MAY / JUN 2003
by Julianna E. Thibodeaux
Boyiddle’s Many Colors
KEEPING TRADITION ALIVE ONE BEAD AT A TIME
When Mitchell Boyiddle went to pick up his artwork following the judging competition at the 2002 Eiteljorg Museum Indian Market in Indianapolis, the Kiowa artist was pleased to find his pieces accompanied by two ribbons, blue and purple, denoting division prizes. Upon returning to his booth, he was further surprised by a visit from a museum representative. “She had this big ribbon in her hand,” Boyiddle recalls. “And I looked at it and it said ‘Best of Show.’ My response was, ‘Are you sure?’ She was, and Boyiddle walked away from the Eiteljorg market with the coveted top award.
What makes this award so special for Boyiddle, and such a surprise, is the fact that it was his first time at the event. Just one week before, he notes, the same grouping of work - titled “Native American Church Set” - earned the Best of Show award at the Red Earth Festival in Oklahoma City. In March 2003 it received an Honorable Mention at the Heard Museum Fair and is being considered for purchase by more than one museum.
What makes this particular set of work unique? The grouping - an intricately beaded fan and staff - refers to Kiowa ceremonies and ways of life that Boyiddle is helping to keep alive. But as Boyiddle explains, this kind of beadwork and ceremonial pieces associated with peyote rituals also speak to more than Kiowa people. “My work does not stop with my tribe. I have other tribes that want me to work with them. I guess it’s because I pray a lot, over everything I do.”
Prayer is integral to the Native American church, with which Boyiddle is affiliated. The church springs from the devotional use of peyote. In the 1880s when the disintegration of many Plains tribes at the hands of the U.S. government was at its peak, peyote-using ceremonies became an important regenerative and connective force, in which participants receive specific personal visions, and join together in prayer and singing. In 1918, the Native American Church, which sometimes includes Christian elements, was officially incorporated as a way of protecting the religious practice and is sanctioned by the U.S. government.
Boyiddle’s own people called him to do ceremonial beadwork for religious ceremonies and for powwows. “They told me, we want you to pick up where your grandmother left off. And so I did, “ Boyiddle recalls. Since he began making art full time ten years ago, he has focused on making tribal ceremonial outfits including war bonnets, moccasins and regalia in addition to his Native American Church items. Besides his beadwork, Boyiddle is also noted for his painting, sculpture, and outstanding feather work.
He counts the late sculptor Allan Houser (a Geronimo descendant from the Warm Springs Chiricahua Apache) and the painter Fritz Scholder (Luiseno) among his mentors. “Fritz helped me express, he just let me create,” Boyiddle recalls. “He just put the canvas in front of me and told me to go at it.” Houser, on the other hand, challenged Boyiddle, and is one of the reasons the artist decided to pursue his art more seriously. After Boyiddle graduated from the Institute of American Indian Arts in Sante Fe in 1970, where Houser and Scholder taught, he earned two trade degrees from OSU and pursued his art as a sideline while working as a carpenter in Oklahoma City. He ran into Houser at an art show in Oklahoma. “Houser just said a few words to me. ‘What the hell happened to you?’ And he turned and walked away. It got me to thinking and I just started working.” Boyiddle’s wife, Brenda, who is Cherokee and Mounds, was of similar mind: “We might starve,” she said, “but we’re going to make it on your artwork.” A year later, Boyiddle proudly showed Houser the fruits of his more focused labor. A lot of praying went into it and, since then, I’ve been quite successful with it.”
Born in 1950 in Oklahoma City, and raised around Anadarko, Oklahoma, and Denver, Colorado, he recalls, “We stayed out there in the country with my mother’s mother part of the time and then would go back up to the City.” Both parents spent part of their careers in the military and his father was an upholsterer until his death in 1987, having done work for Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show, for churches and on ships in New Orleans. “He was an artist at what he did,” Boyiddle says, “really good, but the alcohol got him.”
Boyiddle’s father and other Kiowa relatives passed along a reverence for the Kiowa culture and way of life. His father and his father’s brother both taught the Kiowa language while they were alive. “I remember when I was five going to the peyote meetings… being around it and not really understanding it but knowing you were a part of it.” After his father’s death, Boyiddle continued spending time with his people to learn their ways. “I asked questions,” he says. “It’s just what my people do…. They would talk, and I would listen. I would take in as much as I could about the things that happened way back, what my people have done and what they have accomplished. The Kiowa culture is based on an oral tradition - we never had a written language.”
Boyiddle, who grew up among relatives who freely expressed themselves via traditional crafts, singing and dancing, as well as painting and drawing, was also influenced early on by the artists known as the Kiowa Five. One of the five, the late Stephen Mopope (1889-1974), is a relative. The Kiowa Five, who came from the Anadarko area, became international celebrities while studying by invitation at the University of Oklahoma.
Though now a resident of the Houston area, Boyiddle maintains close ties with his people. “If I need to be inspired, I’ll go and speak to them and listen to them speak Kiowa,” he says. Boyiddle moved to Houston to be with his wife after they married in 1992. “I came here for an art show, which is how we met. Then she came up to Red Earth. I just told her I was coming back with her; we’re going to be together.” They’ve been together ever since, supporting each other, making art and traveling the art market circuit
What does the future hold for Mitchell Boyiddle? When asked what he was working on, he laughed and wouldn’t say. “As my grandfather says, don’t give too much of it away, don’t give away what God’s given you.” He does, of course, share his gifts, and never forgets where they came from. “Every day I open my peyote box and church staff and I talk to it. As the white man would say, I pray to it.”
Julianna Thibodeaux is a freelance art critic, journalist and editor based in Indianapolis, Indiana. She is now completing her first poetry chapbook.