In the movie “Good Will Hunting,” Matt Damon’s lead character, Will Hunting, works as a janitor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. We learn that Hunting, a juvenile delinquent math genius, goes out of his way for the job sweeping floors there. Similar positions are available closer to home, but Hunting craves access to the world-renowned research school which attracts top minds from across the world. He wants to be around it. He’s drawn to it. He takes to solving incredibly challenging math equations posted for students on hallway chalkboards.
Travis Mammedaty (b. 1982, Claremore, OK; Kiowa, Seneca-Cayuga) has a similar story. After working more than 10 years at Paragon Industries’ steel mill in Sapulpa, OK – advancing his way up from the backbreaking labor performed on the factory floor to an office position – Mammedaty felt called to something else.
Perusing the jobs website Indeed.com, Travis Mammedaty found an open position at Tulsa’s Gilcrease Museum, one of the finest institutions for American art focusing on Native American art and art of the Western United States.
“I’ve always been interested in that (Native American) history and genealogy, and I knew that place had a lot of stuff like that,” Mammedaty told me.
The job was in event setup and breakdown. Entry level. Nights. Weekends.
Didn’t matter, like Will Hunting, Travis Mammedaty wanted to be around it.
“When I got on there was a show that came through, ‘T.C. Cannon: At the Edge of America.’ I had heard of T.C. before, but I’d never looked that in depth at his work and all of the things he did and accomplished – writer, storyteller, singer, painter,” Mammedaty recalls of the historic Cannon exhibition which coincided with his starting work at the Gilcrease in 2018. “That show right there was one of the main reasons why I wanted to start doing this myself.”
Cannon, like Mammedaty, was a fellow Kiowa and Oklahoman. Working at the museum allowed Mammedaty to spend time with the artwork. He could study it up close. Be around it. Look over and over and over again.
He studied other exhibitions which came through the Gilcrease along with its permanent collection. He got turned on to Earl Biss (Apsáalooke) from the museum’s spectacular Biss masterpiece which was always on view. And Fritz Scholder.
“A lot of people tell me I have a Fritz Scholder vibe, but I never really thought about that until I started looking at his work and said, ‘ok, I can kind of see that,’” Mammedaty said.
Mammedaty’s loose, expressionistic portraits of Indigenous people do recall Scholder at first blush.
Spending hours and hours with the greats of Native American and Western art at the Gilcrease encouraged Travis Mammedaty to take his own artmaking more seriously. The private doodles and drawings and sketches he made gave way to paintings created to share his artistic vision with the world.
At the risk of placing a European-descended concept on a Native American artist, Travis Mammadety is a Renaissance man. T.C. Cannon was too. Mammedaty is a painter who is also a professional musician and Kiowa language instructor and historian.
“Kiowa language is my first love, painting and singing are tied for a close second,” Mammedaty said.
Mammedaty’s paternal grandparents were full-blooded Kiowa and fluent speakers. His father spoke the language as well. While Mammedaty heard it growing up, the language wasn’t passed down directly to him.
“Although I spent more time with my (mother’s) Cayuga people (growing up), being Kiowa was always something that I was really proud of – not to say I wasn’t proud of my longhouse ways and Cayuga ways. Whenever people think of Native Americans, they think of teepees and the horses and warriors – the images people think of, that’s Kiowa,” Mammedaty said. “Being from that tribe, being from that way of life, it piqued my interest; I should really try to learn as much as I can about it.”
He began researching and studying the language around 2010, learning from others. Elders helped him along with a cousin, Dane Poolaw, Kiowa language instructor at the University of Oklahoma.
“Language is a direct connection to our ancestors,” Mammedaty said.
He now teaches Kiowa as an adjunct instructor at Bacone College in Muscogee and offers free community instruction at Tulsa’s Zarrow Library.
Kiowa is a tricky, tonal language, where slight differences in inflection can lead to massive changes in meaning. “Thank you” and “kill him” sound almost exactly the same to an untrained ear.
In addition to language keeping and performing and recording music, Mammedaty, who also currently takes courses in criminal justice with an eye on studying tribal law, does find time to paint. And well.
Brushy, earthy, soulful. The depictions in his paintings seem simultaneously within grasp while just out of reach.
“When I start working on something, I don’t have an idea of what’s going to come out,” Mammedaty said. “A lot of the images in the portrait paintings I do automatically come out.”
Mammedaty’s portraits are painted freely. The presence of the figures, their personality, more important to the artist than capturing fine details like wrinkle lines or eyelashes. He will sometimes use reference photos, particularly for commissions, but he generally doesn’t work directly from photographs or people he knows.
The faces are an amalgamation of those he’s seen previously. Those he’s imagined.
Demonstrating the rapidity with which Mammedaty has found traction around his artmaking, his work was featured by Gilcrease Museum, where so much of his motivation to paint took hold, in 2020.
Travis Mammedaty paintings can be purchased at Wyld Gallery in Austin, TX and online.