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Comfort and Madness — the art of Julie Buffalohead’s Tea Party Series

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“Julie Buffalohead, Tea Party Day Two, 2008” | Artwork courtesy of Julie Buffalohead

Alice looked all round the table, but there was nothing on it but tea. “I don’t see any wine,” she remarked.

“There isn’t any,” said the March Hare.

“Then it wasn’t very civil of you to offer it,” said Alice angrily.

“It wasn’t very civil of you to sit down without being invited,” said the March Hare.

“I didn’t know it was YOUR table,” said Alice; “it’s laid for a great many more than three.”

“Your hair wants cutting,” said the Hatter. He had been looking at Alice for some time with great curiosity, and this was his first speech.

“You should learn not to make personal remarks,” Alice said with some severity; “it’s very rude.”

The Hatter opened his eyes very wide on hearing this; but all he SAID was, “Why is a raven like a writing-desk?”

–Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865)

Taking tea is usually seen as the height of civilized behavior, with myriad rules and customs that join people together in the act of drinking a simple beverage. Children’s tea parties teach them how to sit still, be polite, and make small talk—yet what should be a bastion of rationality is often full of irrational behavior such as talking to imaginary friends and pretending water is tea. Lewis Carroll tapped into this idea in one of the most famous scenes from his book, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, “A Mad Tea Party.” Similarly, in her series of Tea Party paintings, Native American artist Julie Buffalohead uses tea parties featuring animals and people in masks to charm and intrigue her audience while questioning preconceived notions of what is polite and what is right.

It’s appropriate to begin a discussion of the Tea Party paintings with Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland because Buffalohead is an artist known for creating paintings that look like they are from a storybook, full of quirky animals, toys, and fairy tale characters. Yet, also like Carroll’s novels, her works speak more directly to adults because of their subversive sense of humor. If Buffalohead’s work does illustrate a fairy tale, it’s of a fractured variety, a childhood observed with an adult’s jaded eye.

When one looks at Buffalohead’s paintings over time, familiar characters appear, populating what feels like an unwritten storybook. The coyote reappears consistently–either playful, dressed and contained in human clothes, or as a mask on a dark-haired woman. According to Buffalohead, the coyote or masked woman is a self-portrait and a reference to the trickster Nanobozho, who is neither good nor evil, but generally acts in his or her own self-interest—much like a human. As in many Native American myths, Buffalohead’s Tea Party series visualized a story about the struggle between wildness and civilization. The self-contained, masked woman feeding a teddy bear in Day One gives way to a nearly complete disregard of civilization in Day Two, with animals taking tea in the woods. Finally, in Day Three, we see the woman merged with the playful coyote and back to serving the teddy bear. 

“Julie Buffalohead, Tea Party Day Three, 2008,”  | Artwork courtesy of Julie Buffalohead

Buffalohead has been open about the fact that her work is very experiential, and that the Tea Party series in particular was inspired by her pregnancy. “My imagery is so personal it’s hard to think about the viewer,” she said in an interview with this author. But Buffalohead’s personal imagery also speaks to universal experiences, maybe because it is so personal. The Tea Party series specifically draws on steretyped toys and play that reinforce society roles and expectations: that girls will want to be princesses and boys will want to play with trucks, or cowboys versus Indians. In Buffalohead’s hands, these toys and games can tell the story of a marginalized people across centuries, continents, and cultures. 

In Tea Party Day Two, one feels as if one has stumbled across a tea with characters from another world, just like Alice. A rabbit with a pink umbrella and an owl sit at a stainless steel table set in the middle of a snow-covered clearing of trees, while Coyote pours tea. All three of these animals feature prominently in American Indian myth: the owl is known for its wisdom and has a dual nature that can forecast good news or death, and brings disease or power to the people who see it. Rabbit is even even more prevalent in North American mythology, though typically violent, killing people or other animals for his own gain as in the Ute myth of Little Rabbit. Finally, there is Coyote, arguably the most universal figure in Native North American myth. Coyote is the prototypical trickster, magically powerful and always shifting between hero and troublemaker, whom Buffalohead has used to represent herself in the past. 

“Julie Buffalohead, Tea Party Day One, 2008.” | Artwork courtesy Julie Buffalohead

In Tea Party Day One, a woman masked as a coyote feeds a stuffed bear. This feeding of imaginary friends is characteristic of the type of pretend typical in tea parties in literature. For example, in Mary Poppins, the children take tea with Mary and her uncle, Mr. Wiggs, whose jolly laughter lifts them into the air. The tea party allows the characters to subvert reality, imagining that they’re free of the rules of society and physics. On one hand tea offers comfort, on another hand a suspension of disbelief.

Tea Party Day One also features a coyote, this time in a black mask rolling on the floor in front of a red cloth-draped tea table. According to Buffalohead, the coyote is not a submissive character, but is frolicking and participating in “a game of disguise.” The coyote is apparently playing this game with the woman, who is wearing a coyote mask. The mirrored quality of the characters–a coyote wearing a human mask and a woman wearing a coyote mask–is also indicative of a dual nature, much like a superhero. The coyote’s mask reminds one of Zorro, who himself has numerous dualities: Diego and his alter ego Zorro; he and his “milk-brother,” Bernardo; and Zorro and his rival Jean Lafitte. Of course, Diego himself descends from a dual heritage of Indian and Spanish, similar to Buffalohead’s own bi-racial background.

Tea parties have a dual nature, as well. Whereas on one hand they allow people to subvert rules and social norms, on the other hand they’re symbols of British colonialism and Victorian conservatism, particularly in America. When the tradition of afternoon tea first began, England was the only country in Europe where coffee wasn’t a typical drink. English tea symbolized not only the British Empire but the long-reaching politics, society, and military that kept it in place. In point of fact, tea wasn’t just a symbol of Britain, but a key element in its continued influence, as it was duties on tea and the shipping network used to import it that kept the empire from collapsing both during and after the Napoleonic Wars. When colonialists threw tea into the harbor during the Boston Tea Party, therefore, they were rejecting not only taxation but British empirialism and an ordered society.  

Tea Party Day Three is the probably where this confrontation between order and chaos is most obvious in Buffalohead’s Tea Party works. Coyote, dressed in a pink tutu and fuzzy red scarf, pours tea for a white stuffed teddy bear from a sturdy white teapot. In the foreground, what appears to be a stuffed white rabbit lies splayed out like a chalk outline at a crime scene, while a unicorn stares beadily at us from the rabbit’s side. Is the rabbit dead? Did the unicorn kill it? Or is it merely playing dead? The table is set with four cups, suggesting that the unicorn and rabbit are taking tea with Coyote and the bear, but there’s only a seat for one. Like the masked coyote in Tea Party Day One, the rabbit in Tea Party Day Three has a mirror character, the stuffed bear. They’re both white, with similar faces and black belly buttons. But whereas the teddy bear is large and lively, the rabbit is small and looks discarded. It appears civilation has triumphed over the pugnacious Rabbit.

In all of Buffalohead’s Tea Party paintings, there is a tension between society and nature that reflects the subversion of proper behavoir, as typically found in stories such as Mary Poppins, Alice in Wonderland, and many Native American myths. Because tea parties are pretend, they are the perfect social event where uncanny and disruptive events can take place. Literature has frequently drawn from this, and now Buffalohead has as well. But in a world where we no longer cling to the constructs of Victorian society, does it matter? The answer is yes: we need fantasy and disruption now more than ever; for without it, unlike Alice, we might never grow beyond what is expect to reach our full potential.

by Tasha Brandstatter

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Last Half

Rock Art of the Purgatoire Canyon

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Despite the permanency the name implies, rock art has an unexpectedly ephemeral nature. It doesn’t announce itself but creeps up on you, appearing in places you’d least expect like the footprints of someone who’s passed before you. It is this very transitory nature of rock art that makes it both fascinating and extremely difficult to understand. Because of the large and unique collection of petroglyphs and rock structures in Southern Colorado, archaeologists in our area may one day be able to shed a little light on the meaning of rock art images all over the world.

The Picket Wire, or Purgatoire, Canyon area just south of Lamar has a large and well-preserved concentration of rock art that archaeologist Lawrence Loendorf of the University of New Mexico predicts will “be the key to understanding North American rock art.” The Purgatoire River running through the canyon is one of many tributaries that make up the Lower Arkansas River Valley, an area which extends through the southeastern corner of Colorado and into the Oklahoma Panhandle and Northwest Texas. This area has the highest concentration of rock art in North America and a cultural history going back tens of thousands of years.

Walking into the Purgatoire Canyon is like walking back in time. The canyon is huge—wide enough to be seen from space—and blanketed with long, savannah-like grasses, intersected by tall cottonwoods and tamarisk that line the river. On either side, the valley walls rise up and branch off into smaller canyons that remain largely unexplored. The canyon walls themselves are dotted with junipers and basalt boulders that run all the way down to the river bed like toys scattered in a child’s playroom. Considering that less than a century and a half ago the canyon had the humid, fertile environment of a rain forest, it’s not difficult to imagine the attraction of the oasis-like valley to settlers throughout history, from the Folsom Man to Spanish colonists.

And the rock art is everywhere: pieces chipped off from boulders litter the trail, and every rock seems to have some sort of petroglyph, although not in the most obvious places one would look.

Something that becomes immediately apparent when searching for rock art is how much seeing it depends on luck and subjectivity, even when the area is rich in petroglyphs. As Loendorf put it in his study of the Purgatoire Canyon, A Manual for Rock Art Documentation,

“ … in practice it can be very difficult to decide if marks on a rock are the result of a tree limb blowing against the surface or the product of a human artist. It can be equally difficult to decide if a series of marks is purposeful, not fortuitous.” He also points out that finding rock art can depend largely on such changeable conditions as lighting and recent rains.

Loendorf has been studying the Piñon Canyon Maneuver Site, or PCMS, since 1989 and is the world’s foremost expert on petroglyphs in Southern Colorado. The PCMS itself is not part of the Purgatoire Canyon, but borders the northeast side of it.

According to Loendorf there are three major types of rock art in the area: biographic, which are incised scenes of warfare similar to ledger drawings and buffalo skin paintings; visionary and shamanistic images like handprints, which are the most common images in the PCMS; and what Loendorf refers to as “doodles,” or very abstract shapes such as squiggly lines and spirals.

These types of petroglyphs are not unique to Colorado. Handprint petroglyphs can be found all over the world; and when seen in conjunction with human figures they are believed to be a sign that the art is shamanistic in purpose, as if the print is capturing the artist’s soul. Spirals or concentric circles are also a worldwide phenomenon. In the Southwest they are often associated with shields, but are sometimes also connected to astronomy.

That being said, there are certain types of rock art that can only be found in the Purgatoire Canyon and PCMS site. These petroglyphs are anthropomorphs or quadruped figures who face the viewer and have knobby knees and digitate hands. They were created by the mysterious Apishapa (also spelled Apishipa) Culture, a group unique to Southern Colorado who inhabited the Lower Arkansas River Valley between 2,000 and 500 years ago. They’re mostly known for building rock structures like the “Stonehenge” type ruins found in the Apishapa State Wildlife Area, about 20 miles east of Walsenburg. But there are also examples of their rock structures in the PCMS and Purgatoire Canyon.

Unlike other inhabitants of North America during this time period (between about 1050 and 1450 AD), who were developing a more sedentary lifestyle, the Apishapas remained semi-nomadic even though they were building permanent stone structures. These structures were probably used for visionary and shamanistic purposes, not as homes or shelters, and some sites have material dating from the Paleoindian and Archaic periods, suggesting the sites themselves might have been in use up to 10,000 years ago, around the time when the “Folsom Man” lived in nearby Folsom, New Mexico. No matter how long the stone structures were in use, though, one can infer from the continuity of the Purgatoire Style of rock art and archaeological evidence that there was a continuous culture existing in Southern Colorado up until about 500 years ago, when a sudden break in the style of rock art coincided with the disappearance of the Apishapas and the arrival of Plains tribes like the Apache.

No one knows what caused this break in cultures, but Loendorf speculates it was a combination of drought and the arrival of Europeans, which brought the availability of new tools such as horses and the uprising of a warrior culture. Unlike the Apishapas, the Apache (one of the first recognizable tribes to inhabit the area) liked to decorate their sacred caves with the images of their deities, as well as use caves in conjunction with cattail pollen to induce visions, which so far has not been found in the rock shelters of the PCMS. They also favored biographic images in their rock art, which is very rare in the Purgatoire Canyon. Instead, rock shelter-rich areas such as the one around the Dolores Mission and Cemetery have petroglyphs pecked or painted onto boulders outside of the rock shelters, never inside. According to Loendorf, the boulders were crude stone altars used by Apishapa shamans who drew figures “on the ground near them” to represent tribal deities.

No discussion of rock art in Southern Colorado would be complete without mentioning the work of the late William McGlone and Phil Leonard. Although not professional archaeologists, anthropologists, or art historians, they have probably done more research into the petroglyphs and stone structures of Southeastern Colorado and the Oklahoma Panhandle than anyone else in modern times. While their exploration and records are valuable, their contribution to the study of these petroglyphs is somewhat marred by their belief that the petroglyphs created by the Apishapa are actually Ogam, a form of writing developed by Irish monks sometime in the fourth century AD. They claim that reading Ogam inscriptions have led them to discover several archaeoastronomical sites, including Crack Cave in Picture Canyon and the Sun Temple, also in Southeastern Colorado. They also believe that some petroglyphs are a form of Northern Arabic writing.

The idea that petroglyphs are “saying something” is hardly surprising; as Loendorf puts it, “Art is not unlike language; when one element is placed on the wall, it plays a role in the next element.” However, aside from the presence of these supposed Ogam writings, there is no evidence of Western occupation in the Americas prior to the Vikings around 1000 AD, and then only in Newfoundland. Without proof of a Western presence, the theories of McGlone, Leonard, and others like them can only be interpreted as racist. By taking Native American inscriptions and monuments and labeling them as Ogam, Mithras, Anubis, Northern Semitic, Egyptian hieroglyphic, Apollo, and so on, they are essentially taking the history of Native Americans, erasing it, and replacing it with Western history!

Their claims would be too ridiculous to even warrant discussion if they weren’t regarded with so much credulity and if this practice wasn’t so wide spread in regards to Native American rock art. In 1994, for example, the discovery of Chauvet Cave, an Upper Paleolithic site in France with “wondrous” multicolored paintings, was featured in every major American newspaper. That same year, the Kaibab Paiute finished a study of cave paintings in the Grand Canyon which depicted the Ghost Dance and other images every bit as impressive as those in Chauvet Cave. Instead of mainstream media press coverage, however, they were featured in Weekly World News under the headline, “4,000-year-old UFO Found in Grand Canyon!” Even if these sensational claims are the only way to generate interest in rock art in North America, any attempt to remove American Indians from Native American rock art should be met with outrage.

Petroglyphs hardly need UFOs and secret histories to be interesting. Rock art is mysterious, and beautiful, and exciting, and for scholars trying to study it, occasionally frustrating. But possibly that is what it’s meant to be. One doesn’t have to understand or give a single meaning to everything one sees in order to appreciate it. Petroglyphs are artworks that are living and magical in a way that paintings in environmentally-controlled museums can’t match. While it is doubtful the petroglyphs and rock structures in Southeastern Colorado will ever be more comprehensively studied unless attitudes toward rock art change, the fact remains that the Purgatoire Canyon and the Lower Arkansas River Valley as a whole contains a wealth of history just waiting to be explored and admired.

by Tasha Brandstatter

 

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Last Half

Ice Blocking

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With the stress of several fires, all dry desert heat, and rainless days, I know I’m looking for unique ways to stay cool and calm.

Since it’s not ideal to travel three hours to the sand dunes so you can spend a day scooting down sandy hills on plastic sleds like you’re Matthew McConaughey in Sahara, I have a different method for you all. Instead, you can get a little wet, and certainly wild, with a slide down and cool down toward the end of a hot day. With what you ask? What else could you possible do to cool down besides sprinklers in your back yard, waterpark, or swimming pool? Ice Blocking of course, don’t worry I’ll tell you what the heck it is. Here’s what you do. First, this simple fun can be easily devised using two items:

-One 10 pound block of ice (can be found at King Soopers)

-And One kitchen towel to keep your tush somewhat dry (don’t be afraid to accessorize)

Second, find yourself a steep and grassy knoll (dirt does not work and you will hurt yourself), University Park in Pueblo is always a good choice, but any steep hill will do. Next, place your towel over your block of ice, situate yourself as comfortably on your ice as you can, have your friends give you a little push and… Geronimo! You’ll slide down that hill faster than a fireman down a pole.

Continue to maximize your ice blocking experience in three ways. First, go on a hot day so your ice melts making you slide faster. Second, wait for the grass to get greener. As the ice melts, your block sleds down the green grass better. And third, find out if your desired hill space has a sprinkler system. If it does, find out when they kick on and go ice blocking then. Slickery is always better, in this case. Combine those three things and you’ll see what I mean. And why not dress down? You don’t get wet from ice blocking unless you go through the sprinklers. So get in those board shorts and bikinis and slip and slide over the hill and down a slippery slope of water.

It’s too much of a scorching inferno during the day, so try going ice blocking at night when the sun disappears and the evening feels a lot cooler. With this inexpensive outlet in the sizzling summertime, who needs Waterworld anyway? Actually, that does sound nice right now… but anyway. Give this poor man’s slip and slide a chance and it could create a summer memory between you and some great friends.

For a quick bit of fun on a budget, this is a great activity to let you get down while things continue to heat up.

by Kelly Branyik

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Art Coup in Cañon

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Through the lightly Juniper specked cliffs cupping the slight winding roads, you can take a slow drive past the quiet residences of small towns that don’t make it on the map.

Through the lightly Juniper specked cliffs cupping the slight winding roads, you can take a slow drive past the quiet residences of small towns that don’t make it on the map. Drive a little further, you might find yourself cruising upstream to the rushing Arkansas River. You may even see a lonely rafter eager for some white water or an angler hungry for brown trout. Art is neither a rare spectacle. You can walk down main street and spot several art studios full of a life’s work, or you can see an artist diligently completing his oil painting halfway outside of his studio door. For some, not much is really happening in Canon City for the art community but recently the Fremont Center for the Arts scored a major coup by showing an internationally-known artist’s creations.

Thomas ‘The Painter of Light’ Kinkade’s, artwork made its appearance at the Fremont Center for the Arts in Canon City. Thomas Kinkade is the American artist known for his realistic and impressionistic paintings using three elements of light: water, sunlight, and artificial light. His purpose in painting was to simply paint with his heart. Although he never searched for fame in his work, he is the most sold artist in the country and became so reputable that his art is easily spotted in St. Jude Hospitals, The White House and even the Vatican. 

Garden of Prayer by Thomas Kinkade | Courtesy Fremont Center for the Arts

Garden of Prayer by Thomas Kinkade | Courtesy Fremont Center for the Arts

The FCA is a non-profit organization home to the local artists of Fremont County but also host to collections and exhibits of art ranging from Day of the Dead exhibits to the Splendor of Glass exhibits to Artist of the Tattooist. The FCA’s establishment is known to the art community, but to outsiders it merely appears to be an extension of the public library across the street. To discover that Kinkade is in Canon City is a stunning piece of news, so with all this excitement, many are left wondering, how does artwork of this caliber make its way to a small town?

Art centers are struggling and it doesn’t matter that Canon City has the oldest Arts Community Council west of the Mississippi. The FCA’s Visual Committee has been working for two years to bring Kinkade’s original artwork to Canon. It all started in March 2011 when Linda Bella brainstormed ways to get more big name artists associated with the FCA. With the help of Linda Carlson, Bella settled on attempting to contact Thomas Kinkade. The Lindas searched diligently for his contact information, eventually finding it on Google.

Once they made contact with Kinkade, they proposed he show his art in Canon City. Kinkade’s response was a hearty chuckle and a “we only do shows in big cities.” Carlson’s logic was that big name art shows are less popular in big cities because the competition is too fierce, but in a smaller city, there will be a larger turnout of appreciative fans. Kinkade found reason in the proposition and March 2013 became the date for display. But the process took an abrupt halt when Thomas Kinkade passed away unexpectedly in April 2012, inevitably cutting off any correspondence with any and every person associated with Kinkade. “We almost didn’t get it,” said Carlson. For months, the Lindas had nearly given up on getting Kinkade to Canon until October when contact was resumed and the plans to showcase Kinkade continued. 

The FCA paid $300 for shipping each original painting from California to Denver. The display consisted of both original paintings and giclee of prints like The Wailing Wall, Disney’s 50th Anniversary sketch, his Fenway Park painting, Walk of Faith, and many others. 

I asked Carlson what the FCA hoped to gain out of bringing a world famous artist to Canon City. They hoped to increase interest, awareness, and support for the FCA, regardless of an artist’s prestigious reputation. During the one month display, the FCA sold $3,700 worth of prints, while the Denver Kinkade dealers anticipated only $200 profit. Between the splendidly detailed paintings and Patrick Kinkade’s heartfelt presentation of the hysterical and historical timeline of Thomas, the Kinkade display at the FCA turned out to be a great success for Canon City. So, who’s next for the FCA? The Visual Committee set July 2014 as the tentative date to showcase a Norman Rockwell display for two months.

by Kelly Branyik

 Cover photo The Fremont Center for the Arts   

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