by Ryann Gordon
(This article has been revised and corrected)
JRB Art at the Elms is featuring a Chickasaw artist and his longtime friend in the upcoming exhibit, Cowboys and Indians. Famous for his portraits of Indians, Mike Larsen’s paintings will be paired with the cowboy sculpture works of Harold “H” Holden to paint a picture of the west from two vastly different, yet ironically close figures.
Both members of the Oklahoma Hall of Fame, Larsen and Holden are known for contradictory subject matters. Though historically in opposition, cowboys and Indians are paired together on the same historic timelines, most certainly that of Oklahoma.
Mike Larsen has made his name in Oklahoma painting Native Americans. His famous mural at the Oklahoma State Capitol “Flight of Spirit” has been given national acclaim, giving tribute to five world-renowned, Native American prima ballerinas. One of the Cowboys and Indians paintings, “Yvonne Study,” features Oklahoma’s own Yvonne Chouteau, one of the capitol ballerinas.
“This has been part of the genre for ages,” says Larsen. “I have since the ‘80s done Native American work, because I am Chickasaw, and we have several friends here in Oklahoma who are Indian, Cheyenne, Crow, Arapaho.”
Larsen’s collection of Native portraits includes hundreds of paintings of living subjects. Over the years, he’s done work directly with Chickasaw Nation to study and paint living elders in the tribe.
“We got started developing our relationship with the Chickasaw people, under the auspices of the Chickasaw Nation we have been able to do nearly 100 large paintings of living Chickasaw elders,” says Larsen. “Now, emphasize ‘living,’ because we do not rely on historic pictures, so we have been able to paint, interview, spend time with nearly 100 living Chickasaw elders and do their portraits. We spent time with them in their homes, interviewed them, Martha shot a couple hundred photographs of each one and out of those photographs, 72 developed into paintings that now belong to the Chickasaw Nation, part of the historical artifacts in Ada.”
A painter for over 50 years, Larsen has come a long way from when he had his first art show in the early ‘70s, evolving his craft while keeping in the same overarching style.
“My style hasn’t necessarily changed but it has developed over the years,” says the artist. “You pay attention to what you’re doing, you grow and develop, work with what you have done and try to not repeat too much, try and do new things, develop new characters, new ideas.
“I went to school in New York because I realized some things were really missing from what I was doing. So, I went to the Art Students League, went to school there, met some really good people, and came back home painting better than I was before because I discovered what was missing in my work — paint quality. I came back home and studied several people in the Cowboy Hall of Fame, mostly Edgar Payne and a couple other people, looking at their canvases and why they were so alive and wonderful, and it was the quality of their paint on the canvas.”
For the past 50 years, Larsen has been perfecting his craft with quality paints that allow the art to pop from the canvas. His realistic portraits of Native American people vary from posed portraits to action shots; “Chiricahua,” an Indian holding up spear and shield; a singular stomp dance in “Dances in the Sun;” and “Ittapiha/Kin,” depicting an Indian man holding an eagle on one arm, directing the bird with the other.
Aside from his Native art, Larsen’s depiction of the west is apparent in other themes as well, Oklahoma land and skyscapes, religious motifs and even one cowboy, titled “American Cowboy.” His skyscape paintings have been highly regarded, appearing on postage stamps in the past.
“Most of the landscape pictures are paintings from our property, sunrises or sunsets from our front porch or back porch,” he says. “I did the centennial stamps in 2007 with the US Post Office. Those paintings came about when we moved out of OKC and were finally able to see the sunrises, and they were chosen because of the new emerging sunrise paintings. So, there are a few sunrises, a lot of figurative work. There’s a couple in there that are kind of inspired by H Holden.”
Close friends in real life, both Mike and Martha Larsen call H Holden (who recently passed away) and his wife two of their favorite people in the world. The duo collections in Cowboys and Indians contrast one another accordingly, with Larsen’s Indian paintings appearing in distinctly different mediums even from Holden’s bronze cowboy statues.
Both representations of the west will be situated next to another exhibit featuring the contemporary, pop-western works of Jack Fowler. Together, the three artists’ works depict three vastly different Oklahoma histories. Alongside the artwork of Fowler and Holden, Larsen’s works do the job in highlighting the Native American heritage that embodies our state and nation’s past.