Starr Hardridge uses art as a medium to connect with his late father and his Muscogee Creek roots.
When Native American artist Starr Hardridge’s father died six years ago, he reevaluated the way he painted. To work his way out of his grief, he approached the canvas with a different style, one influenced by his father’s Muscogee Creek roots — and his own.
What he found was not just a way to mourn the passing of his father, but also a way back to the heritage he’d left behind when he moved away from Oklahoma to the East Coast two decades before. His paintings of deer, buffalo, and other iconic Indigenous subjects that came out of that period defined the pointillist style that he’s now known for. The style evoked beadwork but was achieved instead through the precise placement of thousands of tiny dots of paint.
“I felt like I’d been in exile being on the East Coast and removed from my own cultural heritage,” says Hardridge, now 46. “I discovered my own tribe’s beadwork, and it was organic and flowing and had these wild colors. I wanted to reclaim that as a painter. I was reclaiming myself as an Indigenous artist.”
Starr Hardridge, Strange Canyon, 2018, acrylic and plaster on canvas, 24” x 24”
Hardridge grew up all over Central Oklahoma, on cattle ranches where his father worked as a foreman, and near oilfields where his dad roughnecked. “My dad was both an Indian and a cowboy,” he says. “We moved around — Anadarko, Chickasha, Enid, Blackwell.”
But Hardridge’s exposure to his own culture was limited. “Growing up in Blackwell, I was very aware that my father wasn’t white and my mother was,” he says. “Outside of the local powwow, there wasn’t that much culture I was being introduced to because I didn’t come from a traditional family.” Both of his parents, though, collected Native American art — pieces by Enoch Kelly Haney, Woody Big Bow, and Larry Hood — and this would become his greatest influence.
“I taught myself how to draw from the paintings hanging on my wall as a kid,” he says. “I didn’t have anyone to open the door for me. I had to carve my own path and find my own identity, and part of that was to develop a new style and be brave enough to paint images that were true to my heart, that I didn’t know would sell.”
But they did sell — and they still do. Every six months, Hardridge sends a new batch of paintings to Blue Rain Gallery in Santa Fe or puts together a new collection for Indian Market. He also does commissions, including a recent piece for the brand-new First Americans Museum opening in September in Oklahoma City. Hardridge’s work has been shown at the National Museum of Wildlife Art, the Five Civilized Tribes Museum, and the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum. And his paintings were award-winning favorites, including Best of Show, at the 2019 Eiteljorg Museum’s Indian Market & Festival.
Starr Hardridge, Earth Medicine, 2019, acrylic and plaster on canvas, 12” x 12”
Today his home and studio are in Knoxville, Tennessee, where Hardridge lives with his girlfriend and their two long-haired Chihuahuas. Every day, surrounded by his father’s moccasins and traditional beaded fan, a beaded rosette from the 1940s from his grandfather, and an old Pendleton blanket from his grandmother, he sits down at a long table to begin the process of expressing himself through imagery, one tiny dot of paint at a time.
He starts with a black canvas, covers it with nylon mesh, and then layers black Venetian plaster on top. When he pulls the mesh off, a minuscule grid pattern is revealed. On that grid, he’ll draw an image with a white watercolor pencil. “Then I’ll color-block the sections, just as a beadworker would,” he says. “This is what helps organize my paintings. It took a year to get it down to a science.”
Because his paintings are produced flat instead of on an easel, he’s constantly hunched over, moving from one section to another, up to eight hours a day. “It’s an abusive amount of time,” he says. “My eyesight has declined over the last seven years. It’s been so physically exhausting.”
Starr Hardridge, Cosmic Twins, 2016, acrylic and plaster on canvas, 40” x 40”
His pieces reflect the intensity of the process and invite the viewer to see more than the image itself. “There’s a message in this work that this is painstaking, that you have to see your future and envision it and stay the course,” Hardridge says.
“The effort, the time — it’s not just an image. I made this art to exist, to keep my sanity when that’s all I had to hold onto. I was born an artist, and I’m going to die an artist. I’m not going to quit. I’m obsessively and compulsively a painter.”
The work is not only worth the effort, it’s what keeps Hardridge connected to his dad. “When my father died, I didn’t feel like he was going away, but I was going back to him,” he says.
“This is part of the whole Muscogee way of thought. We’re not going away from our ancestors, we’re going to them. With every painting I make, I’m taking a step closer to him.”
From our August/September 2021 issue
Photography: (All images) courtesy Starr Hardridge