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Jacobson House lives and breathes tradition of Native art

NORMAN, Okla. – The Jacobson House Native Art Center was filled Feb. 20 with people who waited to see a dramatic re-enactment of the “Kiowa Five” artists – Monroe Tsatoke, Spencer Asah, Stephen Mopope, Jack Hokeah, Lois Smoky and James Auchiah – the dominant figures from southwest Oklahoma who in the 1920s brought Native art into the contemporary era.

The art center is the original home of Oscar Brousse Jacobson, founder of the University of Oklahoma School of Art, and his wife, who wrote under the name Jeanne d’Ucel. Jacobson had personally taught the Kiowa students and frequently invited them into his home to perform traditional songs and dances. The walls of the home’s central room were filled with art painted by these groundbreaking artists.

Shortly before the actors arrived, the door opened itself; it was as if the previous occupants wanted a front row seat to see how the actors would portray them. Shortly thereafter, the “Jacobson family” arrived, followed by six Native actors who would embody the personas of the “Kiowa Five Plus One.”

“Jacobson House – 1930,” the play that featured the dramatic re-creation, was written by former Jacobson House Executive Director Russ Tallchief, who is working on a book on the Kiowa Five to be published by University of Oklahoma Press.

Tallchief, Osage, presented the play as a benefit to raise money for the art center and then appeared in the play as newspaper reporter Savoie Lottinville, who questioned the Jacobson family and the Kiowa Five.

 

Seen here is a painting by Kiowa Five member Jack Hokeah (1900-1969).

“We’ve had to be very creative in how we have fundraised and how we have programmed, because art sales are down across the board,” Tallchief said. “Not just for us, (but) everywhere. Museums are laying people off. The entire art world and nonprofit world is in turmoil. We are trying to be creative about what we do to generate revenue. The support that we got from that play was really overwhelming. We planned one play and sold out three. I think it says a lot about the community and how much the Jacobson House means to the community.”

The play was designed with a loose script; the actors researched interviews and biographies of their characters. Then, Lottinville would ask questions of the Jacobson family and Kiowa artists. Through this method, the audience learned about the Jacobsons’ life together; the onset of artist Tsatoke’s tuberculosis, from which he died in 1937; Mopope’s life as an artist and flute musician; a foreshadowing of Auchiah wanting to repatriate his grandfather Setthaide (Sate’t’ai-day) from a prison cemetery in Texas, which he eventually accomplished; and Smoky or “Bougetah” meaning “Of the Dawn,” left the university to return to her family’s home near Verden, Okla.

The performance ended with a dance exhibition by the characters of Mopope, Hokeah and Asah, with Tsatoke and Auchiah on the drum. It was then followed by a Round Dance, with Smoky and audience members joining.

The people who portrayed these actors tied together in quite interesting ways. Dr. Andrew Phelan, who played Jacobson, is a former director of the OU School of Art. Lieneke Mous, who played Jacosbon’s wife, is a graduate student from the Netherlands who speaks fluent French.

Equally important are the artists who played the Kiowa Five including: Kevin Connywerdy, Kiowa/Comanche, who, like Hokeah, is a visual artist and touring champion dancer; Marty Thurman, Comanche/Delaware/Sac & Fox, a champion chicken dancer whose sense of humor Tallchief thought was perfect for the role of Asah; Robert Lincoln, Ojibwe/Choctaw, who played Tsatoke and grew up singing with Whitefish Bay Singers; Oliver Plumley, Comanche/Pawnee/Otoe, who, like Mopope, is a dancer and studies music composition at OU; Warren Queton, Kiowa/Cherokee/Seminole, who shares Red Tipi ancestry with Auchiah, and is a graduate student specializing in the Kiowa language; and Maya Torralba, Kiowa/Comanche/Wichita, who is related to at least three of the Kiowa Five artists, including Mopope, Asah and Smoky. Her portrayal of Lois “made me cry every time in rehearsal,” Tallchief said.

What the Jacobson House didn’t expect was that the first performance would be in front of Kiowa elders who knew the artists.

“When they came, it was a very reverent kind of an atmosphere,” Tallchief said. “The Kiowa are very reverent people. They began with a prayer before we even came in as the performance part of the evening and sang hymns. It really set the tone for the whole run of the play. When we walked in as the characters and we walked in among the Kiowa people, it was electric. You could feel the energy in there, and you could sense the history and the connection with those people who were somehow related either directly or indirectly to the Kiowa Five.”

 

An exterior shot of the Jacobson House Native Art Center, 609 Chautauqua Ave., Norman, Okla. This was the original home of professor Oscar Jacobson, art teacher to the Kiowa Five.

Future plans for the play include formalizing the script and possibly holding performances in both Norman and Tahlequah, Okla. This could potentially further Jacobson’s original mission; to promote and encourage the art, culture and talents of the University of Oklahoma’s Native American students.

“The essence of the mission is to preserve, promote and celebrate the legacy of Oscar Jacobson, Jeanne d’Ucel, and the Kiowa Five Plus One,” Tallchief said. “I think with that being at the core, it just follows very naturally that it’s a continuation of that legacy, not just staying within that particular period, but to continue to nurture and cultivate Native art.”

Future plans for the Jacobson House include exhibits featuring the work of Tom Poolaw and the photography of Horace Poolaw, and also work produced by the participants of the Chickasaw Nation Youth Academy.

Being within close proximity to the OU campus, Jacobson House is also considering hosting art markets in the fall that correspond with OU football games. The art center hosts a student, staff and faculty art show in April to correspond with the university’s Native American heritage month.

In addition to its exhibits, Jacobson House offers internships to give students curatorial experience, and classes in traditional Native flute playing and pow wow singing. University groups, such as the Society of Native American Gentlemen, sing at the center on a regular basis and have hosted workshops on the game of stickball.

“I lived that period whenever I was director of the Jacobson House,” Tallchief said. “I really like the entire time that I was in that house. I just was living that history and, being so immersed in it, it kind of seemed like it was always happening, like it never stopped – like the spirit of the Kiowa Five and the Jacobsons was still there. The things that they did there are still alive, just in different ways.”

The house is located at 609 Chautauqua Ave. in Norman, Okla. For more information, call (405) 366-1667.