THE KIOWA SIX
The work of the Kiowa Six artists represents a watershed in 20th-century American Indian art. In about 1914, Sister Mary Olivia Taylor, a Choctaw/Chickasaw woman, began providing art instruction to Stephen Mopope, Jack Hokeah, Spencer Asah, James Auchiah, and Lois Smoky at the St. Patrick’s Mission School in Anadarko, Oklahoma. Several years later, Susie Peters, a field matron for the Kiowa Agency, organized a fine arts class that provided informal art instruction to these and other Kiowa young people. Peters then arranged for six students to enroll in art classes at the University of Oklahoma. Several, including Monroe Tsatoke began attending the university as early as 1926. Others, including Lois Smoky arrived shortly thereafter. Smoky’s tenure in the program was short-lived.
The director of the University’s School of Art, Oscar Brousse Jacobson, organized an exhibition of the Kiowa work that traveled widely beginning in 1928. The display was featured at the International Folk Art Congress in Prague and a print portfolio of the exhibited works, titled Kiowa Indian Art, was published in Paris in 1929. The paintings of the Kiowa Six were part of a larger Native exhibition in the United States National Pavilion at the Venice Biennale in 1932—the only time Indigenous artists have ever shown in the American national pavilion.
In a 1975 interview, Muscogee Creek artist Fred Beaver commented on the legacy of the Kiowa Six:
“This tradition of Indian Art, at least here in Oklahoma, was created by people who trained themselves and didn’t have very much influence from European art and knew almost nothing about it. . . . The way we paint, that came from us. Just like I taught myself to paint; so did Mopope and Tsatoke and all those Kiowa boys.”
“I know this as a fact cause I saw those Kiowas and I knew Dr. Jacobson pretty well . . . I know that Miss Peters pretty much let them do what they wanted to do. Their art was their own, all the way.”
Lois Smoky Kaulaity (1907 – 1981): Lois Smoky joined the Kiowa Six artists in 1928. She was also the only female and the youngest member of the group. During the time of her arrival at the University of Oklahoma, it was customary among the tribes of the Plains that women not draw or paint in a figurative, narrative style. Because of this feeling, Smoky Kaulaity fought some resentment on the part of the Kiowa group at the University. James Auchiah replaced her in OU’s special program. Upon her return to Kiowa homelands after only a few short years of painting, she married, raised a family, and became a celebrated beadwork artist. Lois Smoky Kaulaity was often overlooked when the Kiowa Six artists were mentioned in the mid to late 20th century. On an ironic note, Lois Smoky’s art, due to its rarity, is now the most sought after of all the Kiowa Six artists.
James Auchiah (1906 – 1974): James Auchiah was born with an innate artistic ability. In recognition of his talent and artistic achievements, his birthplace, Medicine Park, has become a communal center for Native American art. Born into a prominent Kiowa family, Auchiah excelled in art from an early age. In elementary school the young artist was once caught drawing and painting, which was not allowed in the Indian schools at that time. As punishment, he was required to finish his painting after school and thus forfeit his dinner. Auchiah exclaimed that he was glad to do so: “I would rather paint than eat,” he said. As Auchiah grew older, his interest in art continued to increase. So when the opportunity to become the sixth of the Kiowa Six arose, he happily joined the group in the fall of 1927. Throughout his life, Auchiah served in the U.S. Coast Guard during World War II, became a teacher, an illustrator, a museum curator and continued to paint, though not as a career artist. His later artwork was devoted primarily to the Native American Church.
Jack Hokeah (1901-1969): Born in 1902, Jack Hokeah was raised by his grandmother. Hokeah developed his art at an early age though it was often overshadowed by his dancing talent. This did not keep him from joining his fellow Kiowas at the University of Oklahoma. He worked hard at his art while under Oscar Jacobson, but dancing was still in his blood. In 1930, Jack Hokeah, along with Asah and Mopope made the trip to Gallup for the Inter-Tribal Indian Ceremonials. Following the festivities Hokeah met the renowned potter, Maria Martinez of San Ildefonso Pueblo staying with her family for some ten years as her adopted son before passing away in 1969.
Spencer Asah (1906-1954): Spencer Asah was born near Carnegie, Oklahoma, and was the son of a Buffalo Medicine Man. Consequently, the atmosphere in which he grew up was full of tribal oral history and ceremonies. These influences are evident in his paintings. Asah came to the University of Oklahoma to refine his painting skills under the tutelage of Edith Mahier and Oscar Jacobson. During his classes at the University of Oklahoma, he refined his painting skills. Like Hokeah and Mopope, Asah was a celebrated dancer who was able to balance his love for painting with his love for dancing. Asah was commissioned murals at OU, Riverside Indian School, but did his best work aiding Stephen Mopope in his murals in Anadarko.
Stephen Mopope (1898 – 1974): Stephen Mopope was the oldest member of the group of the young Indian artists that would become known as the Kiowa Six. He was born in 1898 or 1899 near Red Stone Baptist Mission on the Kiowa Reservation. While growing up on the reservation, Stephen was observed drawing designs in the sand. Thus, tribal elders decided to teach him how to paint on tanned skins in the old Kiowa way. As his artistic talent began to take root, so did his skills as a dancer. Mopope blossomed into one of the Kiowa’s tribe’s finest dancers considered by some to be the best. As he got older his skills as an artist increased and eventually caught the eye of Oscar Brousse Jacobson. Mopope was invited to join four of his fellow tribal artists in attending the University of Oklahoma’s Indian Art Program. While under Jacobson’s tutelage Mopope’s art career flourished and he became the most prolific artist of the Kiowa Six. Some of his more notable commissions included murals in The University of Oklahoma, The Federal Building in Muskogee, Oklahoma, First National Bank of Anadarko, as well as, the U.S. Post Office in Anadarko and the U.S. Navy Hospital in Carville, Louisiana. Though he concentrated on painting Mopope continued to be an accomplished dancer and flute player.
Monroe Tsatoke (1904-1937): Monroe Tsatoke was a gifted painter, as well as a beadwork artist and singer. As the Kiowa Six’s fame grew, it was increasingly obvious that Tsatoke and Mopope were the most prolific artists of the group. Unfortunately, as his painting skills grew stronger, Tsatoke developed tuberculosis and was increasingly sick. During this time, Tsatoke joined the Peyote faith. He became a member of the Native American Church and began a series of paintings that depicted his religious experiences. Tsatoke continued to work through his sickness, refusing to let the tuberculosis get the better of him. In 1934, he was commissioned by the Oklahoma Historical Society to paint a series of murals, in which he featured numerous personal images, including religious symbols, and two of his family shields. He worked on these murals until his death from tuberculosis in 1937 when he became the first member of the Kiowa Six to pass away. In 1950, Oscar Jacobson produced a portfolio featuring the best of the Native American art, including artwork by Tsatoke, to whom the portfolio was dedicated.