Published on December 8, 2010 by John
Walter Richard “Dick” West, Sr. (1912–1996) was a Southern Cheyenne painter, sculptor, and educator from Oklahoma and an honored member of the Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes.
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Dick West, as he was commonly known, was born on September 8, 1912 in a tipi near the Darlington Agency in Oklahoma. His father was Lightfoot West. West’s mother was and Rena Flying Coyote, also known as Emily Black Wolf, whose parents were Big Belly Woman and Thunder Bull. West’s Cheyenne name, Wapah Nahyah means “Lightfooted Runner.”
He attended Concho Indian Boarding School and attended the Haskell Institute in Lawrence, Kansas, when it was still a high school. West graduated from high school in 1935. One of his earliest artistic mentors was the Arapaho painter, Carl Sweezy
From 1936 to 1938, West attended Bacone College in Muskogee, Oklahoma, where he earned an AA degree. At Bacone, West studied under the celebrated Muscogee-Pawnee-Wichita artist, Acee Blue Eagle. As a young man, West played football and worked in oil fields.
At the University of Oklahoma, West earned a BFA degree in 1941 and an MFA degree in 1950. While at OU, he studied under the Swedish artist Oscar Jacobson who mentored the Kiowa Five. West felt that Jacobson’s active support of Native Americans helped him cope with widespread racial prejudice that he encountered in Norman.
In 1941-42, West moved to Phoenix, Arizona, where he studying mural painting under Olaf Nordmark. West then continued his post-graduate studies at Northeastern State University, University of Tulsa, and Redlands College.
In 1940, West married Maribelle McCrea. In 1970, he married his second wife, Rene Wagoner. He had two sons: W. Richard West, Jr. and James Lee West.
In 1941, West began his first teaching assignment at the Phoenix Indian School but then joined the US Navy to fight in Europe in World War II from 1942 to 1946. Upon his honorable discharge, West returned to teaching at the Phoenix Indian School, then chaired the art department at Bacone College from 1947 to 1970. From 1970 to 1977, West taught art at Haskell Indian Junior College. From his teaching he influenced innumerable Native artists. His students included such successful artists as Joan Hill, Enoch Kelly Haney, Johnnie Tiger, Sharron Ahtone Harjo, and Virginia Stroud.
From 1979 to 1980, West served as professor emeritus at Bacone College.
Dick West was a master of traditional flat style painting, that drew upon the pictorial and narrative aspects of Plains hide painting. Flat style painting frequently portrays tribal dances and histories. His works portrayed Cheyenne culture, as informed by his highly traditional upbringing.
A complete departure from that style was West’s Indian Christ series, which were lush, allegorical oil paintings of New Testament stories with Native American figures, set in the Southern Plains. Through this series, West wanted to portray the universality of Jesus.
Although flat style is what he is best known for, West also painted abstract and highly stylized works in oil, watercolor, tempera, and gouache. He illustrated four books and also sculpted in wood and metal.
Awards and honors
The Works Progress Administration-Public Works Administration commissioned West to paint mural for the Post Office of Okemah, Oklahoma in 1941. He won two grand awards from the Philbrook Museum. In 1964, he won the Waite Phillips Outstanding Indian Artist Award from the Philbrook Museum of Art.
In 1962, the Eastern Baptist College awarded him an honorary doctorates in humane letters, as did the Baker University, in 1976. From 1979-80, West was a commissioner on the Indian Arts and Crafts Board.
West’s work can be found in the following public art collections:
Bureau of Indian Affairs
Denver Art Museum
Eastern Baptist College, St. David’s, PA
Fred Jones Jr. Museum of Art
The George Gustav Heye Center
Indian Arts and Crafts Board, US Department of the Interior
Joslyn Art Museum
Koshare Indian Museum
Museum of Northern Arizona, Katherine Harvey Collection
Muskogee Art Guild, OK
National Gallery of Art
Philbrook Museum of Art
St. Augustine’s Center, Chicago, IL
Seminole Public Library, OK
Southern Plains Indian Museum
University of Oklahoma, Library
Dick West died on May 3, 1996.
[T]he Indian artist must be allowed freedom to absorb influences outside of his own art forms and see the promise of a new lane of expression that should keep the Indian’s art the art form termed ‘native Indian painting,’ and I give my student every opportunity to execute it… I have always felt that the term abstraction has been a part of the Indian’s artistic thinking longer than most European contemporary influences and perhaps in a [truer] form…” —Dick West, 1955