Santa Fe Artist Treasures Oklahoma’s Influence

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Santa Fe Artist Treasures Oklahoma’s Influence

BY M. J. VAN DEVENTER

Oklahoma City’s Red Earth Festival has a special place in Raymond Nordwall’s long list of artistic achievements. After exhibiting with the Festival for several years, he was named the festival’s poster artist in 2014, an honor coveted by the annual event’s participating artists.

Along the way, Nordwall acquired a large coterie of Oklahoma fans, who now collect his brilliantly colored art to grace the walls of their homes and their out-of-state vacation residences. A large group of Stillwater collectors frequently honor him with showings of his work at art receptions in their homes.

Although Nordwall has called Santa Fe his home for the past 16 years, his heart always will be in his home state of Oklahoma. Reared in Muskogee, he recalls with fondness the Oklahoma artists who recognized his budding talent and took the time to nurture his youthful passion for art.

That passion began with his mother’s love of art.

“She would buy from Oklahoma artists and commission their work. Now, when I’m painting, I feel very close to her. My Dad was from the Ojibwe tribe and he took me to powwows, which was my link to the culture of the powwows I sometimes paint,” he recalled in an interview in his studio on Santa Fe’s trendy Canyon Road, a haven for artists.

Nordwall was only 10 when his mother died in a car accident in 1976, but her untimely death did not quell his interest in art.

In the seventh grade, he met Johnny Tiger Jr., then a budding artist on Oklahoma’s Native American art scene.

“He bought me my first set of watercolor paints,” Nordwall reminisced. “It was a professional paint set, just like his. After that, I always tried to use the best paint, even at a young age.”

That gift from Johnny Tiger was an inspiration that changed the course of Nordwall’s life.
“I still consider that paint set from Johnny a precious and inspiring gift,” he said.

With Raymond’s father working away from home in a government job in the nation’s capitol, Nordwall often stayed with Johnny Tiger and his family.

“Johnny and I painted together often,” Nordwall remembers.

Sometimes there were other young artists there copying the paintings by Jerome Tiger, featured in the book Peggy Tiger and Molly Babcock wrote about Jerome after his untimely death in 1967 from an accidental gunshot wound.

“Sometimes Johnny would touch up our paintings,” Nordwall confided. “I always drew. I just didn’t know how to paint. By the time I really started painting, I knew Jerome’s work so well. Johnny gave me my love for painting faces. I studied with Johnny through graduation from Muskogee High School in 1983 and until I left that fall to attend Oklahoma State University.”

Nordwall also remembers watching Johnny as he often prepared paintings for shows at Muskogee’s Five Civilized Tribes Museum, not realizing then he would someday be preparing his own paintings for prestigious art shows.

Johnny also gave Raymond a glimpse of the art gallery scene.

“I was hanging out with Johnny in Tulsa one day and saw an ad for art galleries in Santa Fe. There were 200 galleries listed and I thought, ‘I bet I could sell to at least 20 of them.’ I was very naïve about the Santa Fe art market then.”

Now, Nordwall is frequently asked to share his experiences and expertise with budding artists and art students.

His first year of college was disappointing. He discovered OSU’s more contemporary art focus wasn’t a good fit for him. He returned to Muskogee to study art with well-known artist Dick West at Bacone College.

West, whose art career is legendary in Native American circles, taught Nordwall how to do research so the elements of his paintings would be authentic.

“I learned about Native American regalia, accoutrements, how they lived. Mr. West was a great inspiration to me,” Nordwall said.
After studying with West, Nordwall was accepted on scholarship to the prestigious Institute of American Indian Art in Santa Fe. During that time he worked in the gallery of noted artist Frank Howell.

“He changed my whole approach to painting,” Nordwall recalled. “He also taught me the business side of art. I was his gofer. I took his art to galleries to sell and I began to study more contemporary native painters. I saw who they were influenced by and I studied their work too.”

Nordwall remembers those days in Santa Fe with fondness.

“It was an incredibly creative time for me. I surveyed a range of styles – cubism, impressionism, pop art, Japanese wood blocks, and plein air painting. Howell taught me oil painting techniques. He is considered the premier painter and monotype maker among Indian artists. His works evoke the spirit of ancestry. I could not have had a better teacher for the monotypes that have enhanced my career,” he said.

Following his time with Howell and graduation from the IAIA, Nordwall traveled in Europe, studying the art of the master painters. He was enamored with the art of the French impressionist Claude Monet, who still inspires the glistening water reflections in many of Nordwall’s contemporary oil paintings.

That technique is particularly evident in his paintings of neon bright horses splashing through water and coming toward the viewer at breakneck speed with spirited energy. His collectors still love, and buy, the vibrant primary colors of the horses and shimmering water reflections.

Those paintings brought Nordwall numerous commissions and awards, including the honor of serving as the poster artist for the 2000 Santa Fe Indian Market, one of the largest festivals in the Native American art world.
As Nordwall approaches his 50th birthday on Sept. 24, he is reflective and nostalgic about his career.
“I love the life I lead,” he said, mentioning his wife Gina, housing manager for the Santa Fe Opera, and their son Miles, 15, who is named for Miles Davis, Nordwall’s favorite jazz musician.

“I’m so grateful to have grown up in Oklahoma, especially Muskogee, where I was exposed to so much Native American art,” he said. “I live in my little world. I’m blessed. I sell everything I paint. I love the act of creating. When I’m painting, it’s like a prayer. I feel closest to God when I’m painting.”

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