By JENNIFER K. BAUER
The award-winning Choctaw Nation artists live on the Nez Perce Reservation at Stites. While Roger beads in the traditional vein of his ancestors, Marcus beads at the cutting-edge of modernity. Living a few miles apart, they create art bound for international shows and museums, including the Smithsonian where Marcus Amerman’s work is in the National Museum of the American Indian.
The Choctaw Nation lived and farmed in what is now the Southeastern United States until 1830 when the federal government forced the people to Oklahoma in what became known as the Trail of Tears. The Amermans were born in Phoenix and raised in the Northwest, graduating from high school in Pendleton, Ore. From there they took separate paths, one brother mining pop culture, the other honoring the past.
From woodcarvings and basketry to painting and metal work, “art was omnipresent around us,” Roger Amerman says about his childhood. He began beading at age 11 to make his own regalia for pow wow dancing.
“At first it seemed like a chore, but I started to realize I liked it,” says Amerman, 56.
When the family moved to Pendleton, Amerman found inspiration and support. Elders included him in an annual native youth art exhibit during the Pendleton Round-Up. Skilled peers included Maynard WhiteOwl Lavadour and Thomas Morning Owl.
Amerman went on to become a geologist, working around the country. The job eventually led him back to the Northwest where he married Nez Perce tribal member Carolyn Jackson-Amerman. The McKissick Museum at the University of South Carolina recently commissioned him to create a traditional beaded buckskin Choctaw frontier coat.
“They were like the Nike of the day,” Amerman says of the caped coat that will be valued at five figures when done. One made of buckskin would have been unusual, he says. Beadwork on it depicts Southeast tribal motifs — the sun, stars and serpents.
“The stars stand for our ancestors,” says Amerman, who works with a more colorful palette than his culture’s traditional earth tones. He makes a point of using vintage beads made before the 1900s. They tend not to fade and come in rare colors, he says. He keeps them in American Spirit tins with labels denoting shades like Cheyenne pink and periwinkle. This spring his work was featured at the Autry National Center of the American West in Los Angeles. Both he and Marcus will exhibit at the Smithsonian’s Choctaw Days event June 27-28 in Washington, D.C.
Marcus Amerman’s work tends to get lost in an art gallery. From afar it looks like just another painting. Up close one discovers thousands of beads stitched into a photo-like image.
Amerman calls it “photobeadillism.” The name comes from pointillism, first used to describe work by Georges Seurat, who painted small dots to create an image. Amerman says he was the first to use this technique in modern beadwork.
“I was him in a past life so I could do this,” says Amerman, 54.
His first portrait was a bikini-clad Brooke Shields sewn on the back of a studded black leather jacket. In one of his most recent, “I Saw the Sign,” a group of Indians on horseback rides out of the shadow of the Twin Towers on 9/11. It and a companion piece, “The Vision,” were recently purchased by the Smithsonian.
“I think it’s about war and the warrior and that relationship lasting over time,” says Amerman, whose work is in permanent collections at the Portland Art Museum, New York’s Museum of Arts and Design, the American Museum of Natural History and many others.
Museums are his biggest buyers because his art is loaded with social commentary, he says.
“Many people are uncomfortable with truth. They usually don’t want to buy it and live with it. I feel like, as an artist, you have to reflect society. I eat reality and I defecate art.”
For his piece “Lucky Blanket” Amerman beaded a casino roulette table cover with images of gambling.
“So, you could wear it at a pow wow to kind of represent we have casino culture in our lives,” he explains.
For centuries 99 percent of American Indian beadwork was abstract geometric forms. His mother’s peyote beadwork used graduations of color to create movement. When Amerman moved west he saw Plateau beadwork showing animals or people in a flat, two-dimensional way. After earning an art degree at Whitman College and studying at the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, N.M., Amerman combined all these influences into his signature style.
He works using a black and white photocopy as a template and sees the colors in his mind.
While known for his beadwork, he creates in many mediums, including glass, fashion design and performance art. Everything except basketry, he says. “That seemed too tedious.”
After living in New Mexico for decades Amerman moved to Stites to be near family. He says being an American Indian artist can be isolating in the art world.
“To a large extent Native American art isn’t accepted into mainstream art because it is considered ethnic,” he says.
“Art is one of our strengths as a people.”
Bauer may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or (208) 848-2263.