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RedHawk: Artist of Vision

Article by Nancy Ward

Local Artists – January 2000 – Colorado Central Magazine

REDHAWK: multi-talented artist taught by the spirits, led by visions; simple but complicated. He’s a man at peace with himself, his life, his spirituality, and his universe; a regional and national award-winning painter, sculptor, and creator of Native American artifacts.

Meeting him today, it’s hard to picture this tall, lanky, softspoken man as anything else. Looking into his eyes, you forget even their color and feel only the peace reflected there, the peace shared with those he encounters.

But Jim RedHawk describes his former self as a much different man. “Barroom brawls, alcohol, drugs, suicidal thoughts, stupid.”

A mixture of blood courses through RedHawk’s veins, a quarter each Muscogee Creek Indian, French, Irish, English. In Englewood, Colorado, where he lived, working as an instrument technician for a wastewater plant, Jim felt no peace within himself. It seemed the four spirits of his conglomerate ancestors battled to dominate his life, he explains. He was miserable, his mind in constant turmoil.

Born in Holdenville, Oklahoma, a citizen of the Muscogee Indian Nation, Jim had tried many things before he learned he was supposed to be an artist. He was a farmer, plumber, electrician and mechanic — jobs that required technical skills such as those he’d learned from his father.

His father also taught basic “Indian ways,” and taught his children to think for themselves — not in structured sessions but through assimilation with no realization that they were receiving lessons.

Jim believes his artistic tendencies come from his mother, a dressmaker. Even as a youngster he liked to draw, but at his public school there were no classes in art or woodworking.

There certainly was no long hair on boys. In those years he experienced prejudice against Indians and developed a chip on his shoulder.

He came to Colorado in 1974 to visit his brothers, Two Dogs and Dan Eagle. But Jim couldn’t pull himself away from the mountains. So Colorado is where he stayed.

“I’d always made ‘things’ since I was a little kid, made things with my dad,” he recalls fondly. “After moving to Colorado I started to research my heritage, learn of the Muscogee Nation.”

Finally the tormented man made a decision. “My Indian spirit was the one I wanted to have control. I decided to go back to the old ways of my ancestors.”

Walking one day through the mountains, “The spirits gave me my name through a red-tail hawk” that seemed to accompany him. He knew that’s who he had become, Red Hawk. Later, as an artist protecting his work and reputation, he removed the space between the words when another artist tried to infringe.

He quit his job in 1980. Soon his traditional and contemporary works started selling well. The change was easy, he recalls. He became a focused student of the religion of nature, of Lakota Sioux and other Native American beliefs blended with the Muscogee Creek.

“There is a creator who made all this,” he says sweeping his arms to the mountains and plains and sky.

Jim Whoever-he-was-Before adapted quickly to his new life — his new mind and heart and spirit. The drinking and barroom fighting and internal strife disappeared. In a few weeks he’d made the transition.

“The mountains and working with my hands straightened me out, and Beth.” She’s the woman he met at a Mountain Man Rendezvous during his transition, the woman who became his wife.

Now, he submerged himself in the art he realized he loved. Acrylic paintings and prints, hand-sculpted clay, and primitive-made Indian artifacts are the life and livelihood of this self-taught artist.

MOVING TO SOUTH PARK in 1988, Jim and Beth built a home of cordwood and stone south of Fairplay, with a basement work studio for himself and Beth, an accomplished bead worker of intricate detail. Jim made a good living painting landscapes and creating artifact reproductions. Life was good.

It was later that the visions and dreams began. Even though RedHawk’s face is gentle, kind and happy, his manner, his words, and his work impart the responsibility he feels in his ability to portray his heritage — the sadness as well as the triumphs. “I try to honor the people and the animals I depict in my artwork.”

For instance, his painting, “Trail of Broken Promises,” was revealed to him in night visions over a period of four weeks. He first saw the Indian man, then the star in his eye.

“Spirit work,” the artist says. The next week the 13-star U.S. Calvary guidon flag appeared in the vision. Then came the two horses. And lightning. A peace medallion appeared next, followed by the broken peace pipe.

When the composite was complete, RedHawk was given the story behind the vision, “the story of broken promises of white man to Indian, symbolized by the broken pipe, the pipe shattered by a white man who had no need for a truth pipe. This country had kept only one of its many promises, the vision revealed the one to take our land, Our Indian Land.”

When his painting was completed, Jim matted it with suede and framed it, including a handmade miniature war lance.

“Broken Promises,” completed in 1992, was featured on the cover of American Indian Policy in the Twentieth Century published by University of Oklahoma Press, edited by Vine Delorea, Jr.

RedHawk paintings sell for $345 to $845. Signed and numbered prints (14 printed paintings are out now) range from $50 to $200 apiece. Prints framed with suede matt and handmade artifact are $245.

Jim’s primitive-made artifacts are made from natural materials from the mountains and plains. Most items are found as he walks, a few come from road kill, he says. For other needed supplies, he trades with local friends and those at Mountain Man Rendezvous — trappers, mountain men, and other artists.

Materials he uses include turkey feathers (usually painted to resemble eagle feathers), pheasant feathers, horsetail hair, deer leather, coyote fur and other pelts, red wool, dead trees and a cottonwood branch cleaned by beaver. He sometimes tans the fur he needs, other times he trades.

SIMILARLY, if he has items he doesn’t need, he trades them or gives them away to “keep the circle going.” RedHawk is understandably a little picky about the skulls on which he paints Indian designs, preferring those that smell good when he gets them. Otherwise, before he starts work, he must bury the skull with earthworms for a year so the worms will clean it, or boil the skull with a weak household bleach solution.

As he works, Jim instinctively knows what materials to use to balance a piece. It must flow from top to bottom, balance in a triangle, he explains.

His handmade artifacts are divergent — dance rattle, chief’s staffs, war pipes, miniature lances, arrows, war clubs and fans.

As RedHawk creates each cultural artifact he honors the ancient ways. He tries to feel what was felt by Indians of a time-gone-by, and tries to inject the same pride of workmanship. On each he paints varied designs — coup marks, tracks of buffalo or elk, horse or bear, symbols of the sacred four winds.

Artifacts range in price from $20 to $1,000. Occasionally, he’ll make buckskin outfits.

Jim’s most recent artful venture is clay sculpturing of Indian and Western characters. Since sculpted figures are frozen in time, he explains, he leaves a hole in each to allow the spirit of the character in the creation freedom to leave and reenter the piece at will — untrapped. All sculptures are one-of-a-kind.

Major shows where he exhibits, trades, circulates and communicates include the Denver Indian Market, grand Junction Indian Art Show and Red Earth Indian Art Show in Oklahoma City.

RedHawk’s works can be seen in Central Colorado at Wind and Snow Gallery in Fairplay, Bayou Salado in Hartsel, Snowy Mountain and Laughing Shaman in Buena Vista, and the Mountain Man Gallery in Como, as well as the Southwestern Gallery in Littleton.

Jim RedHawk can be contacted at P.O. Box 587, Fairplay, Colorado 80440. Or you might find him hanging around one of the galleries, just being a mild-mannered artist in love with life.

Nancy Ward is rather migratory, but can often be found in Saguache.