Connecting: the artist pays homage to Native American culture through portraits
The Native American Portrait Exhibit by Tom Seagard which is currently on display at the Door County Community Foundation, 222 N. 3rd Ave. in Sturgeon Bay, is the result of a decades-long spiritual journey. The show, titled Aho Mitakuye Oyasin – which means “We are all related” in Lakota – has a special meaning for Seagard, but not in the way one might immediately expect.
“Now I’m not Native American. I have no connection that way,” he said. “I am Native American Culture, and I adhered to it hard and heavy.
Seagard attributes his respect and interest in Native American culture to a few guys he went to high school with who were Native American.
“Going back to the 60s, it was a time of great social change,” he said.
A friend showed her a book of old photographs by Edward S. Curtis, a photographer who traveled the continent between 1900 and 1930, photographing more than 70 Native American tribes.
“I started looking [the photos], and I could see the character, and I could see the strength, but I didn’t know what it was,” Seagard said. “I didn’t understand the culture, but it spoke to me.”
From there, he made this culture that resonated in him the subject of his painting. He pointed to a painting he created in 1967.
“My friends who were Native American — even though I didn’t know it at the time — were really intrigued,” Seagard recalled. “They wanted to know why I was doing this. I said it was because people were talking to me and the face was telling me things.
His friends introduced him to the elders at a tribal center in Milwaukee, which led him to forge a relationship with the culture that is now inseparable from his work.
All but two of the paintings in this exhibition were created specifically for the exhibition. To create them, Seagard said he followed the Red Route, a spiritual path he was taught.
“The spirits I needed came to me and helped me through this [process]said Seagard, who turns 75 this year. “I painted at night; I painted in the afternoon; I painted whenever I could. Some nights I painted all night. I haven’t done this since I fell and broke my neck in 2000, and it’s nice to know I can still.
He talks about his responsibility to culture and what it demands of his job.
“It must be truthful; it must be precise; he has to be honest,” Seagard said. “It’s important for me to know that I did it exactly the right way. There is no room for agitation. I painted a picture that didn’t come together, and I destroyed it.
Seagard is in the Sister Bay home and gallery he has shared with his artist wife, Brigitte Kozma, for 51 years. He paints primarily on brown paper grocery bags, mounted on Masonite and sealed with spray varnish. He works in mixed media, drawing with the soft lead found in corporate promotional pencils, then filling in with paint.
Although Native American culture has been his area of interest for decades, that doesn’t mean it’s his only interest. After this show, Seagard takes a little break and looks for new subjects – maybe vintage cars or steam locomotives.
“I don’t want to lose the momentum now that I’m sharp,” he said. “I can’t afford rust. I don’t have any rust on me right now, and I want to keep moving. I will continue to do.