Fritz Scholder (1937-2005)
Bill Long 3/4/05
No More Sunshine from Mr. Scholder
Fritz Scholder, for nearly four decades a leading Native American artist, died in Phoenix on February 10. I was disappointed that when I visited Phoenix a few weeks after his death that there were only three of his pieces hanging in the Phoenix Art Museum and none at all (due to remodeling) at the Heard Museum. Nevertheless, his passing affords me a brief opportunity both to celebrate his contribution but, even more, to reflect on his thoughts on the creative process.
A Few Biographical Words
Fritz was born of mixed Native and German stock in Minnesota. Until his late teen years in South Dakota he never even thought of himself as a Native American. But his encounter with Sioux artist Oscar Howe in Pierre at age 16 stimulated him to recover that heritage that was buried under the Fritz V (that is Fritz the Fifth) of his Germanic name. Studies in Sacramento under Wayne Thiebaud and then graduate work in Tempe led him to the West and, ultimately to Arizona. By 1967, under the dual influences of pop art and expressionism he decided to paint "the Indian real, rather than red." So he produced his arresting paintings of an Indian with a beer can, a buffalo dancer with an ice-cream cone, and an arrow-ridden white settler, images that unsettled both the Anglo and Native cultures.
But he would not stop with his novel depictions of Natives. He traveled widely, to Transylvania, Egypt and South America, to learn as much as he could about vampires, pyramids and other distinctive artistic themes that he tirelessly wove into his work. And, his work was in many media: paintings, monoprints, lithographs, drawings and sculpture. His wide search for artistic inspiration suggests the question to all who conceive of themselves as artists: what are the sources, the fontes, out of which our artistic rivulos flow? What are the texts, the monuments, the ideas, the images that move and nourish our souls, that suggest or move our creative process?
Speaking of the creative process, Scholder described what he was trying to do in these words:
"I try to make the creative process as spontaneous and non-thinking as possible. I don't worry about what's coming next. I don't go into the studio every day. I go in when I get too nervous. For me it's a catharsis--putting yourself in a place, alone, where you have the possibility of finding personal integrity, pushing back any influences..."
At least two points come out of this rich and suggestive comment. First, creativity is not a goal-oriented or purpose-driven process. It is a living process of discovery, a process that led one commentator to call him a "ceaselessly creative artist." The words "creative thinking" would therefore be oxymoronic for Scholder. Spontaneously emerging ideas, discovered in a deep space of personal integrity, are the basis of the artist's work. But we are not to suppose that these ideas are derived from a blank slate. Indeed, his journeys around the world were designed to fill the mind with a stock of unforgettable images with which his mind could play.
Second, there is no definite schedule for creativity. He entered into the studio "when I get too nervous." This suggests that creativity is a kind of inner gnawing, a slight interior tug, a thirst that must be slaked or, in Scholder's words, a kind of catharsis where you discover a space of personal integrity. The most important characteristic for the artist it would seem, then, is to develop the capacity to hear and feel, to sense that the nervousness that arises within is a sign that the creative heart needs to be honored.
And the process, at least in Scholder's words, is one of discovering our integrity. The word integrity suggests a unity, a wholeness, a sense of things coming together. Its opposite is fracturing, brokenness, being split in two. This integrity is discovered, however, as he says later in the interview, by becoming an "expert." "One must become an expert, knowing what has come before and feeling the subject at a deep personal level."
Hearken, future artists. Fill your minds and imaginations with basic or, to use Jungian language, archetypal images. Realize, however, that the artisic inclination is something from within and that you need to be able to trust the inner process that speaks to you in a "non-thinking" manner. Do we trust life enough, trust the creative genie within, to wait for the nervous feeling to arise and then spontaneously create? So, the next time you run across Scholder's work, try to notice not only the elongated images, the breaking of stereotypes in presenting Native Americans, the colorful flowers and eerie vampires, but see if you can also listen for and notice the process of spontaneous response to a rhythmic integrity deep within that produced these works. If you can "hear" the latter, the sunshine of Scholder will continue to glow.
Copyright © 2004-2007 William R. Long