Thom Ross on his Indians
Of all the historical figures that have morphed from their historic role into our national myth, perhaps no single image has defined the complicated issues of America more than the cowboy and the Indian. From real people, they have since changed into show figures from Buffalo Bill's "Wild West" show to characters in a thousand movies to a childhood game of "shoot 'em up." Rarely have these two mythic figures been on the same side. 100 years ago the "cowboy" (read: European/white man etc.) was seen as the Christian torch bearer bringing salvation to the savages of the wilds. Since then, we have come to see that this simplistic interpretation is far from being correct. Yet recently we have reversed these same roles and have now cast the Indian/Native American as being some kind of nature worshipping ecologist who walked in step with nature. Somehow this new-age interpretation is seen as correct. What must be realized is that if one is false then both are false. The brutality of the white man is well known and, indeed, focused on in most western movies dealing with Indians since 1970's "Little Big Man." Recently some new books have tried to show the brutality of the Indian. "Killing the
White Man's Indian" and "Empire of the Summer Moon" have boldly addressed this less-then-PC-acceptable viewpoint. We will see what sort of success these books have.
But, be that as it may, both figures, the cowboys and the Indians, still inspire wonder and a nostalgic sense of our lost Eden. As an artist I learned long ago that regardless of my intentions behind a work of art that I produced, each piece would have to stand on it's own merits and, therefore, be open to interpretations that may not be what I intended. So it was with my "Buffalo Bill & the Indians on the
Beach" installation which was inspired by a famous photo of Cody and
100 mounted warriors which was taken on Ocean Beach in San Francisco in
I was fascinated by the photo and the juxtaposition of Indians, and
Cody assembled on a beach that I used to play on as a child. The photo had a real pull on me. Yet when I placed my figures in place for this installation, I was met by several people who took offense at it;
Again, the work was open to interpretation and those who found the installation offensive were overly outnumbered by those who found something else therein which moved many to tears and which received the blessings of both a Russian Orthodox priest and a Yurok shaman.
So personal interpretation is what makes the concept work, whether the interpretation is offensive or inspiring.
So when I was asked to re-install these same figures I decided to alter the original concept to fit this new venue. Rather than appearing as posed figures (which they were in the 1902 photo) now they appear as curious riders who have materialized in the sagebrush to be seen as each viewer wants to see them. The issue for me is not one of right or wrong, good or bad, but rather how does both our collective memory and our personal interpretation allow us to see what it is that the figures represent.
It is my hope that you enjoy the installation and find something of value within it that brings each viewer a sense of our collective past and memory.