Native American artists from tribes of the Southeast culture group – both in southeastern states and in post-Trail of Tears areas of Oklahoma – have had a significant impact on twentieth century Native American art.

A transition through generations of artists from this culture was characterized by a shift from “traditional” Native American art – distinguished by hard outlines, flat depictions of three-dimensional objects, and subjects that focus on everyday Native life – to a style that encouraged experimentation with various contemporary art movements but with a Native American perspective.

Beginning around the late-1940s, this shift made a distinction between Native American artists who were trained in the traditional style with those who received their art education during or after the 1940s. Because Native American artists came from many different backgrounds with multiple influences, these distinctions were not always easy to discern. However, as presented in this exhibit chronologically by artist, this generational shift is still apparent in many Southeastern Native American works of the twentieth century.

Solomon McCombs (1913-1980)

Solomon McCombs, born in Eufaula, Oklahoma, embraced the traditional method of Native American art. Characterized by flat figures and objects with heavy outlines, natural colors, and telling the story of a Creek legend, this painting has many of the attributes often seen in this artistic style.

He attended Bacone College, which produced many Native artists of the traditional style. At Bacone, Mr. McCombs he studied under well-known Native American artist Acee Blue Eagle.

He later became an illustrator for the State Department and Vice Chief of the Creek Nation. His work has been exhibited throughout the United States and abroad. Mr. McCombs was an enrolled member of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation, Oklahoma.

Lloyd Henri “Kiva” New (1916-2002)

Lloyd Henri New (Cherokee) was born on a farm on his mother’s allotment in Timber Hill, Oklahoma, and showed a passion for art at an early age. Mr. New enrolled at the Art Institute of Chicago with financial assistance from the Bureau of Indian Affairs’ Okmulgee office and graduated with a degree in art education in 1938. Mr. New began teaching art in schools on Indian reservations and was soon disappointed to find that students were being taught that Native American styles and media were considered to be crafts, not art.

During World War II, Mr. New served in the U.S. Navy as an artist. Shortly after returning from service, Mr. New made a career change into a field that would give him much recognition: fashion and textile design. With the success of his brand “Kiva,” he became known as “Lloyd Kiva New.”

In 1962, at the height of his fashion design success, Mr. New left the business to co-found the Institute of American Indian Arts (IAIA) in Santa Fe, where he worked with well-known Native artists including Fritz Scholder and Allan Houser. Since his early teaching days, he had been bothered by the lack of true artistic education programs available for training Native American artists, and at IAIA, he developed art education which considered new media and techniques combined with traditional Native crafts and design. Students were able to learn about marketing their work in order to sustain themselves as artists. Mr. New served as IAIA’s Director from 1967 until he retired in 1978. Before his death in 2002, Mr. New participated in the development of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian.

Throughout his career, Mr. New stressed that Native American art students should retain creative links to traditional arts, but urged that they should not be bound by them. These two paintings are representative of this ideal. Mr. New was a visionary, breaking through the limitations of early twentieth century Native American art and paving the way for future artists to find their own visions for their work.

Howell Sonny Orr (b. 1929)

Born in Washington, Oklahoma, Howell Sonny Orr had two early Native American cultural influences for his art: his Cherokee father and Chickasaw mother. His interests led him to pursue a bachelor’s degree from Northeastern State University and then a master’s degree from Instituto San Miguel de Allende in Mexico. After three years of service during the Korean War, he returned home and taught art in middle schools and high schools in the United States.

In his art, Mr. Orr drew on numerous international art forms, particularly Mexican mural painting and Indonesian batik design, in addition to his Cherokee and Chickasaw heritage.

Benjamin Harjo, Jr. (b. 1945)

Benjamin Harjo, Jr. was born to a Seminole and Shawnee family in Clovis, New Mexico, and was raised in Oklahoma. He graduated from the Institute of American Indian Arts (IAIA) with an Associate of Arts in 1966. After serving with the U.S. Army in Vietnam in 1969-1971, Mr. Harjo continued his education at Oklahoma State University, earning a Bachelor of Fine Arts in 1974. He briefly working as a cultural recreational coordinator and teacher, then became a professional artist in 1976.

Mr. Harjo’s art has been exhibited throughout the United States and abroad. He describes his artistic style as constantly evolving. At the beginning of his career, he focused on realistic depictions. Today, Mr. Harjo’s style is more geometric focusing on subjects from his Seminole and Shawnee heritage. This woodblock print of the Everglades, the homeland of the Seminole, shows this shift in style.

Hildreth Carl Tubby (1946-2005)

A member of the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians, Hildreth Carl Tubby served as the Tribal Arts Director for the Choctaw Central High School of Philadelphia, Mississippi.

His artistic style combines traditional and modern aspects of Native American art. These paintings draw from the bright colors, strong outlines, designs, and subjects seen in traditional Native American art, along with the three-dimensional representation of objects and collage style found in modern artistic styles. The “traditional Indian geometric style” was one of Mr. Tubby’s main artistic influences, and he used this style to create his own unique art.

Gerald Stone (b. 1947)

Born in Konawa, Oklahoma, Gerald Stone (Seminole, Cherokee) was not raised in a traditional Native American household. He enrolled in the Institute of American Indian Arts (IAIA) just three years after it was established. Too shy to engage in conversations about art with his teachers, he would go after class into their studios to look at their work and learn from what he saw.

Like many Southeastern artists, Mr. Stone looked to a variety of artistic styles for inspiration. To him, IAIA was a truly unique place at the time, where Native American students were encouraged and “shepherded” by well-known Native American artists including Lloyd Kiva New, Allan Houser, and Fritz Scholder. He later attended the University of Oklahoma, graduating with a Bachelor of Fine Arts.

This painting, which he created in his sophomore year at IAIA, was one of the first that was widely shown and then sold, and shows the influence of the abstract style that gained popularity in Native American art at the time. Mr. Stone said that it is meant to depict Native American war shields in a way that represents the cosmos. This use of styles that were popular in the broader art world combined with a Native perspective, characterized much of Native American art in the latter part of the twentieth century.

Credits: Story

Native American Artists of the Southeast was developed by the Bureau of Indian Affairs Museum Program, September 2016.

Shannon Stiles, Staff Curator
Annie Pardo, Museum Program Manager
(with assistance from the summer intern)


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Credits: All media
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