PORTLAND, Ore. - Even when Robert Jefferson Sr. is talking about his pen
and ink portraits of figures from the Battle of Little Bighorn or the
tragedy of the Sand Creek Massacre, his voice has a sweetness that would
never condemn. A Northern Cheyenne, Jefferson speaks with the voice of a
true Indian, and there's no bitterness in the man.
He has the sense of humor of an Indian, too. "I always sign my drawings
with my Indian name. It's Taa'evaohtseve'hatse and means 'One Who's Quick
at Night,'" he said. "Or, 'One Who Flies at Night,' even though the girls
like the first one better." He started giggling really hard, all the while
his wife, Sherry Wolf Black, just smiled from beyond her mirror shades with
Jefferson's sweet nature shows in his work. In his drawings of Two Moons or
Peter Wapato or Medicine Bull or even George Custer, he brings out the
humanity of individuals that figured prominently in the history of the
American West. Working with tiny dots (rapidography), scratch and fade
techniques Jefferson builds up his ink to create eyes and jaw bones that
compel. Viewers feel the struggle around which battles in the second half
of the 19th century turned.
At Bonnie Kahn's Wild West Gallery in Portland where Jefferson's work
currently hangs, the artist sticks out in the crowd partly because he's six
feet tall and has wavy brown hair to his shoulders, and in part because he
wears an old green army jacket that hangs to his hips. But he's got his
large black portfolio with him and is quick to reach in and unveil his
latest work in progress. Robert and Sherry's son is with the couple as
well, a young man following in his father's footsteps with a backpack full
of his own graphite drawings.
"I started with graphite," Robert Jefferson said. "And now Sage is doing it
really good. His woman is going to have a baby, and he don't want to go
through what we had to go through on the reservation, so he's come out
here, and I'm trying to help him make it in this world. He wants to go to
art school, but we've been so busy trying to just earn enough money to pay
our rent right now and get food on the table."
Jefferson's extended family lives in a Portland motel and pays $185 for a
six-day week. Getting first and last month's rent together to move into an
apartment has eluded them so far. Jefferson is optimistic. "There's more
opportunity in the cities than the reservations. Back home in Lame Deer
there's a lot of drinking and poverty, and it's just one big broken
lifestyle, you know. If you're ever going to get out of it, your best
chances are just to leave. On the reservation you're just so bummed out
poor, and drinking is pretty much all there is."
Jefferson has been sober 10 years now. His brown eyes shine in the light of
the gallery and he reflects on his achievement. "I've worked hard for
this," he said. "I don't want to ever have that life again."
But there's too much Northern Cheyenne in Jefferson for him to really want
to cut the ties that bind. He talks of returning to the reservation some
day. "There's a lot of people that are talented, but there's nobody there
to teach them how to make a life for themselves and have an income," he
said. "I want to help that. Teach them how to make prints of their art and
market their art. Something they can be proud of."
It's not surprising that Jefferson would think of helping others even while
he and his family are struggling to make their way. "It's because others
have helped me that I'm coming along," he said. He talks not only of Bonnie
Kahn who led him into the business of making fine art prints of his work -
signed, limited editions. ONABEN, the Oregon Native American Business and
Entrepreneurial Network, has also come to his assistance, and Kayeri
Akweks, Special Projects Manager got Jefferson to donate prints of his
portraits to the Spirit of the Salmon Fund's annual gala.
"For Sage it's a natural thing, working the crowd," Jefferson said. "Me,
I'm more of a just to myself kind of person. But I'm getting over it, and
it was good to get my art out there for everyone to see."
It helps that Jefferson is surrounded by family from home. It also helps
that he believes in what he's doing. "My art has a lot to do with what was
done to my people," he said. "I don't want the world to forget about that."