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Tonto's New Inspiration: Artist Kirby Sattler

C&I talks with the artist whose 'I Am Crow' painting inspired Johnny Depp’s Tonto look.

Photography: Peter Mountain/Courtesy Disney Enterprises Inc.

I Am Crow is available as a poster ($35), giclee canvas print in three sizes ($125, $950, $1,300), and giclee paper print ($550). For purchase information, visit

There are plenty of striking things about the The Lone Ranger and Tonto as embodied by Armie Hammer and Johnny Depp. Chief among the many unforgettable images from the film: the newly interpreted Tonto, who is so different from the Jay Silverheels Tonto we’re accustomed to that he takes more than a little getting used to.

Where in the world did the new look, which is bound to become as iconic Depp’s other over-the-top characters, come from?

“I’d actually seen a painting by an artist named Kirby Sattler and looked at the face of this warrior and thought, That’s it,” Depp told “The stripes down the face and across the eyes … it seemed to me like you could almost see the separate sections of the individual. …”

In that “cross-section of the Native man’s emotional life,” Depp said he saw a wise quarter, a very tortured and hurt section, an angry and rageful section, and a very understanding and unique side. “I saw these parts, almost like dissecting a brain, these slivers of the individual.”

The makeup inspired him, as did the crow in the painting, which Depp would appropriate as a headdress. “It just so happened Sattler had painted a bird flying directly behind the warrior’s head. It looked to me like it was sitting on top,” Depp told “I thought, Tonto’s got a bird on his head. It’s his spirit guide in a way. It’s dead to others, but it’s not dead to him. It’s very much alive.”

We talked to artist Kirby Sattler about his artistic inspirations, the story behind I Am Crow, and what he thinks about Johnny Depp’s interpretation.

Cowboys & Indians: Where in the West did you grow up?

Kirby Sattler: I grew up in Colorado, along the foothills of the Rocky Mountains. I remain faithful to the mountains, although, my wife and I have relocated to Sierra Madre [Mexico].

C&I: When and how did you learn to paint?

Sattler: I am still learning to paint, continuing a self-taught journey that is mainly the persistence and everyday discipline of sitting at the easel.

C&I: What Western and/or Native painters have influenced you?

Sattler: The early influence was the paintings of Swiss artist Karl Bodmer and American artist George Catlin, who explored and painted Native Americans of the American west during the 1830s. The greatest influences are the art and artifacts created by the indigenous peoples of the Americas.

C&I: How did you get the idea for I Am Crow, the painting that inspired Johnny Depp’s take on Tonto?

Sattler: I have an affinity for crows. They have provided me an often-used source of inspiration for my work. As with all my paintings, I Am Crow began as the interpretation of the relationship between nature and indigenous man.

C&I: When and in what medium did you paint it?

Sattler: I Am Crow was completed in 2006. I paint with acrylics on linen canvas.

C&I: Is the painting based on something and/or someone in history?

Sattler: The painting is not of a factual person. My paintings are variations of the same theme, examining the inseparable relationship between the nomadic tribes of the American Plains and their natural world. Each painting functions on the premise that all natural phenomena have souls independent of their physical beings. Under such a belief, the wearing of sacred objects was a source of spiritual power. Any object — a stone, a plait of sweet grass, a part of an animal, the wing of a bird — could contain the essence of the metaphysical qualities identified with the objects and desired by the Native American. I attempt to give the viewer of my work a sense of what these sacred objects meant to the wearer; more than just aesthetic adornment, it was an outward manifestation of a transference of identity. In the end, how the work is to be interpreted is left to the viewer’s unique sensibilities.

C&I: How did you feel when you heard that your painting was Johnny Depp’s inspiration for his Tonto look for The Lone Ranger?

Sattler: I have been a fan of his film characterizations … a bigger one now. And of course that fact that I Am Crow inspired him has exposed the painting to a broader audience.

C&I: He said he saw something in the eyes of the warrior and in the face divided by lines. …

Sattler: His words in regards to my painting were very insightful.

C&I: What do you think of I Am Crow as channeled by Johnny Depp? Did you have any input?

Sattler: I did not speak with Johnny Depp; our conversations were with the production team of the film. With the film’s design team he came up with a memorable image. The final look of his character is astounding.

C&I: What does the title I Am Crow mean? 

Sattler: I Am Crow — a man taking on the metaphysical traits attributed to the crow.

C&I: In your painting, the crow seems not to be affixed to the warrior’s head but seems to be flying behind. If the bird is in a sense a spirit guide or spirit animal, what does it signify?

Sattler: Whether the crow is affixed to the warrior’s head or flying behind is a choice of personal perception. Birds were powerful spiritual companions to the People; they provided a conduit to the unseen forces of the universe that predominated their lives.

C&I: You are not Native, but you have a deep interest in and respect for the Plains Indians. What kinds of research have you found most productive in learning about American Indians for your art?

Sattler: Native American-inspired portraits remain the subject I paint most. To sate this interest I spent endless hours in libraries and visiting museums, traveling the West to learn of the great diversity of the Plains Indian culture. The visuals of collected historical artifacts have always been the driving force. The association of man living with nature contributed to developing a theme to my paintings.

C&I: Do you plan to see the movie?

Sattler: Yes, most definitely. We will make the long drive to the big city when the movie reaches the theaters. We wouldn’t miss an opportunity to witness a 30-foot high image of Johnny Depp in I Am Crow-inspired costume!

Read more about The Lone Ranger, which hits theaters July 3.


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