Special OU venue stirs 'spirit' of Chickasaw artist

Lance Straughn is shown at his booth during the 2017 Artesian Arts Festival in Sulphur.

NORMAN – For more than 60 years, Lance Straughn has applied paint to brush and brush to canvas, creating realistic impressionism of Native American life.

As the leaves of summer acquiesced to autumn 2018, the Chickasaw artist experienced a soul-searing change. Guided to paint a style previously unexplored, brush strokes transformed a canvas into his first “spirit painting” – a sacred white buffalo standing proud on the Oklahoma Plains. He proclaimed it “Strong Medicine.”

What spiritually inspired the painting, what forces moved Straughn to depart from impressionistic Native American art and where “spirit paintings” will take him in the future are all unknown.

Straughn’s art – from spirit paintings, to realistic impressionism to sculptures – may be enjoyed through March 3 at the University of Oklahoma’s Jacobson House Native Arts Center.

The Chickasaw citizen has been the featured artist since December 2018, with approximately 30 works on display at 609 Chautauqua Ave. in Norman. The home’s former owner, Oscar Jacobson, is famed for introducing the “Kiowa Six” to international art prominence beginning in the early 20th century. Jacobson was a renowned artist, art professor, promoter, proponent and enthusiast of Native American art until his death in 1966.

“I am at a loss for words on how to describe it,” Straughn observed about the new style. “It has abstract elements and realism working in tandem. I suppose the abstract is more in the colors and in the backgrounds of my spirit paintings. My former style is what I would call realistic impressionism. Those painting weren’t meant to be photographic but are meant to look realistic.”

“I feel I have a spirit guide inspiring the art. I’m not doing it on my own. I am groping my way through it,” he said with amused fascination. “It has to be coming from somewhere.”

Straughn said when the spirit first directed him toward the new style, he embraced it.

“The white buffalo painting came out of nowhere,” the artist explained. “It was so different from what I had been doing before. I sent it to my son Lance and said, ‘I don’t know what happened, but here it is.’ He fell in love with it. In fact, it is displayed in his living room right now.”

The next attempt at reproducing the painting was “a total disaster because I was trying to replicate it,” Straughn posited. “I decided I needed some help, so I called another artist to be my coach. He said, ‘You need to quit trying!’

After viewing several of my spirit paintings, he started comparing it to work by Native painter R.C. Gorman,” Straughn said with a chuckle. “So, I quit trying. I just turn it loose and let it happen now.”

Hard work

Straughn is no stranger to art exhibitions, although he did not pursue art as a full-time endeavor until retiring in 2011. As a youngster, he remembers his mother, Lillian, “loved to paint and was quite artistic,” he said. “I guess I caught the bug from her because I’ve never really had any formal training.

“I learned by actually painting and studying works and techniques from some of my favorite artists,” Straughn said. 

He gravitated toward impressionistic artists such as Ramon Kelley, a Colorado painter nationally known for portraits, and Nicolia Fetchin, a Russian who migrated to America and excelled in impressionistic works.

All of his Chickasaw heritage is from his father, Vernon, who passed down his heritage and affection for the tribe when his son was a youngster. Vernon’s prowess as a top Chickasaw athlete and softball pitcher is legendary in Oklahoma. In fact, Vernon was inducted into the state’s American Softball Association Hall of Fame in 2014.

With a degree in computer science, Straughn was an electronic engineer his entire career.

His masterful paintings and exquisitely detailed sculptures have been exhibited at the Southeastern Arts Show and Market, the Five Civilized Tribes Museum, Red Earth, Artesian Arts Festival and the Smithsonian Institution Museum of the American Indian’s “Chikasha Poya” offering in 2014.

Yet, nothing has thrilled – or frustrated ­– him more than exploring spirit painting and attempts to understand the forces guiding his art currently.

“I use my son as a sounding board,” Straughn said. “Lance told me he anticipated the change in my painting would be extremely difficult. It was only after he mentioned it I thought, ‘Yeah, this seems to be the most difficult thing I have ever done.’ To me, it is like attempting to learn to play a musical instrument while listening to a full symphony orchestra.”

Venue search

Physical limitations may curtail Straughn from participating in future arts festivals. However, he is exploring gallery exhibitions. New Mexico art galleries at Santa Fe and Taos are being examined as possible showcases, in addition to other nationally recognized Native-themed venues.

“I am unable to walk well or even sit for long periods of time. Those activities are required at arts festivals,” he said with a lighthearted laugh. “Galleries allow you to market yourself and display your work without having to travel. You can pack up your art and ship it to a gallery, where thousands of eyes will see it.

“The Jacobson House exhibition is exactly the type of show I am most interested in,” he explained. “My work has been on display for quite a while, and many art lovers have seen and hopefully enjoyed or been inspired by my efforts. I see it as an introduction to long-term gallery exhibitions in the future.”

Alerted to the Jacobson House show by a Chickasaw Nation call to artists, Straughn submitted his portfolio and was selected. 

“I jumped on that opportunity with both feet,” he recalled with delight. “I am honored (Jacobson House) chose me to be one of its featured artists.”

In his Bethany residence, Straughn has finished a spirit painting of a bear. However, he is not entirely abandoning the tried-and-true paintings of the past. He is working on a painting of a headdress. He explained it will be finished in a more representative abstract style “to show reverence” and to embrace Native artistic techniques already in his quiver.

“I am extremely proud to be Chickasaw and let everybody know that I’m not only a Chickasaw, I’m a Chickasaw elder,” he said. “It’s an honor. I feel privileged. The way the Chickasaw Nation conducts itself and its affairs have become the benchmark.”

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Eric Swanson is the City Hall and general assignment reporter for The Ada News. He spent 15 years working at the Dodge City Daily Globe in Dodge City, Kansas, before joining The Ada News’ staff in 2012.