Conversation Sparker: Frank Buffalo Hyde

The contemporary Native American painter reveals a new mural at Meow Wolf and talks taking a match to traditional expectations of “Native Art” for 25 years and counting.

A herd of buffalo are barreling right for you. . . but wait, are they being chased by UFOs? Flying saucers hover in the open sky above over these iconic creatures, at once gentle and imposing.

So sets the scene of Frank Buffalo Hyde’s new mural “Buffalo Fields Forever” at Meow Wolf Santa Fe’s House of Eternal Return. Hyde is a Santa Fe native and a member of the Onondaga Beaver Clan. He’s currently based in Syracuse, New York, but keeps strong ties to Santa Fe including an upcoming solo show at the Railyard and a family art studio, Studio Central.

Hyde is represented in Utah and California, and has shown his work through numerous exhibitions across the country and in Europe. His work is held in the permanent collections of the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian, the Wheelwright Museum of the American Indian, and the Institute of American Indian Arts Museum, to name a few.

A portrait of the artist Frank Buffalo Hyde by his in-process new mural at Meow Wolf. Photo by Kate Russell

This mural emerged as the most recent iteration of Hyde’s “Buffalo Fields” series, one he started over 20 years ago with allegorical paintings depicting buffalo as witnesses to North America’s past, present, and future.

“These paintings could take place 500 years in the past or 500 years in the future because, y’know, ‘alien technology,’” says Hyde, a sci-fan, “and the buffaloes were here for a long time anyway. And it’s also a statement about the land. It’s going to be here long after we’re gone.”

Hyde revisited this formative series with some new key elements. “The updated version of the buffalo field had the buffaloes running out towards the viewer and being chased by, initially, helicopters. It was a statement about farming buffalo meat, and then it turned into UFOs chasing them.”

Frank Buffalo Hyde's new mural at Meow Wolf revisits his Buffalo Fields series – this time with some otherworldly invaders. Photo by Kate Russell.

Hyde’s work, visually striking, socially relevant – is a conversation starter.

“I think it’s important to make work that kind of lets people slow down and stand in front of it,” says Hyde, “. . and say, ‘Hey, have you seen this work? It’s kind of cool. What do you think?’ So, as long as I’m creating a conversation of any sort — even if it’s like the worst stuff you’ve ever seen, or it’s awesome, y’know, it’s still conversation and it’s something that we’re kind of — it’s falling by the wayside in the technology-based world that we live in.”

"Close Encounters of the Selfie Stick Kind," mixed media on canvas. From Hyde's solo exhibition "I-Witness Culture" at the Museum of Indian Arts and Culture, 2016. Photo courtesy of the artist.

The more Hyde speaks the more he reveals a soul grappling to come to terms with his instincts for conversation and the modern siloing influences of technology. Hyde often decries the environments that pop culture and science-fiction create— hovering UFOs, so to speak — that inspire his work, an irony that’s not lost on Hyde. While he recognizes that a segment of his audience will often qualify his work as “Native American,” he’s quick to point out his efforts in steering conversations surrounding indigenous art to become conversations about art for its own sake.

Hyde explains, “If you’re familiar with my work, it’s not exactly mainstream. . .

"Bison Selfie," mixed media on canvas, 2016. Photo courtesy of the artist.

Hyde explains, “If you’re familiar with my work, it’s not exactly mainstream. . . It’s not the stuff that people come here to the southwest looking for. My sights have always been set on the national/international conversation about contemporary art and what that means for Native Americans or what it doesn’t mean for Native Americans.”

“One of my spiels lately is Cy Twombly doesn’t have to answer questions about his scribbles, about if those are traditional or contemporary scribbles, or if those scribbles came from his grandfather. . . those are questions that indigenous artists don’t have to answer. I’m trying to create a space where we have those conversations, and then the artists coming after us don’t have to answer those questions and they can scribble.”

Frank Buffalo Hyde and his daughter Néepa Wötahöman Hyde take a break from painting Hyde'a 14-foot-high mural at Meow Wolf. Photo by Kate Russell

Frank Buffalo Hyde’s painting career has spanned roughly 25 years and counting, but growing up as a teenager in Syracuse, the last thing he wanted to be was an artist.

“I was like, we already have too many artists in our family. My plan was to become a rock star and I was pretty successful at it in Syracuse. We had a high school band on the reservation, and we went from open mic night to headlining gigs and opening for traveling national acts.”

After graduating from high school, Hyde returned to his Santa Fe birthplace to pursue writing at the Institute of American Indian Arts. A self-proclaimed “IAIA baby” — his father taught there; his mother, uncle, and sisters attended; his wife also taught and attended — Hyde credits the college for bringing Native Americans from different parts of the country together who otherwise might not have met.

“It’s unlike any other school in the world and has produced many of the well-known artists that we know today. . . It’s definitely one of the lighthouses of the art scene in Santa Fe.”

"Meta Painting - Cheeseburger," mixed media on canvas, 2017. Photo courtesy of the artist.
"Buffalo Dancers Study," acrylic on canvas, from "I-Witness Culture," Hyde's solo exhibition at the Museum of Indian Arts and Culture, 2017.

While a student at IAIA, Hyde’s focus was indeed supposed to be writing, but a painting elective pulled him back towards the visual arts and an instinctive ability that he could no longer resist. Of course, there was a steep learning curve that Hyde didn’t initially anticipate.

“I thought my initial paintings were, like, genius, but looking back at the slides now they were just awful. I couldn’t believe I thought they were so great. Based on those paintings, I thought I could have a career, but then I see them now, and I’m like, oh. . . Y’know, it’s a learning process.”

But, Hyde has had a career, an important one, that’s ongoing and helps to develop the next generation, including his 8-year-old daughter, Néepa, who sits on the floor drawing during her father’s interview. Hyde runs a family studio called Studio Central. It’s not a traditional gallery, but they do show work. It’s a studio space open to the public when the artists are working.

“We kind of want to demystify the art-making process,” says Hyde. “I share the studio with my wife and daughter. My wife Courtney M. Leonard; my daughter Néepa Wötahöman Hyde. She’s also an artist, and she’s a full-fledged member of Studio Central and has been since we opened.”

Frank Buffalo Hyde and his daughter Néepa Wötahöman Hyde take a selfie. Photo by Kate Russell

Perhaps more than most, Hyde recognizes the difficulty of deciding whether to embrace or escape our most permanent influences: our individual histories, the time into which we’re born, and our future legacies.

Yet, Hyde’s acceptance of this chaotic, elemental combination is how he’s able to exist — nonlinearly — as an artist within his own past, present, and future: The Native American. The Rock Star. The Painter.

“I’ve been doing this for around 25 years now and I’ve been included and excluded from any number of projects — locally, nationally, internationally — included because of my heritage, excluded because of my heritage, and the way that I have come to look at it is. . . I think of it in terms of a song. We’re all playing this song and we’re invited to either be on the track or play live. . . This contribution is my guitar solo, it’s my few bars that I’m spitting to the song that’s the Santa Fe art community and Meow Wolf as it expands across the universe.”

Frank Buffalo Hyde putting some finishing touches on his new blacklight reactive mural at Meow Wolf. Photo by Kate Russell

Yet, he also recognizes the impact of his contributions to Meow Wolf in a time where the company’s rapid growth has stirred up criticism regarding diversity and representation.

To this point, Hyde says, “I look at it a few different ways. Definitely, a lot of my friends work here that I’ve known for a long time. It’s definitely bringing revenue to the community, in that respect. I think, initially, there was [sic], sort of, broad statements about representing the Santa Fe art community, which didn’t necessarily include everybody in the Santa Fe art community. So, I think recently, with the efforts to sort of expand what that is in their scope, is a good thing.”

Hyde is aware of the weight his voice carries throughout the Santa Fe art community. “I’ve shown in every coffee shop and library between here and Syracuse,” Hyde says. “So I think I’ve got a pretty good idea of what the Santa Fe art scene — air quotes — and community is and has been for the last, y’know, 25 years.”

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