Growing up in an underprivileged area of Wichita, Kansas, it never occurred to Edgar Heap of Birds that being a professional artist was an option for a career. Luckily, for the art world, the many students he’s taught, and the people he’s honored and educated with his art worldwide, it was.
The world takes notice
Heap of Birds remembers drawing constantly as a child and was encouraged in his art at a young age when he received a scholarship to take classes at an art institute in his hometown. Being recognized for his talent at such a young age was an interesting beginning, he recalled.
“Art is a compulsion. I think most artists have that knack or that compulsion to draw, and I think that’s the key element,” said Heap of Birds. “To succeed at it, it’s something you have to do to keep your balance.”
That compulsion later cemented Heap of Birds as the pioneer of conceptual Native American art in the United States. Heap of Birds works in a variety of media including: multi-disciplinary forms of public art, large scale drawings, acrylic paintings, prints, works in glass, and monumental porcelain enamel on steel outdoor sculpture.
He has exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art, Whitney Museum of Art, Smithsonian’s Nation Museum of the American Indian, and Venice Biennale, as well as galleries and museums in Australia, Germany, Canada, Ireland, South Africa, China, Indonesia and France.
The meaning of Heap of Birds’ work is twofold. First, it is very much about educating the public on indigenous peoples. He wants the public to see indigenous people as viable, “They are not in the past and over with. They are in the moment, they are now.”
The second purpose is to see contemporary indigenous people as individuals with a free persona to express themselves. He realizes this is a bit of a contradiction, but he doesn’t want these indigenous populations to be synonymous with only land rights and parody.
“We’re also certainly entitled to our own personal freedom. To be individuals, not just Americans, but to be tribal individuals,” Heap of Birds said. “To live however we want to live.”
An education in art
The encouragement Heap of Birds received early on didn’t stop after elementary school. A high school art teacher, who took the emotion and expression of art very seriously, took a few students to KU for artist lectures in Woodruff Auditorium and inspired Heap of Birds to further his training. During this time local Native American artist, Blackbear Bosin, became a personal mentor, and his interest merely deepened.
Heap of Birds then entered his freshman year at KU, and now sees his time here as a turning point. Growing up the son of an aircraft worker, Heap of Birds believed it important to find a major that would lend itself to acquiring a useful, vocational skill. He enrolled in graphic design initially, but quickly turned to painting.
Heap of Birds gives much credit to the “exceptional” painting faculty at the time. The faculty were very well-versed in the depth of the contemporary and international art world, which lent great guidance to his career. Another advantage of the painting program for upperclassmen at the time was having your own studio space. Heap of Birds remembered his work really bloomed from the privilege of having his own space to work.
After finishing his BFA at KU, Heap of Birds spent a year studying at the Royal College of Art in London. His time in Europe opened his eyes to the concepts of identity, and he headed to Oklahoma to spend a pivotal summer with his Cheyenne grandmother.
“My grandmother was very immersed in tribal culture,” said Heap of Birds. “I did research there, and it really got me going on a new body of work.”
That summer energized Heap of Birds for his MFA from Tyler School of Art at Temple University in Philadelphia. Being so close to New York, he spent his time seeing shows, meeting artists and visiting galleries. His talent and the connections he made during that time enabled him to remain in Philadelphia for a couple years after graduate school to work as a professional artist for the first time.
Looking back to look forward
In the early ‘80s, Heap of Birds returned to Oklahoma, moved into an old, family homestead that lacked all modern amenities, and received the biggest creative boost he’s ever had. It was a time of poverty financially, but a time of artistic prosperity surrounded by the beautiful vistas, the canyon, and the wildness of the land.
“I was there for 12 years on top of that canyon. My painting and a lot of my political public art, my historic work was ignited by being in the community of the Cheyenne/Arapaho,” Heap of Birds said. “But I really feel like a big part of it – maybe more – was being in nature, learning from the land and the earth.”
His place within the Cheyenne/Arapaho community has continued to shape his work. Heap of Birds explained the weekly, community-based social dances on the reservation that always open with the memorial song. Members dance or stand in honor of lost ones during this honor song before moving to a song for the chiefs, a song for the warrior society and so on. Heap of Birds draws inspiration from this tradition; he feels his public work is his honor song.
“It’s to honor the history that maybe has been overlooked or hasn’t resurfaced, or people have been ignoring or suppressing it. I try to bring that forth first.” he said. “When my paintings and prints are more celebratory or more personal, it’s the same way. But I start out with honor, the memory, the history, the memorial. That’s my first duty as an artist.”
The most important aspect of his recognition as an artist is the artistic respect he’s achieved. When he was a young artist just starting to work professionally, he remembers telling someone that a primary goal was just to have the respect of his fellow artists.
“What’s been most meaningful is when another artist says, ‘I know your work.’ I’m in Georgia or Tokyo or India, and they already know who I am from what I’ve made,” he said. “I guess that – to have the respect of your peers – that’s really important.”
Sharing his strengths
Heap of Birds has been a teacher for more than 25 years and is currently a professor of Native American studies at the University of Oklahoma. His courses on issues of the contemporary artist on local, national and international levels have proven helpful in exploring and investigating new ideas.
Heap of Birds also relates to the plight of the young, struggling artist. He encourages students to find their own space, to find a space where they can live with their work, to travel as much as possible, to be patient. Artists have to be committed to what they are going to do, or they shouldn’t bother.
He willingly admits that Oklahoma and Kansas are certainly not art meccas, but he knows it doesn’t take Los Angeles or New York to make the art.
“It takes spirit and the community, the people and the land,” Heap of Birds said. “It takes the real community engagement, I think, to empower you to have something to say.”