Roots of Native American art run deep for Tom Farris

Tom Farris grew up around Native art.

His Otoe-Missouria mother and Cherokee father were passionate collectors. Both had a strong connection to their heritage and found artwork one of the best ways to express and represent their roots.

They were by no means wealthy. Their collecting didn’t include private air charters to Art Basel Miami Beach or Chelsea galleries. Artworks were purchased for hundreds, not thousands, of dollars.

“They just prioritize collecting,” Farris (b. 1978; Tahlequah, OK) said. “That’s what they really liked to do. They really enjoyed getting to know artists.”

One prominent treasure of theirs, a 4×6-foot Bennie Buffalo (1948 – 1994; Southern Cheyenne) painting Girl on a Horse.

That didn’t much impress the younger Farris.

“As a kid, I really didn’t like Native art,” he said. “Nobody likes what your parents are into. For me, it was always a hassle. That’s how we spent family vacations, going to artist homes, going to galleries, going to shows.”

His immersion into Native art, however, was shaping the youngster in ways he couldn’t then recognize.

“I had this very in-depth informal education just through osmosis, from being around it,” Ferris said.

That education began steering his path through life in college. Looking for a summer job, he came across a small museum in Norman, OK, the Jacobson House Native Art Center. The home is the former residence of Dr. Oscar Jacobson who brought the Kiowa 5 – or 6 – to the University of Oklahoma, an early breakthrough establishing contemporary Native art in a fine art setting.

Farris, unwittingly, knew all about these artists, their influences, and the artists they inspired from time spent with his parents. For the next 20 years, straight on through to today, Farris has used what he learned about Native art from his childhood to pursue a career on the business side of the genre.

Farris served as assistant director at the Jacobson House for four years. He helped create and manage the prestigious Cherokee Art Market with the Cherokee Nation in Tulsa.

He ran his own gallery in Norman – Standing Buffalo Indian Art Gallery & Gifts – from 2008 through 2012, describing the experience as, “as good as it was bad.” Standing Buffalo honors his Otoe-Missouria name.

He started and ran the Chickasaw Nation’s Exhibit C Gallery in Oklahoma City. He’s still in OKC as the museum store manager at First Americans Museum.

“(Working in business side of Native art) was nothing I ever really intended on doing, I just had an aptitude for it,” Farris said.

Even less intentionally, but something he also has an aptitude for, is creating his own artwork. His transition to “artist,” amusingly, resulted in a challenge from his college roommate, artist Dylan Cavin (Choctaw).

An Accidental Artist

Tom Farris, ...But I Can't Prove It
Tom Farris, …But I Can’t Prove It. Courtesy of the artist and Wyld Gallery.

Dylan started doing Native art because I asked him to when I had my gallery. I started to bombard him with (commission requests) – ‘hey, I want you to paint me this,’ ‘hey, would you paint me that’ – and he got sick of that and he said, ‘why don’t you paint something,” Farris remembers. “I was like, ‘okay.’ That’s how it started. I just started making the stuff I did not see out there.”

What he did not see in the Native arts marketplace, and what he has focused his creativity on, leans heavily into Pop Culture references with occasional nods to legendary Native artists from the past like the great T.C. Cannon.  

Where Farris breaks entirely free from other Native artists is his incorporation of Midcentury Modern aesthetics in his paintings.

“I absolutely love that period of time; I love the architecture, I love the clothes, there was just so much style to everything (and) you never see Native people portrayed in that era,” Farris explained. “I want to represent Native culture in that timeframe and so I did a whole series in that architecture featuring characters from Native mythology, because to me, it was important to point out that Native people have been here all along the way. We lived through that, we had houses like that, we drove cars like that, we have been here, and we continue to be here.”

Farris considers reinforcing contemporary indigeneity, changing general public perception about Native people being stuck in the past, as critically important to his work. Seeing how Native culture continues being presented in a historical context in his kids’ school lessons pushes him.

A study conducted by social studies scholars in 2015 found that 87 percent of state-mandated K-12 education standards placed Native Americans in a solely pre-1900 context.

Much less important to Farris is selling anything. He has his institutional career to pay the bills.

“That’s why my stuff is a little bit weird,” he acknowledges. “I’m not trying to make this a sellable, marketable item first and foremost. For me, I want to get this crazy weird idea out of my head and into reality and then if it sells, great, and if not, hey, it’s out of my head.”

Wyld Gallery in Austin, TX deals exclusively in contemporary Native American artwork.
https://wyld.gallery/Wyld Gallery in Austin, TX deals exclusively in contemporary Native American artwork.

Farris has found tremendous success for his unique artistic vision showing his work at the nation’s premier Native American art shows including Cherokee Art Market, Red Earth, the Eiteljorg Indian Art Market and at the Southwestern Association of Indian Artists Santa Fe Market, where he was recognized with the Creativity Award in 2015 and the Innovation Award in 2019.  

He has exhibited at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C. and New York City, and his work is included in the permanent collections of the Heard Museum in Phoenix, the Eiteljorg in Indianapolis, the Wheelwright Museum in Santa Fe, the Sam Noble Natural History Museum in Norman and elsewhere.

The Future is not in the Past

Tom Farris (Cherokee Otoe Missouria), Doppelganger Buffalo
Tom Farris (Cherokee Otoe Missouria), Doppelganger Buffalo

Institute of American Indian Arts founder Lloyd Kiva New (1916 – 2002; Cherokee) long recognized that the future of Native art lay in the future, not the past. “The preservation syndrome (amounts to) an embalming,” he said.

Steeped in the artwork of previous generations through his parents collecting, Farris’ embrace of the unconventional in his own work required no small amount of reprogramming.

“It took me a while to come to that because I think every Native painter kind of starts off with doing their versions repainting Catlin sketches or historic photographs,” he said.

Farris’ passion for Native art was fueled by a subsequent generation of artists from those his parents collected working around the turn of the millennium.

“A group of artists I saw were doing unconventional things for Native art, they were making things that I was actually getting into, and it was my first real departure from what had been dictated to me – what Indian art is and what I grew up with,” Farris recalls. “Seeing the progression of Indian art and actually having it start to appeal to the sensibilities that I enjoyed, which is far more on the Pop art scale, it was stuff that I wanted finally.”

Stuff he wanted, but still not desired by the broader Native art market. Those tastes are changing. Slowly.

“People want a very Western version of Native art,’ Farris said. “That’s their preconceived notion of it and so a lot of times when people see the artists that I like – or even my work especially – there’s a, ‘oh, that’s Indian art.’ I would never have considered that.”

Yes, it is Indian art, and consider it you should.

Tom Farris’ artwork is represented by Wyld Gallery in Austin, TX and online.

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