As a child, Comanche and Kiowa artist J. NiCole Hatfield studied old pictures of her people. In many cases, the men would be identified, but the women would not be listed by name.
“Growing up, I used to see these old photos,” Hatfield said. “I would see the photos of the women. They wouldn’t have a name. It would say, ‘This is the wife of so-and-so. This is the squaw of’ so-and-so.’ It made me mad. I wanted to know who this woman was. I started painting the women from those old photos, and then I started painting the men. It started from that—the women not having any recognition. I wanted to honor them and give them a voice.”
Hatfield began her largely self-directed art study in the ninth grade, in Apache, Oklahoma. She says her art teacher “gave us the freedom to do whatever we wanted, as long as we brought something in the class to show him. I had a lot of time to experiment with the paint.”
'The Closing Speech 1865' by J. NiCole Hatfield
Hatfield later attended the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, N.M., and now resides in the Oklahoma City area. Her paintings are in collections across the U.S.
Painting in acrylic, Hatfield enjoys using a large display of color, with two of her major influences being Kiowa/Caddo artist T.C. Cannon and the Austrian painter Voka, known for his “spontaneous realism.” While many of her paintings are variations of older photographs, she uses color—along with a sense of Native language and history—to bring them life.
“I try to sneak in some words here and there on a piece,” Hatfield said. “Sometimes I’ll put dates on there. On The Closing Speech 1865, in which I painted Chief Silver Brooch, it’s based off of a speech he gave that year” The incorporation of ceremony is a newer development in Hatfield’s work, as well as her interpretation of the ledger style of Plains Indian art.
Two works by J. NiCole Hatfiled - 'Prayer' left) and 'Untitled'
While Hatfield paints primarily at home, she also participates in “live paints,” in which she will create a complete painting on stage. For her, the challenges include the possibility of making a mistake or not finishing on time. Yet, the most important part of this experience is for the audience to share her sense of emotion.
“One of the ways [painting] is special to me is that I’m not good at expressing myself verbally,” she said. “That’s why I paint. All of my emotions are in these pieces. I put all of me into that—good and bad emotions. It’s all in there.”
This personal expression, for Hatfield, is also part of a larger tradition of Native American storytelling. However, the art does not simply tell a story. Instead, the storytelling from the art is connected to Native spirituality and gives guidance throughout life to those who view them.
“I want people to see how art and our ceremonies can help you through life,” she said. “Art is part of our tradition as Indians. That’s what we’ve been doing forever now. That’s one of the forms of storytelling. That’s how we passed on our stories, not only verbally but by painting them. I feel like I want to carry that tradition on.”
Follow ICTMN Correspondent Brian Daffron on Twitter @briandaffron