Saturday, March 15, 2014


Maynard Dixon

Maynard Dixon, Western artist, was mostly in the Southwest and not particularly known in Montana in the Sixties, except by Rex Rieke who was more sophisticated than most of the rest of us.  Rex worked with Bob Morgan at the Montana Historical Society, but he was also a musician and often visited the Blackfeet Reservation, owning a house in East Glacier for some years.  When he was interested in an artist, he would experiment with that person’s style of painting.  Part of his friendship with Bob Scriver was their shared love of the work of Carl Rungius, though Bob was never that accomplished as a painter.  His brain just didn’t work that way.  But he and Rex were on the same wavelength with music.

Dixon is known today mostly for his beautiful nearly-abstract paintings of the SW, but he had many other contexts, all based on strong composition.

In fact, he was also a seductive abstract painter, which was THE top style of the hot Manhattan painters of the time.  Rex Rieke tried that, too, and I find those paintings by both artists gorgeous, but they don’t sell like the pop genre stuff.  Dixon was married to the famous Depression photographer Dorothea Lange and used that subject matter.

By Maynard Dixon

by "Nyvorzk"

by "Nyvorzk"

Dixon also painted nudes.  For these more liberal works, he used a pseudonym, "Nvorczk."

Patterned decorative work was another source of income.

Maynard Dixon’s illustrations for children’s books just now came to my attention, surprising me yet again.  As was fashionable at the time, they're quite English and sentimental, focused on the clever androgyny of the child in latency (5 to 12).

This one called "Injun Babies", for all its simplicity and charm raises all sorts of political questions that weren't in awareness at the time.  Dixon was close to Native Americans and often painted them as adults with great dignity, maybe on horses or wrapped in blankets.

Even the cover is so charming that it takes a little effort to see it from a political point of view. Here is a short list of prompts.

1.  The title:  “Injun Babies” undercuts dignity by using slang and makes pre-adolescent children sound like infants.

2.  The drawing and coloring is almost Disney-like, round and bright.

3.  The stories are garbled versions of traditional myths.

4.  They are moralistic tales about virtues which adopts the view of Indians being more close to nature, pure, and natural nobles -- using them to lecture white children.

5.   More than anything else, they participate in making Indians into neutered, child-like, “safe” subjects -- human teddy bears whose intensely vital anthropologically recorded lives are converted to play games that have no meaning, no real religious content except for good behavior as defined by adults. They put the “Indian in the Cupboard,” to quote the title of another child’s book about a tiny toy Indian who has come to life.  Lisa Mitten, a mixed Mohawk librarian, and her colleagues have worked mightily to raise consciousness about these matters, which are parallel to the infantilizing of women.

But let’s go back and look at the actual book.  It sells online at the used book sources for as much as $1400.

This is the table of contents.

Here is another illustration from inside the book.  (There are many Maynard Dixon works online.)

Here is a bit of music, though it's unclear whether Dixon composed it or collected it.  (Bob Scriver did compose "Indian music" for school events like Christmas.  It ought to be in his estate archive at the Montana Historical Society.  Maybe Rex composes music.  Patterns.)

A Medicine Stone is a little segment of baculite fossil that looks like a buffalo.  
It's also called an "iniskum."

These materials are so appealing that it’s hard to resist them, and yet it’s a fondness that diminishes the subject, that Anglicizes a colonized continent that has nothing to do with Peter Pan or Beatrix Potter.  How should we feel about that, whether or not we are ourselves Native American? 

Here's a grown-up poem by Dixon -- he was not just a painter.  Nothing is patronizing here.

Rim-Rock and Sage
The Collected Poems of Maynard Dixon
With drawings
Introduction by Kevin Starr
The California Historical Society
San Francisco San Marino Los Angeles

The Plains

Give me the plains,—the barren and sun-beaten plains!
Free in the vague indeterminate murmur of winds,
High on the arched and tremendous back of the world,
Alone and close up under the skies,
Let me lie dark in the grass like an Indian,
Hearing footfalls afar, a pulse in the rumbling sod,
And know that it knows me!—Up from the grass to the sky,
From the skies again back to the grass…I go to the plains!

Give me the plains, the lonely and rain-beaten plains!
There no escape, nor to hide from the all-seeing heavens,
There no evasion,—open and wide and above;
No thought-guiding trails,—high up and flat under Heaven;
Free with fierce winds to follow the flicker of lightnings,—
Free with the soft-rushing rains that govern the grasses,—
Free with the long sandy rivers…I go to the plains!

Give me the plains,—the solemn and sun-hallowed plains!
There the outcroppings of curious rock where the coulee
Breaks to the far-fading slant of the shallow-cut valley;
Away by the distant diminutive cottonwood droves
Run the wild-roaming bands of mustangs, their changeable colors
Passing in white-whirling dust….I go to the plains!

Give me the plains—the ancient mysterious plains!
Low to the grass-turfed world wheels the black-pinioned buzzard,
skimming his shadow over endless undulations of pairie:—
(My soul’s own shadow over the plains that it longs for!)
Dim in the grass leads the shadowy track of the Blackfeet;
Their camps,—they are lost along the blue wave of the mountains;
Dim are their smokes, receding, a phantom, a ghost-song;
Memory-smokes, receding, dissolving over the prairie,—
Trail of my own lost footprints…I got to the plains!
San Francisco, July 1914


northern nick said...

. . . love it. Thanks for this one. Rex called me last month, out of the blue. We have never met. He said he loved my new book. We talked. I could tell he really understood, in a deep Montana way few people around today can yet tap into. So, to know of his and your Bob's friendship, and their sharing Dixon, whom my mother brought me up on, becomes a sense of connect.

Mary Strachan Scriver said...

Nick, would you uncloak enough to tell us the name of your new book?

Prairie Mary

northern nick said...

"The Whole Country was ... 'One Robe'": The Little Shell Tribe's America (Helena, MT: Little Shell Tribe and Drumlummon Institute, 2013).

Mary Strachan Scriver said...

Thanks, Nick. Lots of good reviews of this book! I should have figured out your disguise a lot earlier!

Prairie Mary

Mary Strachan Scriver said... Northern Nick telling about his book on YouTube. I'll review when I catch up with a copy.

Prairie Mary