A s an artist, sometimes you find your subjects, and sometimes your subjects find you. Twenty-five years ago, I never dreamed that using a few old family photographs as subjects would lead to a career-long fascination with these frozen images of the past, images that even today I have yet to grow tired of exploring. These snapshots of my ancestors have been my constant companions through countless re-imaginings as monumental paintings or tiny etchings, as drawings or installations and video projects.
These images of close kinfolk and distant relatives have become icons for me, symbols of a Native American identity that is not seen as “traditional,” but is just as valid and vital to me—a tradition of Indian Christianity and mission schools that has been a part of my family history for generations. The images provide a connection with my past, a way to remember and honor the generations that have come before—a way to commemorate our unique family heritage. And while the photographs have very personal meanings for me as the artist, I have also come to realize that there is an almost universal recognition of a sense of history and identity among the viewers of my work, evoking memories of their own family’s past. This common ground of family memory has been a wonderfully satisfying by-product of the choice of subject matter that I never expected when I began using these images.
My work has always contained a political undercurrent, but more recently I realize that I have the responsibility to tell my own story as a mixed-blood Native person in an increasingly fractious U.S. culture. This has led to deeper explorations into identity politics and how that plays out in everyday Indian communities like the ones where I grew up in northeastern Oklahoma. In my most recent work, and new work I plan to create, I probe deeper into the messy gray areas of Native identity, individually and communally—not to shock or divide, but in an attempt to find a common ground of shared experience.
The building up of something by hand—of seeing the work gradually turn into more than an accumulation of layers of paint or wax—is the satisfying reward of art creation. Just like the dated yet timeless images of my ancestors in the photos, the process itself creates, for me, a sense of the passage of time. In some unexplainable way, I am brought closer to these people that are a part of my heritage and identity. These images are my lifeline to a past and a history that I didn’t discover until well into adulthood, things we rarely spoke about, but that I now realize are a source of inspiration and pride for our family. And while it may be possible for the viewer to peel back or peer around the layers to reveal multiple shades of meaning, it’s just as possible to look at these works and be reminded of their favorite aunt or Granny’s old Ford truck. When they see my work, I hope viewers are reminded of the enduring importance of family and identity. My hope is for my art to become like an old family photographs themselves—perhaps cherished, perhaps stuffed in a box in the attic—but always able to evoke memories every time it is viewed.
Bobby C. Martin
7 Springs Studio
West Siloam Springs, Oklahoma
January 2020

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