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Young Artist Micah Wesley: 'The Colonizers Have Done a Number on Us'

What's it like for a young, contemporary Native American artist producing work in Oklahoma? "Quite puzzling, really," says Micah Wesley.

Micah Wesley is an artist whose career trajectory I have watched. He is a contemporary Kiowa/Muscogee Creek artist and I see his work as following a tradition of artists/writers like T.C Cannon, Joy Harjo, N. Scott Momaday, Richard Ray Whitman and countless others, artists residing in that special creative space that is born and exists somewhere between Oklahoma and New Mexico. His work references many things from this landscape such as Muscogee Creek painter Jerome Tiger, tattoos, and his own study at the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, NM. Micah answered some questions from his current home in Norman, OK where he is completing his MFA at the University of Oklahoma.

Micah's MFA piece is called "Redskin: Proof of Kill, Purchase, and Commodification," and he describes it as follows: "The work is driven by the taking of indigenous people's scalps and the false promotion of the enduring glorious American defining frontier of the West. I was inspired by a promotional print of Buffalo Bill boasting his taking of a scalp as revenge for the killing of Custer. The print was called 'A Duel with Chief Yellow Hand.'"

For more on Micah, visit his official site

What made you decide to study/create art?

Since I was a kid, my pop was painting and drawing. We would hang out and work at art supply stores to get discounts on supplies. We would wander Albuquerque together looking , and trying to sell his work, then I came of age and I had to go to school.

I can't remember when i actually started drawing and I don't even think I had to decide. I did try to do other things but it never worked out.

Illustration from the New York Journal, May 5, 1902. The text at top is the famous quote by General Jacob Smith: 'KILL EVERY ONE OVER 10.' The caption reads, 'Criminals Because They Were Born Ten Years Before We Took the Philippines.'

What made you decide to enter and what is your opinion about the OU MFA program you are in?

I had applied to OU twice and was rejected. I was ready to leave but for some strange reason, maybe it was stupidity, I applied again and got in. I was no longer interested with the aspirations of graduate school, I just wanted to get into a space where I could experiment and do works that I had always felt insecure about. In other words, moving into a conceptual discussion and abandoning technical details of displaying talent.

Being at OU I have become inspired because of its placement in the States and fellow colleagues that discuss their expectations of the area that have all but crumbled into murmurs of disgust. The program has many talented professors and art historians and the program is turning around from some changing of the guard and new curriculum additions.

I find going to OU interesting because they are The Sooners, the land rushers of the days of old. I was at a studio visit of local master sculptor Paul Moore, he was discussing the land rush and how there was five land rush events that were stopped…because the Sooners were all cheating and stealing. It is funny the memories selected to narrate history. Then I am there, creating paintings like viruses, hoping they will infect the psyche of the conformist culture of Oklahoma..."Sooner Bred" they say and they end it with "Sooner Dead". Quite puzzling really. And never mention this to anyone in Norman, it could be considered treason.

Now, the museum is amazing, the Fred Jones Jr. Museum of Art has an amazing collection of Native American art. It's huge and displayed with such care. They even have some works that were stolen by the Nazis and sold in an auction to a family that later donated it to the museum. Art drama!

'Redskin: Proof of Kill, Purchase, and Commodification' by Micah Wesley. Oil, Acrylic, and Enamel on 12 pieces of cardboard; installation at the University of Oklahoma School of Art and Art History.

Who are some of your favorite artists?

Oh I could go on and on. My Humble family: Cannupa Hanska Luger, Rose Simpson, Hoka Skenandore, Frank Buffalo Hyde, Douglas Two Bulls, Michael Two Bulls, Marty Two Bulls Jr., April Holder, Rory Wakemup, DJ Miss Ginger, and Matt Tsoodle. Apache Skateboards, Yatika Fields, Sterlin Harjo, Benjamin Harjo Jr., El Mac, Ed Roth, Michael Ray Charles, HOWNOSM, VYAL ONE, Jerome Tiger, that guy up in Chicago-Chris Pappan, Dane Jones, Jason Cytacki, Sour Grapes Crew in Dallas, all them pinstripers and sign painters, Mr. Cartoon, Big Sleeps, Trigz (RIP), Jaime Okuma, Pete Brown, Drive By Press, Bad Art Press...

I'm missing so many.

What inspires you in the way of music, film, etc?

Currently, I'm really inspired by house and downtempo beats. Other times it's old country or rock 'n roll or '90s hiphop. Music is very important to me, I'm not as much of a vinyl collector as I used to be, but I still love discovering music from any genre. Funk really inspires me, it almost reminds me of traditional native music, because all of our parents were playing it non-stop in the '70s and '80s. I need to make more music.

'My Redneck, My Redskin' installation by Micah Wesley

Film, I've always dug documentaries or all out action flicks that most people do not admit to having viewed. Some of my faves are Gummo, Belly, The Departed, and Grandma's Boy. Of course horror flicks as well. I want to dabble into the film genre and project movies in areas that deem suitable or necessary.

You studied and lived in Santa Fe getting your BFA in studio arts at IAIA in Santa FE, NM. What are the differences in living and creating in Santa Fe and Norman, OK?

In Santa Fe, it was amazing. You felt a nurturing encouraging element everywhere and though there was and are problems there, they seem to drift over and pass by (well, in my opinion). So long as you don't view your feed in Facebook.

Detail of 'My Redneck, My Redskin' installation by Micah Wesley

In Oklahoma, people ask if you do "that nice kind" (of art) or "weird stuff". At shows, people question whether you could have done other works that someone might buy and offer advice about how they sold a piece once at a coffee shop in the Paseo or something. Back to creating, I think it is an amazing place to create. There is so much negativity to glean from.

What made you decide to return to Oklahoma?

I did not have any plans for when school ended. So for the first time in my life I moved to the Indian Territory to be near to my family. I find it odd in Norman, when you see a native guy/gal in passing and you make a notion of hello or that nod of "hey I see you are an indigenous person, so am I, good day" and they look away or stare at you with disdain before they look away. Truly odd. Then when you are DJing, showing, or speaking somewhere, they're all like kin folk and homies to you. The colonizers have done a number on us.

Detail of 'My Redneck, My Redskin' installation by Micah Wesley

What would you tell the younger Native artists coming up?

Pursue some training or formal training, whether it be in school, college, apprenticeship, workshops, etc. I would also add to the notion of not making every work so amazing and perfect. There is always another project to work on. Oh yeah, make/dream/create/birth an avatar—it really helps. When there is a work I want to make outside of what I do, I sign it Were Wulf. The things Wulf can do, I can't do and the things I do, he wouldn't ever—ha ha!

Try to remain positive. Substance abuse only dilutes your creativity. Oh yeah, don't apply to the same MFA program three times, apply to as many as you can. Grad school is possible but it by no way means you are going to be rich or famous. It also does not mean you will be any smarter or masterful.

And if I'm ever in the area, and you have a shop question don't hesitate to ask.

Detail of 'My Redneck, My Redskin' installation by Micah Wesley

Detail of 'My Redneck, My Redskin' installation by Micah Wesley

Detail of 'My Redneck, My Redskin' installation by Micah Wesley

Detail of 'My Redneck, My Redskin' installation by Micah Wesley