The Kiowa Six, sometimes erroneously called the Kiowa Five, had a profound impact on the development of Native American easel painting. The five most commonly known artists in the group are Jack Hokeah (1900–1969), Monroe Tsatoke (1904–37), Spencer Asah (1906– 54), James Auchiah (1906–74), and Stephen Mopope (1900–1974). The sixth member was a woman, Lois Smoky (1907–81).
Painting was an important and honored aspect of traditional Kiowa culture. Men painted calendars, chronological records of important events that affected the group as a whole, and records of an individual's heroic deeds. Women usually confined their artistic expression to beading. These early Kiowa artists all spoke Kiowa and were actively involved in traditional Kiowa culture, despite the forced acculturation of the period.
In order to "civilize" and Christianize the Kiowas and turn them into American capitalists, the Kiowa reservation in western Oklahoma was allotted in 1900. Each tribal member received 160 acres. The remaining 480,000 acres of "excess" land were sold to white settlers in 1906. European American education became mandatory. The six Kiowa artists attended St. Patrick's Mission School near Anadarko, Oklahoma. There they were given English names and taught English and how to do manual service jobs. Upon leaving school these artists returned to their community.
At this time Susie Peters was the Indian Service field matron at Anadarko. She is still remembered there for her concern for and support of many Kiowas. By 1920 she had organized a group of Kiowa artists that included the Kiowa Six. She did not give them lessons in art but encouraged them in their work. She also provided them with paints and drawing paper, which, for the most part, they had not had access to previously. During this period these six artists developed what is commonly referred to as the Kiowa style. Like traditional Kiowa painting, the figures in these paintings were drawn on a plain background. Within the lines color was used as a flat filler. This opaque paint was more solid than traditional vegetable dyes or pencil and ink. Partly because of this technique, Kiowa-style paintings, commonly of individual dancers or ceremonies, emphasize design.
Susie Peters also attempted to market the works of the Kiowa artists in both Oklahoma and New Mexico, and she brought them to the attention of Oscar Jacobson, director of the art department at the University of Oklahoma. In 1927 Jacobson arranged for Stephen Mopope, Monroe Tsatoke, Spencer Asah, and Jack Hokeah to use facilities and supplies at the University of Oklahoma under the guidance of Edith Mahier. Jacobson, however, insisted that they be given no formal instruction. Later, these four artists were joined by Lois Smoky and James Auchiah.
Jacobson, in contrast to Susie Peters, had the contacts to successfully market the artists and their works. Six months after the arrival of the first group of Kiowa artists at the University of Oklahoma, a traveling sales exhibition was organized. Within a year the artists' works had been sold, and an even larger exhibition was mounted. A mere eighteen months after he came to know the artists Jacobson arranged for thirty-five watercolors to be exhibited at the International Congress in Prague, Czechoslovakia, and for a folio of their work to be published in France.
Starting with an exhibition in New York in 1931, the decade of the 1930s was a period of further recognition by European Americans of the beauty of early Kiowa easel painting. The artists were also commissioned under the Public Works of Art Project (PWAP) to paint a number of murals, a medium ideally suited to the Kiowa style with its flat color areas. Other murals were commissioned for the State Historical Building in Oklahoma City and the Department of the Interior Building in Washington DC. The five Kiowa men were involved in these mural projects. Lois Smoky was not. After marrying and having children, she turned her artistic talent to the traditional Kiowa woman's art of beadwork.
The Kiowa Six were among the first Native American painters to be recognized by the European American community. Their work was the model for what is commonly referred to as the traditional flat style, which was refined and developed by Dorothy Dunn at the Indian School in Santa Fe, New Mexico.
Lydia L. Wyckoff Philbrook Museum of Art
Wyckoff, Lydia L., ed. Visions and Voices: Native American Painting. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1996.