There is a certain material honesty in the art of Nathan James Little Wounded, a rare quality often absent in galleries of contemporary art. His complete and confident understanding of the nature of wood, horn, paint and hide transcends the utilitarian function of the objects he creates, allowing them to become pure and uncompromised visual and spiritual experiences. Little Wounded works within the aesthetic vernacular of the Plains tribes. His heritage, Minneconju Lakota of the Cheyenne River Sioux, carries forward the light of a centuries old spirituality infused with the intertwining of the natural and spirit worlds.
Though essentially self-taught, Little Wounded’s development as an artist grew out of a passion for his mother and grandmother’s facility with beading and quilling. While in his early teens, the work of his grandfather inspired an additional interest in carving wood. Over years of practice, the artist within him flourished as Little Wounded began to develop a visual vocabulary that approached the living traditions he was learning with a fresh voice. At the suggestion of his grandmother, he opened his eyes to color in nature and began to understand the aural presence and spiritual significance of certain hues. Little Wounded’s use of color often receive critical mention. He tolerates a certain casual acceptance in the handling of paint that eschews high finish for evidence of use and comfort. He is acutely attuned to the significance of line and shape as it plays out across a piece, whether in the surface or form of a drum, a rattle or a shield.
Many Native American artists explore both old and new world materials in the making of art, and Little Wounded is no exception. However, he does favor traditional pigments in the compositional use of red, yellow, white and black, always aware of the power contained within the choice of color. Little Wounded’s work reveals him to be a bit of an outlier, a visual genius running in parallel to current interests in Outsider Art. He imbues every piece he creates with physical and spiritual purpose through a signature use of line, shape and color. His drawings of buffalo are simply magical as well as his manipulation of buffalo horn into traditional objects.
A spoon may be a spoon, but in the hands of Nathan James Little Wounded, a spoon becomes a physical connection of the power generated between the animal who gave its life for the spoon’s creation and the spirit invoked in its design. The Modernist dictum of art for art sake could not be further from his thoughts, though one might imagine few of his works, flutes and drums aside, being valued for anything less than their aesthetic beauty.
Hand Drum, Little Person Sitting, is a good example of Little Wounded’s attentiveness to the weave of form and tradition in his work. The hand drum (pictured below) is a taunt circle of deer hide stretched over a wooden hoop. In the center is painted a pale cornflower blue circle surrounded by an orange halo with the four directional points. It sits within the crossing of two overlapping deep yellow triangles, one extending from the top, the other from the bottom of the hoop. They create a wider circle at their crossing, nesting the center circle in a hollow of deep yellow, the total form outlined in a halo of blue. Outside this dominant shape extend eighteen triangular feather symbols radiating from the center with nine to the left and nine to the right. Each feather is composed of three colors, an orange lower triangle outlined in deep brown, a blue separation line, and a deep brown upper triangle. Hanging from the circumference of the hoop are eight double strings of rawhide that channel the drum’s spirit force when in use.
The Sioux, like many tribes, believe drums are living things with a beating hearts, giving step to the dancers and power to the dance. This drum has a special alignment with the “little people” of Sioux legend. The “little people” – believed to live in the hollows of trees and caves – can be quite ferocious. They can do large mischief if they want. Carved of wood, the little person sitting on this drum has a leather shield hung about his neck. He wears a felt breechcloth of dark blue, deep yellow and bright red. Beads, feathers and shell ornaments adorn his painted body. He sits erect, hands on the hoop, ready to move. Painted from head to toe in brown, white, yellow and orange, he has a buffalo symbol on his chest and face, as well as a buffalo running on the shield. His eyes are startlingly open, reminding the viewer that this is no happy elf.
Since drums are for playing, Little Wounded has fashioned a mallet of wood with a sewn hide top and a beaded grip. He has attached this to the side of the drum, though it is doubtful anyone would willingly disturb the visual pleasure this piece provides for the possibility of hearing its voice. It is, like much of his work, a masterpiece of the visual vernacular of the Sioux culture and though it stands outside the aesthetic thrust of international contemporary art, it would be misguided to categorize the work of Nathan James Little Wounded, or any contemporary indigenous Plains artist, with the broad brush of American Western Art. To do so would be an incredible aesthetic injustice. Artists mining and furthering the language of indigenous traditions, whether in the Australian bush or the Great Plains need to be viewed not for how they confirm or challenge contemporary aesthetics constructs, but for how they further our understanding of the wealth of human visual expression. Nathan James Little Wounded may be one of the most important artists of our time for simply being so incredibly honest in what he provides.
Featured Image: Hunt Circle Deer Hide (Detail), Nathan James Little Wounded, B. 1955, Brain tanned deer hide, paint, 2016 Culver Art Collection, Gift of Ray Hillenbrand CMA‘52
More information on Nathan James Little Wounded and other contemporary Native American artists can be found at www.prairieedge.com