Celebrate the dynamic creativity of 20th-century Native American painter, poet, and musician T.C. Cannon — and more horizon-expanding exhibitions. 

We think T.C. Cannon would have approved: As part of a major exhibition of the work of the influential Native American painter, the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts, commissioned Choctaw alt-folk musician Samantha Crain to write music and perform a song in response to the late artist’s most monumental work, the 22-foot mural Epochs in Plains History: Mother Earth, Father Sun, the Children Themselves (1976-77).

In her review of the exhibition in The Boston Globe, Cate McQuaid conveys the effect of seeing one of Cannon’s last works and hearing Crain honor it:

“In 1976, Cannon was invited by Seattle to paint a mural, Epochs in Plains History: Mother Earth, Father Sun, the Children Themselves. It begins in darkness, leads to a vibrant sun dance, and ends with a Native American of the present in a Stetson and jeans. Unlike most of Cannon’s paintings, which sift through the vagaries of history, it is largely triumphant. Choctaw songwriter Samantha Crain has written a song, “One Who Stands in the Sun,” which plays where the mural is displayed.

T. C. Cannon (1946–1978, Caddo/Kiowa), Epochs in Plains History: Mother Earth, Father Sun, the Children Themselves, 1976–77. Oil on canvas, Seattle Office of Arts and Culture, Seattle, Washington. ©2017 Estate of T. C. Cannon. Photo by Gary Hawkey/iocolor.

“With Crain’s rippling chords and mournful melody, the majestic mural turns bittersweet. Such is the legacy of the Plains people, and of T.C. Cannon himself, who died in 1978. Driving home late one night in Santa Fe, his car went off the road and into a ditch. He was 31.”

Until June 10 you can see the mural, hear both Samantha Crain and T.C. Cannon sing, ponder Cannon’s short but important career, and generally celebrate the artist’s creative range and artistic legacy through 70 paintings and works on paper at the Peabody Essex Museum, and later at Gilcrease Museum in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and the National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) in New York.

The first major exhibition to look at the artist’s multiple forms of creative expression, T.C. Cannon: At the Edge of America includes his art alongside his poetry and country-folk style music. The result is a compelling and complex perspective on Cannon’s art and life as well as his political activism and fascination with history and culture.

Although he drew and sketched prolifically, Cannon produced no more than 50 major canvases and just a handful of exquisite woodblock prints and linocuts before the car accident that tragically ended his life.

His images embody the activism, cultural transition, and creative expression that defined America in the turbulent 1960s and ’70s.

T. C. Cannon (1946–1978, Caddo/Kiowa), His Hair Flows Like a River, 1973. Oil on canvas. Anne Aberbach + Family, Paradise Valley, Arizona. © 2017 Estate of T. C. Cannon. Photo by Thosh Collins. / T. C. Cannon (1946–1978, Caddo/Kiowa), Buffalo Medicine Keeper, about 1974. Acrylic and oil on canvas. William E. Weiss Memorial Fund Purchase, Buffalo Bill Center of the West, Cody, Wyoming. © 2017 Estate of T. C. Cannon. / T. C. Cannon (1946–1978, Caddo/Kiowa), Indian with Beaded Headdress, 1978. Acrylic on canvas. Peabody Essex Museum. © 2017 Estate of T. C. Cannon. Photo by Kathy Tarantola.

Cannon lived it. Born in 1946 and raised by his Kiowa father and Caddo mother, Tommy Wayne (T.C.) Cannon grew up in a rural farming community in southeastern Oklahoma. He came of age during the social and cultural ferment of the Sixties and left home in 1964 for the experimental new Institute of American Indian Arts (IAIA) in Santa Fe. It was there that he found his artistic footing.

Two years into his training, Cannon painted what is arguably the most significant of his early works: Mama and Papa Have the Going Home Shiprock Blues (1966): “Now understood as the painting that spurred the revolutionary New Indian Art movement of the 1960s, the work captures Cannon’s place at the crossroads of Native American and American cultures at a time when the definitions of both were up for debate,” explain press materials for the exhibition.

T. C. Cannon (1946–1978, Caddo/Kiowa), Mama and Papa Have the Going Home Shiprock Blues, 1966. Acrylic and oil on canvas. Institute of American Indian Arts, Museum of Contemporary Native Arts, Santa Fe, New Mexico. © 2017 Estate of T. C. Cannon. Photo by Addison Doty.

You can “hear” Cannon painting it. The artist often listened to music in his studio and created paintings from songs and vice versa. The companion song for Mama and Papa Have the Going Home Shiprock Blues — preserved in an original, rarely heard audio recording by the artist — plays in the exhibition galleries.

Two years after creating that watershed work, at the height of the counterculture movement, and in the Kiowa warrior tradition, Cannon enlisted in the U.S. Army and spent almost a year in Vietnam. While he earned two Bronze Star medals for his service in the Tet Offensive as a paratrooper, he was conflicted about the experience. In his poetry, letters, and art, his disillusionment and changing views about America’s violent history began to find expression.

T. C. Cannon (1946–1978, Caddo/Kiowa), Hopi with Manta, 1976. Oil on canvas. Anne Aberbach + Family, Paradise Valley, Arizona. © 2017 Estate of T. C. Cannon. Photo by Thosh Collins. / T. C. Cannon (1946–1978, Caddo/Kiowa), Big Soldier, 1971. Linocut. Collection of Michael and Kathryn Lord. © 2017 Estate of T. C. Cannon. Photo by Addison Doty. / T. C. Cannon (1946–1978, Caddo/Kiowa), Cloud Madonna, 1975. Acrylic on canvas. Collection of Charles and Karen Miller Nearburg, promised gift to the Hood Museum of Art, Dartmouth College, Dartmouth, New Hampshire, © 2017 Estate of T. C. Cannon.

“Through Cannon’s figurative work, he rejected the accepted, expected representations of Native ritual life and instead chose to surface issues of the brutal traumas wrought by colonialism and power dynamics,” says Peabody Essex Museum curator Karen Kramer. “Concurrently, through his paintings, poetry, and music, he also emphasized the ways in which Native Americans persisted and thrived — sometimes in quietly radical everyday ways — in the face of oppression.”

In 1972, Cannon hit the national stage in a significant way when the National Collection of Fine Art, now the Smithsonian American Art Museum, invited him and his former instructor Fritz Scholder to be in a two-person exhibition, Two American Painters: Fritz Scholder and T.C. Cannon. The exhibition was a landmark success, and almost all of Cannon’s canvases were literally bought off the walls by Jean Aberbach, the owner-dealer of Madison Avenue’s Aberbach Gallery. Aberbach signed Cannon with the gallery, which would represent him nationally and internationally for the rest of his life.

The exhibition went on to tour Berlin, Belgrade, Istanbul, Madrid, and London, fueling Cannon’s confidence and his career.

“[His] fusion of iconographic images with complex color symbolism and geometric patterns, where his mythic Indians met modernity, and a political gaze became ever-present.”

During his life, Cannon’s artwork gave voice to a restless generation. Decades after his death, his life’s work continues to influence and inspire.

T. C. Cannon (1946–1978, Caddo/Kiowa), Self-Portrait in the Studio, 1975. Oil on canvas. Collection of Richard and Nancy Bloch. © 2017 Estate of T. C. Cannon. Photo by Addison Doty.

Through June 10, see T.C. Cannon: At the Edge of America at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts. The exhibition then travels to the Gilcrease Museum in Tulsa, Oklahoma, July 14 – October 7, 2018, and the National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) in New York, March 16 – September 16, 2019. The book T.C. Cannon: At the Edge of America, by Karen Kramer, is available on Amazon.com

Peabody Essex Museum, 978.745.9500. 

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Photography: Chimayo Reredos/Courtesy Shiprock Santa Fe

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