Del Curfman’s paintings sway to the heartbeat of a Crow drum.
His artwork melds the bold color and feathery brushwork of the French Impressionists with sensitive renderings of indigenous people in ceremonial regalia.
The artist is one of about 1,000 who juried into this summer’s shuttered Santa Fe Indian Market.
Curfman grew up a member of the Apsáalooke (Crow Nation of Montana), with his ancestors as both role models and spiritual mentors. His loose brushwork and intricate detail bring movement and urgency into contemporary renderings of native culture.
The Santa Fe-based painter says he never set out to become an artist, although he signed up for every high school art class available. But a circuitous path led him to the Institute of American Indian Arts after a stint as an intern with the Washington, D.C.-based USDA Tribal Relations Office.
He missed his cultural homeland.
“I just kept getting called back to art,” he said.
Today, Curfman’s work hangs in the current exhibition, “Apsáalooke Women Warriors,” in Chicago’s Field Museum. Collectors from as far away as Luxembourg clamor for his paintings.
The 2015 Santa Fe Indian Market served as a prophetic launchpad. When Curfman was still studying at IAIA, organizers chose him to design the imagery for the prestigious event’s annual T-shirt and tote bag.
He cites the southern Montana reservation’s annual Crow Fair as a perennial fount of inspiration. Tribal members camp on the Little Big Horn Basin near Billings, erecting between 5,000-6,000 tepees harvested from local aspen trees. Members parade in Crow regalia, awash in beadwork, feathers and color, and dance. One of the largest powwows in North America, its pageantry has provided a wellspring of imagery for Curfman to put oiled brush to canvas.
“Not only is it a powwow; it’s a celebration of Crow culture,” he said.
“I view myself as more a storyteller,” Curfman explained. “My paintings are really the story of a people. Every painting has its own story; its own life.”
“Grandfathers Knowledge” shows an elder sandwiched by two little boys, all in their Crow finery, against a background of thick impasto. The painting celebrates generational changes and influences, Curfman says, as the figures move to an invisible beat. The grandfather imparts ancient tribal knowledge to the two youngsters.
“These are living cultures; it’s not just a romanticized history,” Curfman said. “We are a living, breathing culture that (is) moving forward. It’s a privilege and an honor to portray these native people.”
He’s also learning his native language from his “kaala,” his Crow grandmother.
His painting “Colors of Tiny Tots” shows a single boy encased in a rainbow of indigenous dress.
“(He’s) going to grow into an indigenous leader at some point,” Curfman said.
As a child, Curfman often felt the conflict between the contemporary world and his native heritage. At IAIA, he melded the history of Western art with his traditional background, fusing it into a style drawn from both.
“It’s finding identity through culture,” he said. “We’re all born broken and incomplete.”
Curfman returns to Crow Fair to photograph his people as often as he can. But the event occurs during the Santa Fe Indian Market, where he gleans 60% of his income.
Now that the pandemic has shuttered that venue, Curfman has ample studio time to work. A regular traveler to the now-cancelled native art markets at the Heard Museum in Phoenix, as well as the Autry Museum of the American West in Los Angeles and the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian, he wonders where and when he will be able to show his work again. His galleries in both Texas and Santa Fe are closed.
He plans to expand his website, delcurfman.com.
“I think everyone’s having struggles,” he said. “I’ve lost out on revenue for the entire year. I’m looking at applying for grants and relief. The stimulus check doesn’t even cover the rent.”
Still, he says he’s grateful to be healthy.
The quarantine, as well as private lessons from the Santa Fe painter Roseta Santiago, has impacted his style, producing more fluid imagery rooted in realism.
“The texture and feel of a horse blanket at Crow Fair becomes more important,” he said. “Hopefully, you can hear the drums or the dancing of a jingle dress.”