ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Sometimes art can alchemize anger into beauty.
James Tsoodle (Kiowa/Taos Pueblo) didn’t learn to read until he reached middle school. But he was good at two things: drawing and fighting.
The latter saw him kicked out of multiple schools until a school police officer took him to boxing lessons. His dyslexia went undiagnosed until his senior year of high school.
But when Tsoodle showed his drawings of Apache fire dancers with his parents at the New Mexico State Fair as a little boy, booth visitors were enchanted.
“I didn’t even have a concept of money,” the Albuquerque painter said. “I sold my first piece for $35.
“It was a lot easier than fighting,” he added.
Tsoodle will participate in this year’s Virtual Indian Market at swaia.org from Friday, Nov. 27 through Dec. 11. The market includes jewelry, pottery and ornaments from 2020/2021 juried artists.
Born in Frankfurt, Germany, Tsoodle grew up all over, often toggling between Taos and his Oklahoma reservation and wherever the Army sent his parents.
His father is half Kiowa, half Taos; his mother is Kiowa and Delaware.
“I told them I’m more Kiowa than both of them,” he said. “They made jewelry for quite a while.”
Tsoodle started drawing as soon as he could pick up a crayon.
“I had always been drawn to it,” he said. “Being Kiowa, there are lots of artists who portray our people. But I don’t paint Navajo people because I don’t want to offend Navajo people. I might put in something hokey. I paint something I know.”
Known for his portrayals of Northern Plains warriors, Tsoodle works primarily in acrylic. He conjures his images from old 1800s photographs and live models.
“There are things my grandfather tortured me with,” he said with a laugh. “He used to make war bonnets and regalia. He had a sweat shop and his grandchildren were” the workers.
“I learned how to put together a bustle with eagle feathers,” he continued. “I learned how to put wraps on a feather. I learned how to attach the horse hair and what it means. So when I use it in the artwork, I know what’s behind it.”
Tsoodle’s style is in constant motion. He recently began using a palette knife, adding texture and depth to his work.
“When I first started that, I hated it,” he said. “I took it to a show and the piece sold.”
He’s also expanded his repertoire to include women and children.
Tsoodle prefers working in acrylic and gouache because they dry quickly.
“The commissions and demand for the work pretty much demands it,” he said.
This year would have marked his third at the Santa Fe Indian Market, which was cancelled due to the pandemic and moved to a virtual platform. He estimates it comprises about 40% of his annual income.
The artist considers himself lucky. He boasts a long line of regular collectors from shows at the Heard Museum in Phoenix, the Eiteljorg Museum in Indiana, the Colorado Indian Market, Santa Fe’s Wheelwright Museum and more.
“Right when (the pandemic) started in March we were entering one of our last shows,” he said. “I had overwhelming commissions during that time. I told my wife, ‘God must have known, because I didn’t know jack.’ ”
He learned about the power of the internet through the recent virtual Rio Grande Arts and Crafts Festival.
“I was a little bit skeptical,” he said. “I transformed my living room into a gallery. We got orders like crazy.”