that more injustices will be committed. This artwork is full of many more issues that Big Bear finds important and wants both Indians and non-Indians to be aware of.
This piece was anonymously donated to Plains Art Museum in 1996.
I think I don’t have a choice in being an artist, I was born to be an artist. I can’t stop.
-Frank Big Bear, Jr.
Frank Big Bear, Jr. has become one of the leading Indian artists within the Midwest with his unique medium and style.
Big Bear was born on July 8, 1953 in White Earth, Minnesota. He spent most of his childhood on the White Earth Indian Reservation, until he moved to Minneapolis at the age of 16. He had drawn since his childhood and decided to become an artist after he graduated high school. He studied for only a year at the University of Minnesota, and doesn’t consider himself to be an “university trained” artist. While he was at school, however, he did get to study alongside artist George Morrison, who had great impact on Big Bear’s life. When he wasn’t drawing or painting, Big Bear worked as a cab driver to help support his family. Big Bear continues to work in his studio making drawings and paintings that are rarely shown. In 2003, Plains Art Museum commissioned both Big Bear and his son, Star Wallowing Bull, to paint a 26-foot long mural in the museum’s atrium.
Big Bear is known for his bright Prismacolor pencil works. His early work centered on deeply personal themes, including his family and cultural identity as an Indian. His later works have broader themes of social and political issues, such as the Native American’s role in the modern world and the integration between heritage and popular culture. His more recent works have adapted “traditional” American Indian themes, especially that of the warrior.
Besides George Morrison, Big Bear has been greatly influenced by Pablo Picasso’s Cubism, and Surrealism.
Big Bear’s work provides a personal account of both the recent history and present day experience of Native Americans. He won a Jerome Foundation Fellowship in 1982, a Bush Foundation Fellowship in 1986, and a McKnight Foundation Fellowship in 1992.
Big Bear has participated in only a few exhibitions in the region, as he is not interested in the commercial aspect of the art world. When it has been shown, Big Bear’s work has been displayed at Plains Art Museum in Fargo, the North Dakota Museum of Art in Grand Forks, the Bockley Gallery of both Minneapolis and New York City, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, and at both the Minneapolis Institute of Arts and the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, among others. He has also been featured in several publications, such as City Pages in 1994, the Minneapolis College of Art and Design Magazine in 1993, the Minneapolis Institute of Arts Magazine in 1991, the University of Minnesota Art Magazine in 1990, the American Indian Arts in 1989, and many others.
Frank Big Bear, Jr., Reservations about Life, 1985-86, colored pencil on paper, 30 x 44″