While Oscar Howe is closely associated with the Corn Palace, his career extended far beyond it, and I saw things he’d done in several other locations I visited in Mitchell.
Howe’s story is one of success despite an inauspicious beginning. Fortunately, South Dakota has long been a state that valued and recognized artistic skill, which led to Howe’s not only being able to pursue art, it also resulted in his eventually being named Artist Laureate of the state.
Howe, a Yanktonai Sioux, was born in 1915 on the Crow Creek Reservation of South Dakota. Poverty haunted his childhood, but his youth was also enriched by the stories of the history and legends of his people shared with him by his grandmother. His love of art emerged early on, and he would draw with whatever medium he could find, from drawing with twigs in the dust to using charcoal from the wood-burning stove. His talent was recognized and he was enrolled in the famous art program of the Santa Fe Indian School. Here, he was not only instructed in art but was also encouraged to take pride in his cultural heritage.
Upon returning to South Dakota, Howe taught for a while in the state capital before being selected to paint murals under the Works Progress Administration’s South Dakota Artist Project. He then served in North Africa and Europe during World War II. After the war, among the art projects he took on was designing the murals for the Mitchell Corn Palace—a relationship that would last from 1949 until 1971.
During this period, Howe also earned both a B.A. (at Dakota Wesleyan University in Mitchell, where he also taught as Artist in Residence) and M.F. A. (at the University of Oklahoma). The Howe Gallery not being open yet at the Corn Palace, the majority of his work that I saw, other than in photographs, as at the Dakota Discovery Museum (about which more in a later post), which is located on the grounds of Dakota Wesleyan.
A collection of Howe’s work can also be seen at the University of South Dakota, where he was a member of the art faculty and artist-in-residence from 1957 to 1961.
Howe received numerous honors, local, national, and international, and in 1954, he was named Artist Laureate of South Dakota. Other important awards include the Waite Phillips trophy for outstanding contributions to American Indian art from the Philbrook Art Center, Tulsa, Oklahoma in 1966; the South Dakota Governor’s Award for Creative Achievement in 1973; and the Golden Bear Award from the University of Oklahoma, Norman, in 1970.
Howe’s work became widely recognized, both for its style and for its interpretation of themes from Howe’s heritage. He is also widely credited with leading the way for other Native American artists to break away from stereotypes of “Indian Art.” I found his work to be accessible and evocative. I also loved the fact that he recognized the remarkable opportunity afforded by association with the Corn Palace—which continues the tradition of highlighting the work of local artists.
After a remarkable, influential life, Howe succumbed to Parkinson’s disease in October 1983.