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Let's Go Fightin'... Popes? Artist Subverts Mascot Issues With Surprising Helmets

Matthew Bearden's surprising and irreverent football helmets subvert the idea of Native American mascots and sports logos.
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Matthew Bearden’s mixed media piece, “Cupo di Roma,” a football helmet with a picture of the Pope, has been getting a lot of attention at Oklahoma art shows this year. In fact, he was scheduled to have a booth at Indian Market in Santa Fe (which took place this past weekend), but canceled because his work is so hot right now that he had sold all his inventory. The helmet is part of his ongoing “Sacred Mascot” series, where Bearden, as a Citizen Potawatomi Nation member, turns the side of the football helmet into a medium not only to make a statement about mascots, but goes on to claim the space as a canvas for Native American art and culture.

Cupo Di Roma by Matthew Bearden

Along with his Citizen Potawatomi heritage, Bearden also has Kickapoo, Menominee and Lakota Sioux in his ancestry, and he was raised in Hominy, Oklahoma, in the heart of the Osage Nation. The high school football team, the Hominy Bucks, have a “buck Indian” as their mascot, however because of the high number of Native Americans who are proud to have been team members, there has been resistance to changing the mascot even within the local Native community. Coming out of that environment obviously influenced Bearden’s current series.

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“M. Scott George (Osage/Sioux artist and former Hominy Buck football player) painted the logo on the gym floor, and it was beautiful,” Bearden said. “It was his version of an Osage Warrior. We had a coach come in my senior year, and the first thing he wanted to do was paint over that, and two of my buddies said 'No, you’re not,' which kind of caught him off guard. That sticks out in my mind.”

Matthew Bearden's 'Power of the Blood': 'For my profile picture I did at an art show years ago I did the cigarettes with lipstick on them and everybody loved it. My wife found this helmet with graffiti all over it at a thrift store. I put those cigarettes on there just because I liked the design, there wasn’t any meaning behind it, it wasn’t supposed to be a Four Directions symbol or anything, but then my aunt said it looked like a cross, so I put a splotch of blood on the other side, like the Blood of Christ.'

“The ‘Redskin’ thing, I’m not going to get in people’s faces about it" Bearden continued. "I’ve tried to find another way to open people’s eyes with these helmets. Like with the Pope helmet, which started all of it. I was just trying to tell my wife that Notre Dame is the Fighting Irish, but it’s a Catholic school, and it would be like them putting the Pope on their helmet, which they would never do, because it would be offensive. Basically, he’s a holy man or ‘chief’, he wears a holy relic on his head, which is what a headdress is, you had to earn the right to wear a headdress, you had to earn the right to wear feathers, you had to earn the right to wear a lot of the things that you wore back in those days; they were religious objects. It wasn’t a knock on the Catholic Church; it was just an example of how a thing can be insensitive. If there are some Catholics offended by that Pope helmet, you can see how Native Americans can be offended by ‘Redskin’ or ‘Chief’ on the side of a helmet or a kid dancing around midfield with buckskin on and a headdress, doing the Hollywood yodel, and all of that.”

Bearden's 'Mount Vernon Wooden Teeth': 'If you look close enough you’ll see he has some buck teeth going on. I just, you know; let put George on there with a Mohawk, like he’s a mascot, like the New England Patriots do, let’s put an actual figure on there and make him comical looking. You see mascots with that big smile and a Mohawk, so… '

Bearden’s other helmets in the series include everything from a respectful homage to his grandfather to George Washington on the side of a helmet with a Mohawk as a mascot.

To see more of his work or to contact him, find Matthew Bearden on his official Facebook page.

Matthew Bearden's 'Grandpa Johnny Bruno': 'Grandpa was a first cousin to Jim Thorpe; a lot of people say he looks like Jim. I did it just to honor him. I had this great picture of Grandpa and I wanted to see if I could paint it on the helmet. My uncles love it; it’s something I’ll never sell.'

Matthew Bearden's 'Indian Nations' (left side): 'There’s an old political cartoon from the turn of the century of a corrupt Indian agent, he has all these bags of money, and a top hat and a suit on, and then next to him is a Native guy, and he’s holding a fishing pole, like has to get his own previsions, he’s not getting any food from the government or anything. So I made the agent the tribal chief, The Chairman, now, and I put his bags of money marked as casino money, and then on the other side, I put a block of government cheese in the Native guy’s hand.'

right side

Matthew Bearden's 'Indian Nations'

Matthew Bearden's 'War Bonnet': 'I put some bullets in there, and there are some knives and grenades and mortar shells, but when viewed from the distance, it looks like a headdress.'

Matthew Bearden's 'Darrel Curtis': 'That’s Patrick Swayze’s character from The Outsiders. I want to do all the characters from The Outsiders, because of the history, here in Tulsa, of the movie. I didn’t have time this winter to do it, but I did do Patrick. The other side of the helmet has a tube of Brylcreem, for the greasers.'

Bearden's 'For God and Country': 'It was a homage to Native vets. In the places where I’ve visited, I’ve gotten a great response from all veterans, and I get a lot of emotional responses to a lot of Native veterans. It got a lot of response because I did that real detailed digital camo on the helmet; I painted it like it was beaded on the helmet.'

Matthew Bearden's '30 Ventury Man': 'I wanted to do another one along the same lines as 'For God and Country,' only apocalyptic. I found this photo of a cool slide mask and goggles, and that’s what gave birth to the gas mask. It’s a mending of several different masks. I just had the idea of doing a red beaded helmet with a woodland flower on it.'

Matthew Bearden's 'Rotkovich Express': 'That is Mark Rothko, the abstract painter from New York that everyone copies. I painted a portrait of him on one side and on the other I copied one of his pieces, which took a lot of layers. The guy is a genius; as I kept layering the whole image just started to pop. His real name is Rotkovitch; he shortened it when he started painting.'

Matthew Bearden's 'Hump': 'That’s on the first floor the State Supreme Court. He’s got Osage grab on, there’s a little artistic license on the shield, which were made from buffalo humps. Honestly, that is a picture of Michael Jordan, and I turned him into a Native Guy. That’s one of those pieces I had drawn out with a piece of chalk, I was going to draw over it, I didn’t like it, but I set it up on my front porch and looked at it, and decided to stick with it, and there you go; the state bought it. It will be there as long as that building is there, and it’s something my kids can go see when they are older, so it’s pretty cool.'

Matthew Bearden's 'Over the Hills and Far Away': 'That’s a buffalo nickel. I stole a Led Zeppelin title. It is 5’ x 4’. Down at the bottom there is a portrait of a Calvary Officer who has a big Buffalo coat on.'