The Little Known Native American Art of Pottawatomie Dancer, Musician and Artist Woody Crumbo
"I have always painted with the desire of developing Indian art so that it may be judged on art standards rather on its value as a curio—I am attempting to record Indian customs and legends now, while they are alive, to make them a part of the great American culture before these, too, become lost, only to be fragmentarily pieced together by fact and supposition.”
"Half of my life passed in striving to complete the pictorial record of Indian history, religion, rituals, customs, way of life, and philosophies . . . a graphic record that a million words could not begin to tell."
— Woodrow Wilson “Woody” Crumbo (1912 — 1989)
Woodrow Wilson Crumbo was an artist, designer, silversmith, poet, Native American flute player and dancer, who lived and worked mostly in the West of the United States. He was born on a reservation in Lexington, Oklahoma, to Alex, a French horse trader who passed away just four years later, and Mary Ann Hurd, a Pottawatomie Indian woman who moved them to Kansas shortly thereafter. He was an orphan by the time he was seven, and spent the remainder of his childhood living around Sand Springs with various American Indian families. Despite his circumstances, the young man showed a remarkable amount of determination to make something of himself.
Crumbo began studying art at the Chilocco Indian Agricultural School when he was 17 years old. Around the same time, he befriended a group of Kiowas who helped spark his interest in learning how to play the Kiowa ceremonial flute. At the age of 19, Crumbo earned a scholarship to the Wichita American Indian Institute and graduated three years later as valedictorian. He went on to attend the University of Oklahoma in 1936, where he studied with Oscar B. Jacobson (1882 — 1966), the director of the university’s School of Art (later known as the Fred Jones Jr. Museum of Art), where Jacobson also curated exhibitions and wrote books about Native American art.
As Allison Meier wrote for Hyperallergic:
“While studying at Wichita University and later the University of Oklahoma, [Crumbo] supported himself as a dancer, learning different tribe’s dances from across the nation. This is probably why out of all his portrait paintings, the dancers feel the most present and alive, the detail on their costumes studied down to each feather tip. He was also a flute player and maker, even performing with the Wichita Symphony. But while he had a knack for any and all art forms, with painting and printmaking Crumbo found distinction. He was one of the first Native American artists to dive into oil painting as a medium, adding dimension to the flat figure style popularized by the Kiowa Five in tempura (sic). While capturing traditional symbolism and ceremony were a major focus, his experimentation progressed with his career, becoming less and less what was expected from Native American art.”
Crumbo’s heritage, early experiences, and studies all made him appreciate the unique beauty of the disappearing cultures of North American tribes, and he expressed this appreciation through different art forms that eventually led to his rise as an artist and performer. But it’s also what led him to being appointed Director of Indian Art at Bacone College, “the only institute of higher learning exclusively for Indians,” at the impressive age of 21. “Bacone offered Crumbo the unique opportunity to familiarize himself with his heritage and to instill in him cultural pride. At that time he conducted research into Indian design and revived ancient techniques of silverwork, vegetable dying, and weaving.”
Using his art, Crumbo explored and promoted the traditions and ceremonies of his own tribe as well as those of the Creek, Sioux, and Kiowa. And even though much of his work is displayed in museums and was fairly celebrated during his time, the success he experienced as an artist did not make him an affluent man. “A life in the nonprofit world continued to be a struggle for the Crumbo Family.” The Crumbos moved to Taos, New Mexico, in 1948, where they hit some very unexpected luck. Realizing an entrepreneurial opportunity in the form of $1-3 newspaper ads, Crumbo and fellow artist Max Evans, bought a $3 mail-order mineral identification kit in the 1950s and begun prospecting. “They discovered deposits of ore worth millions, including a vein of beryllium (a metallic chemical element).”
In fact, Crumbo’s career had been very diverse. Not only did he perform as a “musician and Indian ceremonial dancer... he also worked as a designer with the Douglas Corporation, with the Gilcrease Collection in Tulsa.” Additionally, he was an Assistant Director of the El Paso, Texas Museum of Art from 1960–1967; where he was promoted to Director 1968 and held the position until 1974. He was involved in many humanitarian efforts, including his work with the Ysleta Pueblo Indians of New Mexico, whom he aided in gaining federal recognition. In 1973 he took up residence near Checotah, Oklahoma, where he continued to create and to promote Native American art. In 1978, he was inducted into the Oklahoma Hall of Fame.
Allison Meier put it well:
“Woody Crumbo spent six decades of the mid-20th century promoting Native American art to the mainstream, where often it was seen as a novelty or niche by wealthy collectors. Through printmaking, he mass produced his depictions of animals, dancers, and other vibrant images so that anyone could afford his work. Yet despite his prolific career, which included participating in hundreds of exhibits, painting murals inside the US Department of Interior, and having hundreds of his pieces acquired by museums like the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Smithsonian, Crumbo’s art has, somewhat ironically, become a niche interest, often overlooked even when his influence in bringing Native American work into the contemporary art world remains a powerful presence.”
Overall, Woody Crumbo’s career spanned nearly 60 years and included major advancements in oil and egg tempera, stained glass and silkscreen, sculpture and etching as well as pencil and watercolor. His work is found in numerous museums and private collections around the world. But the largest collection of Crumbo's work is owned by Tulsa’s Gilcrease Museum, which houses about about 175 of his beautiful paintings.