year old Native American artist Sam English has over 65 paintings
and lithograph prints waiting to be seen by the public
protest image by Native artist Sam English.(courtesy)
Tucked away in a storage facility in Albuquerque are over 65
paintings and lithograph prints created by 75-year-old Native American
artist, activist and aesthetic healer Sam English.
Sam English is the son of Ojibwe/Anishinaabe/Chippewa parents;
a mother from the Turtle
Mountain people of North Dakota (where he is enrolled) and a
father from the Red Lake Nation of Minnesota. He has spent most
of his life in the Southwest and currently lives in Albuquerque.
Although his early life was spent in middle-class obscurity,
disconnected from his Northern Woodlands heritage, his career documents
many of the significant moments in contemporary Native American
history. After high school, he went on to study architectural drafting
at Bacone College, OK, and business at the University of San Francisco,
CA. From 1968 to 1971, he worked for the National Indian Youth Council
in Berkeley, CA.
As a veteran of Indian activism from the 60s to
the present, Sam English got involved in 1968 with Indian civil
rights issues because of a desire to become more aware of Indian
history. To cope with his outrage, he turned to alcohol.
Inaugural Celebration poster by Native artist Sam English
I had a lot of anger and hostility about the way we were
treated as humans. And self-pity, that is what alcoholism is all
At the age of 39, and after 18 failed attempts at alcohol treatment
facilities, he finally quit. On December 10th, 1981, I drove
my lance and decided I was not going to drink anymore.
From that moment forward, Sam English dedicated himself to using
his art to document and serve his people. He became a well-known
speaker and activist, owned and operated the Sam English Studio/Gallery,
Ltd. in Old Town, Albuquerque.
He continues to practice his art and pass on his spiritual journey
of sobriety healing throughout the U.S. His Healing Through
the Arts workshops in Palm Springs and the Bay Area have become
legendary in the indigenous community.
portrait by Native artist Sam English. (courtesy)
Tragically, Sam Englishs work has remained largely unnoticed
by the wider art historical community, though he has been commissioned
by, and has generously donated to many Native and non-Native Institutions.
Though, at a casual glance his imagery seems simple his
work has sometimes been dismissed as poster art or neo-American
Indian expressionism it follows in the long and honored
tradition of Native artists Allan Houser, Fritz
Red Star, T.C. Cannon, and Oscar Howe, and fits within the artistic
framework of his fellow Anishinaabe artists, Norval Morrisseau,
George Morrison, Patrick DesJarlait, Carl Gawboy, Melvin Losh, Dewey
Goodwin, David Bradley and Jim Denomie.
Sams images have been described by a Red Lake Midewiwin
(Grand Medicine Lodge) member as Ga-kina-nee-ja-ni-shi-na-baig,
All My People. They represent survival in a world of historic and
intergenerational trauma; respect for ancestors and elders who have
labored and battled against genocide, racism, oppression, marginalization,
assimilation, and crushing imperialism; respect and adoration for
a culture mindful of its cosmic, spiritual, hereditary, and environmental
relationship to all things; respect and confidence in the healing
power of artistic expression; and respect and hopefulness in the
Native youth of America.
painted portrait by Native artist Sam English. (courtesy)
Underlying all of Sams aesthetic philosophy is We
a perpetual reference to his work as a spiritual gift and
collaboration from (and with) the Creator. As Sam explains, art
is a spiritual process and when I talk about my art I include the
Creator. Without the art, if I hadnt continued to paint in
my sobriety I wouldnt be here painting. I wouldnt be
here, period. . . it doesnt imply that Im some sort
of creative genius. I paint, but I think that Im inspired
to do this. I think somebody saved my life to do this. I think history,
some contemporary history, and we try to do that with great dignity
and humor and tradition and spirit.
One of the hallmarks of Sams work is elongated figures.
One night in San Francisco, Sam says, I was doing a city scene.
. . and then, all of a sudden, there appeared a face at the top
of a tall building and some eagle feathers and I thought, hmm,
I should convert these to long Indians
and as they were long
and tall, elongated, I began to feel that they represented the pride
and integrity of American Indian people to stand tall
my people looking up like they have a future, like they have life.
A self-portrait by Native artist Sam English.
His paintings are also characterized by their remarkable use
of negative space. Figures and forms are not defined by black line.
They float and transition from background to foreground as if they
are traversing from the seen to the unseen world. Its another
unique technique that Sam utilizes to acknowledge the omnipotent
influence of ancient ancestors and the way the spiritual and physical
world are intertwined. With flowing hair, cloth, and limbs his figures
seem to be floating in space. They speak of and transport the viewer
to another dimension.
At present, Sam is living in a hotel in Albuquerque, struggling
with health issues, depression, and economic uncertainty. A few
miles away, his original paintings. prints and books lie unnoticed
in this storage unit, patiently waiting for an appropriate home.
It is his hope that his life work will find that homesomewhere,
somehowin a Native American community or art institution that
understands and values the work he has done over the past 50 years.
In this way, he will be able to pass along the gift that the Creator
gave him and that he hopes to share with the children and future
VIDEO COLORES: For All My Relations
Sam English New Mexico PBS.
Sam English on FaceBook: https://www.facebook.com/sam.english.7737769
Contributor Tom Kanthak is one of the founding members of the
faculty and former Liaison for Indigenous Arts Education at the
Minnesota Center for Arts Education in Minneapolis, MN. He is a
practicing musician and artist who has been involved with the arts
community of the Twin Cities since the late 60s. Weekly
phone calls to Sam English are vital to his health and artistry.