Southwest Art • October 2004
Six years have passed since Poteet Victory embarked on the most sweeping project of his career: a monumental painting inspired by the Trail of Tears, the forced relocation of thousands of Native Americans in the early 1800s. At 13 feet tall and 60 feet wide, with a price tag of more than a million dollars, the mural was slated to be installed at the Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History. Instead, it sits rolled up in a corner of Victory’s studio, rejected by the museum because of its controversial content.
Victory, whose Cherokee and Choctaw forebears were part of the long, tragic walk from Georgia to Oklahoma, began the mural project with a combination of outrage and passion. “It hit me like an epiphany,” he recalls, “that no one has attempted to do this before. There have been little paintings, always the same old Indians going down the trail. I felt ashamed: this was one of the most important chapters in American History.”
The three-paneled mural, made with hundreds of life-size figures, depicts the birth, death and resurrection of America’s first people. The middle panel, which represents the clash between white settlers and Natives, tells its story with symbols of death and Christianity, painted in classic European and flat Indian styles.
“The Trail of Tears was genocide,” Victory emphasizes. “People need to know our real American history. But everybody is afraid of it. It’s a political hot potato, and no one wants to touch it.”
Making hot potatoes is an artists job, he adds, whatever the consequences.
Victory, 57, was born and raised in Idabel, in eastern Oklahoma, a town reputedly named after the two daughters of an Indian chief. His dad grew up there too and met his future wife while working construction at a Civil Conservation Corps camp. She was 16 when the couple married. Later, his father’s career building oil and gas pipelines took him to Saudi Arabia, Spain and other far-flung places. His young son barely saw him, but soaked up stories of his Choctaw and Cherokee ancestors from his paternal grandmother.
As a kid, Victory was apathetic about academics but passionate about the arts. At 5, he teamed up with his 11-year-old sister on a half-hour radio show in which they sang and tap danced. His sister went on the teach dance, but Victory quit dancing as soon as he caught wind that “it wasn’t the manly thing to do.” Instead, he turned his attention to more macho pursuits, like riding bulls and bareback horses in the rodeo. A year ago, he returned to rural Oklahoma to run his family’s thousand-acre cattle ranch.
In between, he bounced around from college to college, ending up in New York City. Attending Universities, he says, “was a total waste of time – in New York I learned more than the four years leading up to that.” He wound up studying at the Art Students League, where, inspired by the dedication and talent of his fellow students, his work matured. After a divorce and a series of odd jobs such as bartending and selling insurance in Oklahoma City, Victory packed up his car and headed, sight unseen, for Santa Fe, NM. There a fledgling gallery owner saw his paintings on the wall of a restaurant where Victory tended bar and signed him up. Almost immediately, $8,000 worth of pieces sold and it occurred to Victory that he might be able to make a living as an artist.
A stream of abstract and semi-abstract paintings, many with recognizable Indian iconography, poured out of him. He didn’t consciously set out to make Native American Imagery, but it happened anyway – designs suggested by blankets and kachinas, made with lush color fields, beads and horsehair.
As in-demand as his work is, Victory still ruminates on the unsold mural that occupied so many years of his time. “In this painting, I am trying to show how Indians were treated as sub-humans. Manifest Destiny meant it was your destiny to go claim the land regardless of the fact that people had been there for thousands of years,” he comments. “Today, the Indian has turned the white man’s greed back on him through casinos. Indians don’t want you to say that, but it’s true. And as an artist it’s not my responsibility to be politically correct. It’s to be honest.”