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Press Release

Release Date: May 23, 2017

by Brandon Frye



  • Artist Tom Farris takes a stroll near Exhibit C in Oklahoma City’s Bricktown. A life dedicated to creating and curating Native American art led Farris to now manage the gallery, which is likewise dedicated to Native art.

  • Tom Farris’ early interests in comic books surfaces in this piece. Superman strikes a heroic pose, but with a Native twist. Farris wanted to take the most iconic superhero and make him identifiably Native. So, he gave Superman long hair and used the Cherokee letter for “S” in place of the normal Superman emblem. This piece was purchased by the Heard Museum in Phoenix, Arizona and was featured in their “Natives in Comic Books” show.

NORMAN, Okla. -- It is no easy task to categorize Tom Farris or his art. No single art form defines him.

No style. No medium. Nothing boxes him in.

That’s just the way the Oklahoma-based Native American artist and curator wants it.

He wants curiosity and intrigue. Farris desires his art to grab attention, because then he gets to drop some insight.

“It forces people to ask questions,” Farris explained. “You’re not going to engage people in a positive way by hitting them over the head. But if you can intrigue them, then you can engage them.”

Farris looks to capture attention with what he calls truth bombs, bits of knowledge and context he hides in his creations. It revolves around Native American history and culture, such as traditional stories, mythological figures or homages to other Native artists.

It’s as if he is crafting a cultural inside joke. The “Aha!” moment people have when they understand it is the payoff at the end of an artistic labyrinth. Farris serves as the guide.

As one of 116 elite Native American artists selected to take part in the Artesian Arts Festival May 27, he will be able to offer many such “aha” moments to those who visit his booth.

“I let viewers come to the piece. If they stop and look I’ll ask them if they are familiar with Native mythology,” Farris said. “I’ve been able to expose people to Native culture, just through paintings and discussions.”

An expression might come through as a painting, some woodwork or a traditional item like a war club. His next creation is only limited by what interests him at the time, what artist is inspiring him, what lesson he wishes to share.

In the beginning...

Farris is a sort of collage, an artist comprised of pieces pulled from across the map, drawing on experiences and inspirations as varied as the Oklahoma weather.

He has his parents to thank for lifelong dedication to Native American art.

Gary and Elizabeth traversed the states in search of their next piece, with young Farris in tow. They collected paintings primarily, but also jewelry, baskets, pottery, beadwork and sculptures.

Soaking up museum after museum from coast to coast had an impact on Farris, even if he didn’t know it at the time.

“As a 12-year-old kid you’re not too stoked to be hanging around an art gallery all day,” Farris said. “But, I had a lot of time to explore things on my own, get into the things I was drawn to, appreciate what I liked as a kid before I knew that was what you were supposed to do.”

As youngsters tend to do, Farris rebelled. He turned to pop culture and comics-- elements apparent in his work to this day. But he couldn’t avoid absorbing works by famous Native artists like T. C. Cannon and R. W. Geionety. These influences also shine through.

He said it was a really interesting way to grow up, incidentally interested in art. It molded his appreciation for art of all kinds, from all times. It was his entirely untraditional training in art and art history.

More happy accidents

Being raised by art collectors planted good seeds. Later in life, stumbling into a real-deal internship watered those seeds.

He caught wind of the opportunity--a program through the Chickasaw Nation--through Lona Barrick, now the executive officer of cultural tourism for the Chickasaw Nation.

“Lona mentioned using a Chickasaw summer youth program to get help brought into the Jacobson House Native Art Center. I took over their gift shop that summer, rearranged things, repriced things,” Farris explained.

“I was very excited to be there. I was 20 and meeting a lot of people who are now lifelong friends and artists I work with. That summer internship turned into a career,” Farris said.

The Jacobson House still stands near the University of Oklahoma as a testament to one man’s dedication to early 20th century traditional Plains Indian art. That man was the founder of OU’s school of art.

Dr. Oscar Jacobson (1882-1966), who built the house in which the museum is now located, played a core role in the development of flat-style Southern Plains painting. He didn’t create the style directly, but he supported and promoted a group of young Kiowa artists known as the Kiowa Five.

Farris revealed a sense of reverence for Jacobson and the Kiowa Five as he explained their history.

“The Kiowa Five were arguably some of the first Native artists to be recognized as fine artists. Jacobson created a portfolio of their work and toured the world with them,” Farris said. “What made their relationship interesting is he was an art professor. But he didn’t teach them how to paint. He gave them the opportunity to paint the way they wanted to paint. What they did was capture Kiowa culture the way it should have been captured.”

Knowing this history would have been important during his time working at the museum, during the internship that eventually became a three-year full-time position. But, the experience runs deeper.

The history of the Jacobson House wraps up many aspects of Farris’ own views on Native art: the view that Native American art can be fine art, the dedication to promoting Native American artists, the importance of culture as it shines through Native artwork. It’s all there.

From artist to art curator

It was still there as Farris created and managed the Cherokee Art Market in Tulsa, a yearly show featuring artists from many different tribes. And it was still there when he came back to Norman to create a new art gallery downtown.

Farris operated Standing Buffalo Indian Art Gallery and Gifts for three years. In naming the gallery, Farris drew from a place close to his roots.

“I’m Buffalo Clan of the Otoe-Missouria on my mother’s side. On my dad’s side, Cherokee, he is Wolf Clan. A lot of what I do incorporates wolves and buffaloes. Buffalo in particular, because my Otoe-Missouria name, which my parents still refer to me as, translates to Standing Buffalo,” Farris explained. “That’s where my gallery name came from.”

He said they had a lot of really good shows and did some things other Native galleries weren’t doing.

Now, Farris works as manager of Exhibit C in Oklahoma City’s Bricktown. It is yet another outlet for him to support Native artists.

“Every job that I’ve had on the professional side of art has been an effort to try and create a market in Oklahoma for Native artists to have a viable place to sell their work. My eternal quest is to cultivate that best I can,” Farris said.

His dedication to this goal has spanned 20 years and enlisted the support of many tribes, artists and friends.

“The support from tribes has been excellent. They are willing to make the investment in building the market. I think it’s on the upswing,” he said.

The upcoming Native American art market in Sulphur where Farris will show his own art is a sign of this upswing.

Hosted by the Chickasaw Nation at the Artesian Plaza, more than 100 esteemed artists representing 25 Native American tribes throughout the United States and Canada will be featured during the Artesian Arts Festival, Saturday, May 27.

Farris said he will be glad to meet up with many of his artist friends during the daylong event.

“It’s an opportunity to catch up with folks, artists from out of state even. It’s a fun show,” Farris said. “It’s one of the easiest shows as far as logistics. It’s nice because it’s close.”

The Artesian Plaza is located adjacent to the Artesian Hotel and Spa, 1001 W. First Street. Festivities begin at 10 a.m. and end at 6 p.m.

To keep up with Farris and his art, facebook.com/theartoftomfarris is a good resource. He often posts updates about art projects he is working on or shows he is attending.

For more information about the Artesian Arts Festival, contact the Chickasaw Nation Division of Arts & Humanities at 580-272-5520, or by email at artistinfo@chickasaw.net.

Last Updated: 09/16/2016