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‘It’s because of their fight’

“Atlanta” by Nocona Burgess. (Courtesy of the artist)

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

The painter Nocona Burgess steeps his canvases in the history of his people.

The artist conjures bold portraits of historic American Indian figures, including his famous great-great-grandfather, the Comanche chief Quanah Parker.

But, more recently, the award-winning Santa Fe Indian Market artist was preparing to celebrate a pandemic birthday for his 11-year-old son with multiple Zoom parties followed by a drive-by parade.

Burgess works as a cultural resources specialist for the Santa Fe Public Schools; his wife works in real estate. Many of his artistic colleagues aren’t so lucky.

The market comprises “probably up to 40%” of my income, Burgess said. “I feel blessed because I’m not in dire straits. But we’re definitely going to feel it. My worry is my fellow artists – that’s their (only) income. I know a lot of my friends are scrambling.”

The artist was about to star in a two-person show with the Apache sculptor Greyshoes at Santa Fe’s Manitou Gallery when the virus hit. When the gallery closed, organizers staged a Zoom opening.

“We sold a couple of pieces,” Burgess said. “But by no means was it comparable.”

He’s using the time to take risks and create more experimental work in his studio.

“For years, I’ve been thinking about doing more abstract portraits – a little loose,” he said. “And I’ve wanted to do landscapes.”

Burgess is known for his bold acrylic portraits of American Indians from tribes across North America. By combining bright shapes with crisply outlined facial features and tribal dress, he explores the cultural context, life story and identity of his sitters.

His motivation came when an uncle (a World War II code talker) gave him a set of books about historic Native American and gunfighter figures, and he discovered his great-great-grandfather’s name.

“I knew he was important to the tribe,” he said. “But when I saw it in a book, I thought, ‘Wow, he’s on the level of Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull.”

Burgess went on to earn a Bachelor of Fine Arts from the University of Science and Arts of Oklahoma, and his master’s degree at the University of New Mexico.

But it was his bloodstream that pumped the rocket fuel of passion into his work. His father is a former tribal chairman; his mother is now vice chairman.

“I think that’s what really got me painting,” Burgess said. “I love doing the research; I loved the stories. It’s because of their fight that we’re here.”

He drew stylistic inspiration from the late contemporary native New Mexico artists T.C. Cannon (Kiowa) and John Nieto (Apache).

Like his mentors, Burgess’ use of vibrant pigments against dark backgrounds produces richly contrasting colors within a dialogue between past and present.

The face of his great-great-grandfather looms across many of his canvases.

“My Dad always said, ‘Paint what you know’,” he said. “Someone said, ‘How many times are you going to paint Quanah Parker?’ I said until I get it right.”

Parker was the half-white Comanche leader who waged a war against white expansion in northwest Texas. After the tribe’s surrender at Fort Sill, Oklahoma, he became the lead spokesman and peacetime leader of Native Americans in the area for 30 years.

“He used his whiteness to benefit the tribe,” Burgess said. “He had this Obama-like appeal. He had to make a choice. Do we keep fighting until we’re gone? The U.S. Government made him an overall chief.”

“Nocona” was the surname of Parker’s father. It means nomad or wanderer, Burgess said.

Fittingly, the artist moved between Oklahoma and New Mexico as a young man. He returned to Santa Fe in 1999 to work at the Institute of American Indian Arts. He soon obtained gallery representation and juried into Indian Market on his first try.

Today, a flurry of award ribbons hang in Burgess’ studio as he drinks Diet Cokes, nibbles sunflower seeds, and listens to old blues and soul music while he paints.

His new landscapes have captured Chaco Canyon, Shiprock and Sandia Peak.

“I’ve sold a couple of them already,” he said. “I used thicker brushstrokes; it’s almost like you unfocused your camera.”

Burgess’ website is noconaburgess.com.

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