The Duncan Banner

January 5, 2014

Native American focus features works by Choctaw artist

Griffith oil portraits on display at Chisholm Trail Heritage Center

By Toni Hopper/Chisholm Trail Heritage Center
The Duncan Banner

DUNCAN — Preparing for a temporary exhibit of works already in the vault at Chisholm Trail Heritage Center involved days of research for the staff, with curator Andy Couch overseeing the project. The exhibit features oil painting portraits and other images by the late Brunetta Bernard Griffith, of Choctaw ancestry, who died in 2006. It is part of the museum’s focus on Native American arts and history which kicked off with the new year and continues to March 14.

“It is an exciting exhibit in that not all of her works have been on display here before and the quality of the work is showcased in this exhibit,” Executive Director Stacy Cramer Moore said.

This will be the first time for the paintings to be exhibited as they are, with only five of her pieces in the museum’s permanent collection not going on display. The exhibit has 26 paintings, and three artifacts, Couch said.

Both of the Native American artifacts are displayed in old custom handcrafted frames. One is a beaded breastplate with two arrows and a round beaded medallion, and the other is arrows and a beaded quiver and a medallion. The third artifact is a dress which was worn by the artist and is an authentic Choctaw fashion.

“We are all very excited to have the opportunity to display our collection of Brunetta’s works,” Couch said. “Included in her oeuvre were more than 500 works of art. It’s nice to have a considerable fraction of that number with 31 paintings, even though we’re only showing 26.”

Hanging the exhibit was not as difficult as Couch first anticipated, once he had removed all of Griffiths’ works from the vault.

“The majority of the pieces range in size from 22-inches by 28-inches up to its largest of 4-feet by 4-feet,” Couch said. Most of the works are portraits of historical Native American peoples, including five Apache warrior chiefs, five females, many who were tribal leaders, and also pieces depicting a story.

The Chisholm Trail Heritage Center has the largest known collection of Griffith’s work. A Rush Springs native, Griffith began painting in the early 1970s, after returning home following marriage and travels. She was born in 1919 to C.E. and Gertrude Sperling Bernard during the days of early statehood. She married Joe Griffith in June 1945 in Indiana and they spent 15 years in Miami, Florida before coming home to Oklahoma.

Upon her return to her native hometown, she began receiving art instruction from Derald Swinford at the Oklahoma College of Women, which is now the University of Science and Arts of Oklahoma in Chickasha. She also began a civic involvement and became a member of the board of the Oklahoma Historical Society. Proud of her Choctaw Nation heritage, she started learning as much as possible. Her work became an important part of Native American history and was featured in public school textbooks. Education was something in which Griffith strongly believed and she even became involved with the Rush Springs Public School District.

One of her most interesting paintings is “Choctaw Indian Cry Over The Dead” painted in 1977. It is the scene of a Choctaw funeral, whereupon the one year anniversary, the tribe joins in a three-day mourning. Notes from the artist, also in the museum’s collection, indicate the painting was published in Oklahoma textbooks and she believed it was one of her most appreciated paintings.

Fort Sill Apache tribal leader, Mildred Imoch Cleghorn, 1910-1997, is one of the female portraits in the exhibit. Her legacy included carefully researched and authentic Native American dolls and their dress. Imoch Cleghorn was born a prisoner of war at Fort Sill, but had achieved status by her elder years enough to rank as a tribal leader. Her work was exhibited at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington D.C. Those same dolls were used as a reference point through photographs by Griffith as she painted the many portraits in this collection.

“The most important aspect of this exhibition is the timing. Our Native American session for the Making History with the Arts program coincides with this exhibition, allowing our younger visitors to engage with authentic artifacts and artworks from Native American culture,” Couch said.

Leah Mulkey, who is the museum’s education coordinator, said the instructors have also been busy researching for the session. The museum is a Great Expectations Model School award winning program. Instructors serve as historical interpreters and will bring noted figures to life, wearing period clothing and sharing stories of women from the Comanche and Chickasaw tribes. Students will have a chance to learn about the lifestyles of the Native Americans of the Great Plains and they will even learn the Native American Bear Dance.

The museum is open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday, and 1 to 5 p.m. Sunday. For information, call 580-252-6692. Chisholm Trail Heritage Center is located at 1000 Chisholm Trail Parkway, Duncan, OK.

Toni Hopper is Public Relations & Marketing Coordinator for the Chisholm Trail Heritage Center.