Artist Profile: Dwayne Wilcox
Mediums: Colored Pencil, Crayon, Ledger Paper, Paints
Growing up on the Pine Ridge Reservation, Dwayne could often be found drawing and painting in his free time. Later in life, he utilized the arts to grapple with life’s challenges and celebrations and as a way to reconnect with his community when he was away from home.
But, it wasn’t until he was paid to produced a mural at an elementary school in Colorado Springs in the 1970’s that Dwayne was began to think that he could actually make a living doing something that felt so natural: telling stories.
Though he never imagined he would become one of the most influential ledger artists in the country, today, Dwayne’s stories are now featured in galleries across the country, from Nebraska to New Hampshire, and all the way to the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C.
We sat down with Dwayne as he was preparing his work for this year’s Red Cloud Indian Art Show to learn more about his artistic journey and what he’s discovered along the way.
Take us back—what started you down your path as an artist?
For a long time I simply did art for myself. I always had a tablet with me or something to draw on, but I never thought of it as a real career until after I returned from the military.
The early 80’s were tough on me. My grandfather died in 1980, my grandmother in 1981 and my father in 1982. I was away from South Dakota then and every year it seemed like bad news was coming my way, and I started to drift from the idea that I had a future in the military.
Drawing was my memory chip when I was so far away and struggling, I guess, and I drew things that started making me remember things that were fun, things from home— people and events mostly. I don’t think I intended to do that, but now that I look back, that’s what I see.
So when did you start to show your work publicly?
I took an art class through the University of South Carolina. In this art class I met a man and his name was Harry Love. He’s the one who gave me the idea of entering my work into art markets—he steered me into that. He said ‘Just get yourself a good table and put your work out for sale and meet the public.’ So I did.
I found that I was one of the only artists in South Carolina doing “Indian art” so I had an advantage just by being something different. At that time I started painting and drawing the things around me. For example, in South Carolina I drew a lot of watercolors and shrimp boats and pelicans. When we later moved to Colorado I had to do images of aspens and mountains. It’s what people wanted, but again, it was also a way for me to interact with my surroundings and put it all down on my ‘memory chip.’
And so I think by leaving the reservation—for the military, to take some classes and just traveling—I was able to get my art out there, by exposing myself to new people and new surroundings. I never would’ve had that opportunity if I just stayed on the reservation.
Mentors seem to have had a large impact on you throughout your career. What advice can you give to young artists who are just getting started?
I always tried to be as honest and open about my career. If there’s anybody I can share my story of development with and how they might become successful with their projects, then I’d tell them this: You have to have faith in yourself and be confident, but not arrogant—it’s an important distinction. Allow yourself to win and to lose. Losing is not a bad thing; it’s a good thing. A lot of the time I know how to take losing better than winning because it tells me that I’m only human and I did my best, but it just wasn’t the best that day.
You have to move on with your life, regardless of what sneaks up on you. You can’t allow jealousy to come into your professional life. If art is your passion you can’t allow the competition to drag you down. You should always draw or paint or use whatever medium you choose, regardless of whether you have a place to show it or not. Not every piece that you do is a magnificent piece of work! That’s what I always try to tell young people that are starting. Don’t allow things that are said in the context of magazines tell you who you are. You know who you are and that’s what you can contribute in a positive way—it’s what people want to see in your work.
Today, you are perhaps most well-known for your ledger art. What is it about that medium that you enjoy?
Each Native culture has its own artistic specialties and connection to the art they make. For example, if you go down south you have the famous Hopi dolls and pottery. So, that’s what I like about ledger art—Lakota people are both known for their ledger art and often featured in it. I was also drawn towards it because I always looked at the style as a sort of journalistic visual language. The imagery portrays our history and can help our people and others learn about what was going on in our culture.
Learn more about ledger art and how
Dwayne is supporting a new generation of artists
Tell us how do you approach each new piece.
It can be easy for me to sit down and draw something funny or politically twisted and make a statement—I really try to address contemporary concepts—but a lot of my images are based on ‘What makes me enjoy things?’ or ‘What makes me smile?’ While I want a reaction to my artwork, I don’t want it to be just a fluffy, pretty, decorative thing. I want it to have a connection to who I am and where I am from. A lot of the images I do are a reflection on how Native people view the outside world rather than how somebody might be looking at us and putting us under a microscope so they can write a book about us from their perspective. I want to show our perspective, from the inside, looking off the reservation.
Dwayne Wilcox is a member of the Oglala Sioux Tribe and currently resides in Rapid City, SD with his wife. You can view his work—like Under the Microscope, above—this summer at the 46th Annual Red Cloud Indian Art Show and in galleries around the country.
Art: All Rights Reserved ©Dwayne Wilcox