August 18, 2004
“What is a guy supposed to do with a philosophy degree?” asked Native Oklahoman Wes Gan, ’76, when he graduated. He answered the question by spending time in the construction industry before happening upon the world of Native American art. “It was supposed to be two weeks, 18 years ago,” Wes says. “I decided to help produce the printing of Larry Hood’s first painting, ‘Comanche Buffalo Prophet.’ I stayed in the business because I love working with the people and I love the art.”
In his packed-to-the-brim downtown Tulsa showroom that carries the simple title “Native America Art,” Wes highlights at least 20 living artists and eight artists who have passed on. “The basement has many more works that I just don’t have space to show all the time,” he says.
Choctaw Native Americans Jane McCarty Mauldin and her sister, Valjean Hessing, gave Wes an early boost when they put together his first art show showcasing more than 20 artists. He has found similar hospitality throughout the Native American landscape. “I have certainly come to respect their plight,” he says. “As a people, they have received brutal treatment, not uncommon in history, but nonetheless brutal. And this generation still remembers.
Some have disfavor. Some trust. Some have forgiven and accept, but some have not.” Because Oklahoma is a relatively young state, Wes recognizes that Native Americans were driven from this land in significant ways just three generations ago.
“Native American art has four options,” he says. “Either the artist will select a scene of war, humor, meditation, or a moment in history, whether a dance scene or the Trail of Tears, for example.” The roots of the genre are traced to 1926, in Anadarko, Oklahoma, according to literature that Wes has in his gallery. A Mrs. Susie Peters organized an art club for the purpose of helping young talented Kiowa Indians. Not long afterwards, Mrs. Peters sent paintings to the Nichols Taos Fine Art Gallery in Taos, New Mexico. The works promptly sold. In 1928, the work of several artists from the original art club received a sensational review at the first international art exposition in Prague, Czechoslovakia. In 1929, a portfolio was published of their work. The Gilcrease Museum in Tulsa houses the majority of these works.
“Many Native Americans have faith in Christ,” Wes says, “and because their native beliefs run deep, most have a reverence for spiritual things. They have a particular way of thinking about self and earth as the same that points to their long-standing acceptance of theism.”
“I would not trade my days at OBU for anything. I thought I knew a lot back then, but I didn’t know much. I don’t know much now. However, I have learned that faith is about not knowing but nonetheless choosing. And I chose Jesus. I wouldn’t say that any of this is ‘glorifying’ God,” Wes says as he surveys the paintings, “but the outgrowth of my enjoyment and impacting the people I meet – both artists and patrons – has made this work rewarding.”
Wes and his wife have three dogs and a home that reflects the brilliance of Native American art throughout its rooms.