Del Curfman carrying on brilliant Apsáalooke (Crow) painting tradition

Del Curfman boldly carries on a brilliant Apsáalooke (Crow) painting tradition. It’s a tradition he was long unaware of.

Growing up just outside Pryor, Montana in the Southeastern corner of the state, near, but not on, the Apsáalooke reservation, Curfman (b. 1993) wasn’t introduced to the genius of Earl Biss. He didn’t know of Kevin Red Star.

Those names were missing from his artistic development until enrolling at the Institute of American Indian Arts in 2012.

Which is not to say Curfman wasn’t influenced by Apsáalooke culture. He was. Deeply.

Crow Fair

“One of the greatest celebrations that we have all year,” Curfman says of Crow Fair. “It’s hard to put into words the beauty of it because it transcends. You feel the energy in the air in a way that is so charged, it has all these sounds and smells and relationships to color, and that’s really where my work begins –being influenced and inspired by Crow Fair.”

Curfman’s recent “Vanishing” series intimately captures the energy and colors of Crow Fair in paintings titled Crow Fair Pride, Crow Fair Brilliancy  and Crow Fair Regular, all of which are available for purchase at Wyld Gallery in Austin, Texas.

Del Curfman, ‘Crow Fair Pride,’ (2019). Oil on canvas. 18×20 inches.

But what of that title, “Vanishing?”

“The idea of disappearance has been a mainstream thought that has been propagated by Edward Curtis, a photographer, who in 1904 produced a collection of photographs titled ‘Vanishing Race,’” Curfman, who now lives in Santa Fe, explains in his artist’s statement on the series. “My paintings utilize the notion of vanishing through a stark white background crossing over Native American figures as if the sands of time and space are impermanent to a permanent people. Tradition will not be lost.”

Speak to Native people as a white person about art and culture and heritage and the one definitive through line from each and every conversation, irrespective of tribe, will be a reinforcement that theirs is a living history. They are a contemporary people. They exist. Proud of their ancestry and engaged in the present day.

Using “Vanishing” for the series’ title serves as a “made you look!” These dynamic, energetic, vibrant depictions of modern-day Crow Fair from a Crow artist carrying that name stops admirers in their tracks to question Curfman’s intent and then learn his lesson about Curtis and vanishing and permanence.

“The ‘Vanishing Series’ is a response to the perception that Native American culture has or will vanish,” Curfman says. “The ‘Vanishing Series’ aims to belie this exact idea. My artwork has become a vessel of cultural sharing and knowledge.”

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

Collectors should take advantage of the “sharing and knowledge” Curfman offers. His paintings provide a direct connection to an essential piece of indigenous culture few experience in person.

“I was attending Crow Fair in my teenage years,” Curfman said. “My family participated since I was born, but I really took a special liking to it. It was the highlight of my year – going out and camping with my uncle and my clan (Xuhkaalaxche/Ties-in-a-bundle) uncle at our family and campsite. Each family has its own historical campsite at Crow Fair. It’s a ritual and it’s tradition and it’s history.”

Listening to Curfman, seeing his paintings, the splendor of Crow Fair takes vibrant shape before your eyes.

“There’s a point in time where you’re preparing for Crow Fair and there’s this cusp of excitement,” Curfman remembers. “We’re celebrating culture, but also history, this is something that started in 1918, officially, even though we were doing powwow ceremonies, and championing our culture already, the event has been a part of our culture for generations.”

Curfman’s paintings from his “Vanishing Series” capture this rich slice of life as moments in time. Snapshots. While the figures in his paintings are isolated against a painterly white background – background details having been removed – the mind’s eye fills in those empty spaces with a panoply of the “sights, sounds and smells” Curfman recalls from Crow Fairs past.

“You see mothers and daughters in a way that’s kind of ephemeral within this relationship that transcends time where a father is teaching his son how to dance and that’s such a beautiful moment and place of humanity,” Curfman reminisces about how Crow Fair’s intergenerational connections most deeply impacted him. “It’s a place where we we’re connecting to the past, through our traditions, but looking forward into the future with the next generation of storytellers and indigenous leaders.”

Earl Biss, Kevin Red Star and Del Curfman

Placing Curfman in a lineage with Biss, one of the greatest colorists of the 20th century, an equal of Matisse with color, a bona fide genius with a paintbrush the likes of which history has rarely seen, and Red Star, a stalwart of the Western and Native art scenes for 40 years, an essential figure to indigenous art, a fixture of esteemed museums and private collections, does not come lightly. That praise isn’t merely the result of his ancestry.

Del Curfman in studio with paintings from his “Vanishing” series.

Curfman has “it.” At just 28-years-old, his work shows a confidence and maturity befitting a painter with decades of experience. Curfman has something to say and knows how to say it.

In that regard, perhaps it was best he wasn’t aware of Biss and Red Star and other Native painters as a child. Perhaps it’s best he was allowed to develop artistically outside of their magnificent shadows.

“When you grow up in Montana, culture is different out there, it’s not so inclusive to the fine arts, it’s kind of like a desert. We were very isolated,” Curfman explains. “There weren’t any large scale shows at nearby art venues, in fact, the closest city was Billings and that’s not a place where Native arts and cultures are championed especially.”

Curfman’s journey then mirrors Biss and Red Star.

“People like Kevin and Earl, they kind of go off and create their own legend, in their own way, outside of Montana,” Curfman says of the path he has also followed.

Again, however, Curfman is quick to remind that while he wasn’t connected to the museum or gallery worlds, he was connected to his culture.

“As a family, we had known about native arts and cultures, but (traditionally ‘fine art’) wasn’t something that we were especially plugged in to. Our relationship was to dance and going to powwows,” Curfman says. “I can’t say I had access to the works of Earl and Kevin and the Apsáalooke artists in the way that I should have, but I was connected to the culture, to the arts, through beading and community-based art. Kevin and Earle had reached levels that went beyond the local community. They were doing work here in Santa Fe, making really interesting and powerful statements, that didn’t really get back home.”

Curfman is making his own “interesting and powerful statements” in Santa Fe based on his Apsáalooke upbringing that he hopes to one day bring back to Montana. A future goal of his is to begin an arts education program on the Apsáalooke reservation.

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