Billy Hensley paints gar fish to connect with Chickasaw homelands

Billy Hensley (b. Paul’s Valley, OK, 1978) wanted to pursue a career as an artist before the accident.

His mom was artistic. His grandmother, Sharon Ramey, was an oil painter and had her own studio.

He recalls with particular fondness being captivated by a high school art teacher in Sulphur, Oklahoma.

“No one wanted to leave – most of the time when the bell rings, kids are running out the door, in his classes, everyone would just sit there,” Hensley told me.

The class was a combination of fine art instruction, art history and life lessons.

“Every extra second I had in high school would be in the art room,” Hensley, who now lives in Norman, said. “Mr. Walsh just let me go – I didn’t even do most of the assignments that the other students did because I had already done them.”

Paul Walsh had former students pursuing arts careers, earning a living around the world. All of these examples and influences informed Hensley that an art career was possible. Still, the pay and job prospects as an electrician were more secure than the uncertain life of an artist.

“I was a good electrician, but I was never the best because it’s not what I wanted to do, it’s not what I was supposed to be doing,” Hensley said.

That was made apparent – almost fatally so – on a job at Tinker Air Force base in Oklahoma City almost 10 years ago now. Working on a high voltage lighting system that wasn’t supposed to be on, Hensley received a shock of electricity that jolted straight through his hand, burning a hole all the way through.

Had he not fallen on the lift he was working on, pulling him from the circuit, Hensley would have been electrocuted. A stroke of luck in a sense. Another was that the charge cut clean through muscle without damaging any of the ligaments, bones or nerves in his hand. His right hand. His painting hand. The wound was gruesome and gushing blood, but the extreme heat from the shock actually cauterized the hole, avoiding more damage.

Hensley had been unhappy in his job as an electrician long before the accident. No more clear signal could be received that it was finally time for a change. He’s been selling his paintings ever since. 

“As soon as I got back to doing my artwork, I just knew I was doing the right thing,” Hensley said. “Things just fell in place for me; I know a lot of artists have trouble being seen, I had a lot of help through my tribe, they helped advertise and get interviews.”

Gar Fish

Billy Hensley, 'Hard Fish Pinstriped,' 2021. Acrylic on canvas, 24x36 inches.
Billy Hensley, ‘Hard Fish Pinstriped,’ 2021. Acrylic on canvas, 24×36 inches.

As with all the other tribes forcibly removed by the U.S. government from their homelands in the Southeast and sent to Oklahoma, the Chickasaw tragically abandoned countless cultural traditions tied to the native plants and animals and herbs and soil where they had thrived for millennia. Hensley is helping restore one of those traditions with depictions of gar fish in his paintings.

“The garfish is a sacred fish to the Chickasaw,” Hensley explains. “One of the last Stomp Dances is called the ‘Hard Fish Dance.’” 

Chickasaw people traditionally used the gar’s teeth for tattooing and its scales to tip arrows as just a few examples of the uses which connected Chickasaw people from their homelands in present day Mississippi to the fish.

Hensley incorporates buffalo and prominent Chickasaw historical figures into his paintings as well, but the gar fish imagery stands out as unique. 

Putting in the Work

Billy Hensley, 'Baseballer,' 2020. Acrylic on canvas, 48x28 inches.
Billy Hensley, ‘Baseballer,’ 2020. Acrylic on canvas, 48×28 inches.

Hensley may have left the electrician’s trade long ago, but he still carries a laborer’s work ethic. He wakes up around 4 AM to paint every day. A prominent feature of his paintings are narrow stripes and grid patterns. 

Producing these returns him to his blue-collar past.

“It feels like work – it feels like labor, like manual labor – a lot of times when I do the stripes I use a trowel, the same trowel a masonry worker would use,” Hensley said. “I use a T-square (to create the stripes); it feels like I’m doing something manually. With a paintbrush, I’m working in a painterly fashion, with a trowel it’s more physical.” 

And much less dangerous.

Billy Hensley’s artwork can be purchased online via WYLD Gallery.

Wyld Gallery in Austin, TX deals exclusively in contemporary Native American artwork.
Wyld Gallery in Austin, TX deals exclusively in contemporary Native American artwork.

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