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Seeing real, not red: Celebration to highlight Fritz Scholder, how he challenged depictions of Native Americans

"Fritz Scholder's 1987 painting, "Self Portrait at Grand Canyon with Green Aura," 1987, is part of the Rourke Art Gallery + Museum's show, "Life and Afterlife." Special to The Forum1 / 3
Artist Fritz Scholder, left, signs a poster for Rich Callender, during the artist's final visit to the Rourke Art Galllery + Museum in October of 1999. Special to The Forum2 / 3
Fritz Scholder's lithograph "Sioux Burial at Mouse River", is part of the Rourke Art Gallery + Museum's show, "Life and Afterlife." Special to The Forum3 / 3

FARGO—Area arts organizations are throwing Fritz Scholder a day-long, progressive birthday party. The guest of honor won't be attending—he died in 2005—but his art will be on full display and it's as vibrant now as ever.

The Plains Art Museum in Fargo, the Rourke Art Gallery + Museum in Moorhead and the Red Door Art Gallery in Wahpeton, N.D., are hosting Friz Fest, a celebration of the late artist's life and works on Friday, what would have been his 80th birthday. The event consists of each institution hosting a different show, celebrating his groundbreaking and provocative career as a painter, printmaker, sculptor, photographer and poet.

While the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of the American Indian called Scholder "the most influential, prolific and controversial figure in the history of Native art," he refused to be called an Indian artist and challenged cliched visions of what Indian art was. As part of Fritz Fest, a symposium will explore his seemingly contradictory approach to his heritage in his work.

Scholder made a name for himself as a painter in the Southwest and California in the 1960s and '70s, but got his start in the Midwest. He was born in 1937 in Breckenridge, Minn.,—just across the river from Wahpeton—and stayed in the community until he was 12.

Though a renowned artist when he died, Scholder's star continues to rise years after his death. The Smithsonian opened a major retrospective, "Indian/Not Indian," in 2009, the same year Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger inducted him into the California Hall of Fame. Six years later, the Denver Art Museum opened a major travelling exhibition of his "Indian" series titled, "Super Indian: Fritz Scholder, 1967-1980."

"He's our guy. If all of these other places are celebrating Fritz and we're not, we should," says the Plains' Director/CEO Andy Maus.

"We're still talking about him and he's still relevant and divisive," says Jonathan Rutter, curator at the Rourke.

Though Scholder was one-quarter Luiseño—a California tribe—he declined to be identified as an Indian. Still, he taught at the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, New Mexico, took part in Indian arts programming and in the late '60s started a controversial series of American Indian portraits. Instead of painting subjects with reverence, he pictured a contemporary Indian in a cowboy hat sitting with a can of Coors. Another work showed an Indian with an ice cream cone. A number of other images depicted Indians carrying American flags, prompting the question — what does it mean to be an American?

"People were upset when he started portraying Native Americans because he largely denied his heritage and didn't grow up on a reservation," Rutter explains. "When he stopped painting Native Americans at the end of the 1970s, people thought that was somehow a betrayal."

Part of Scholder's reluctance to identify with his Indian heritage was that it was never discussed in his home growing up. As an adult he objected to being labeled an "Indian artist" and rejected works he saw as stereotypical imagery of the "noble savage". When pressed about his approach to depicting Indians, he stated, "I have painted the Indian real, not red."

"Art has a history of these over-romanticized depictions of Native Americans, and he needed to—and did—push against them," Maus explains. "He opened avenues for contemporary artists today to embrace ethnicities and address the complexity of it."

The Plains' show, "The Buffalo in the American Living Room," mixes Scholder's work with some of those artists for whom he paved the way, like Jim Denomie and Star Wallowing Bull. The exhibit includes only five Scholder pieces from the museum's collection, but taps private collections as well as that of North Dakota State University.

The Rourke's show, "Life and Afterlife," will feature about 50 pieces, more than 30 from its collection. The works explore his later interest in the mysterious, like Egyptian mythology, the occult, vampires, monsters, angels, shamans, martyrs and shadowy figures, with the work spanning from the mid-1970s to the mid-'90s.

Rutter points out that the number of Scholder works on loan from non-museum collections is an indication of how revered he is as a regional artist. While maybe not as big a name as Grand Forks-born artist James Rosenquist (a trailblazer in the pop art movement), Scholder maintained local ties and often returned to the area for demonstrations, artist-in-residencies and to receive an honorary degree from Concordia College.

"You aren't going to see a Rosenquist outside a museum. Fritz worked his way into people's

homes and lives," Rutter says, recalling a story of a Fargo man who traded a Porsche for a painting Scholder created during a demonstration at the Stage at Island Park.

Scholder had a close relationship with the Plains and the The Rourke dating back to the '70s when James O'Rourke, then head of the sibling organizations, visited Scholder's home to purchase a painting for the Plains. He would later buy more of his work for the Rourke. In 1980 the Plains hosted a mid-career retrospective and over the years the Rourke held about a dozen shows by the artist.

The Plains and the Rourke partnering on Fritz Fest is significant. O'Rourke and the Plains parted ways in 1987 and the organizations split as well. Since O'Rourke died in 2011, relations between the entities have improved.

"It represents a continuing collaboration with the Plains that we hope to do more," says Rutter.

Scholder's 1972 painting "Indian Monster Chief" is featured in the Plains Art Museum's show, "The Buffalo in the Living Room".

Fritz Fest happenings

What: Gallery talk with artist Gwen Westerman

When: 7 to 8 p.m., Thursday

Where: Plains Art Museum, 704 1st Ave., N., Fargo

What: Fritz Scholder Symposium

When: 1 to 4 p.m., Friday

Where: Renaissance Hall, North Dakota State University, 650 NP Ave., Fargo

What: Progressive reception

When: 3 to 5 p.m., Red Door Gallery, Wahpeton, N.D.; 6 to 8 p.m., Plains Art Museum, 704 1st Ave., N., Fargo and 7:30 to 9:30 p.m., Rourke Art Gallery + Museum, 521 Main Ave., Moorhead

Info: This event is free for members of the Plains or the Rourke, students and Native American community and $10 for non-members

What: Comedic group The 1491s

When: 7 to 9 p.m, Saturday

Where: The Fargo Theatre, 314 Broadway

Info: Tickets are $15.

For more information on all events, visit