I received a commission from a client to do a portrait drawing of Sitting Bull in Charcoal. Sitting Bull is of course one of the most famous and well known chiefs of the Lakota, whose portrait I had seen many times, so I had the utmost confidence and thought that it would be a fairly easy portrait, but little did I know. Being that Sitting Bull was such a powerful figure in history and great warrior in such battles as the Battle of Little Big Horn, I felt that it was important to draw his portrait life-size to convey those feelings to my client and those that might see him.
When I start a portrait I begin with the eyes, because I feel that the eyes anchor a portrait and the feel of the piece, so when starting the Sitting Bull’s portrait I did just that. When I start drawing the eyes, I focus on what I see, drawing what I see, I’m not really focused on the individual, as I very rarely know them beyond their historical importance, so I’m focused drawing everything, proportions, shadows, movement and shape exactly as I see it so that the portrait comes to life. It is this exactness that started the spiritual encounter between Sitting Bull and I.
As the eyes of Sitting Bull came to life in front of me, I found myself staring into more than just the eyes of a drawing. Since I decided to draw his portrait without any turn or profile, I found his eyes looking directly into mine every morning that I sat down to work. Strangely enough I began to find myself frustrated with the drawing, as if I didn’t know how to move forward with his portrait, where to go with it beyond his eyes, which I had finished at this point. Every time I looked into his eyes I would become transfixed, not looking away and I began to feel a force in the room, something spiritual, powerful and disagreeable. It got to the point that I couldn’t work on his portrait, so I just walked away and worked on other pieces, as I couldn’t figure out what was happening.
I have a friend that is full blooded Lakota, so I sent her a message telling her what was happening and her reply surprised me, she said, “sit down and talk to him, have a conversation with him because he’s obviously trying to tell you something.” I’ve always felt the spirits of Native Americans in the room with me when I sculpt or draw while listening to tribal music, powwow music and native flute, but I’ve never gone to the extent to have a conversation with any of them, so I honestly didn’t know how to go about sitting in front of a drawing and have a conversation with it, but I did.
The next morning I sat down in front of the portrait of Sitting Bull, feeling kind of silly and uncomfortable, but I looked in his eyes and asked him, “What do you want, what are you trying to tell me?” I sat looking at him, as if he was going to speak to me, but nothing came of course, but I started to feel his spirit again. I started to look at his picture of him that I was using as reference and looking into his eyes and I felt force between us as if he was fighting me, disagreeing with me, wanting something else from me other than what I was attempting. The feeling grew the longer I sat in front of him, so I walked away once again, but instead of working on another piece, I began to read the entire history of Sitting Bull to more understand the man I was trying to portray that was having an argument with me.
After reading his entire history I realized the man in the black and white photo was more than the docile man that was portrayed. In the black and white photos taken of him, he was posed, possibly told by the photographer how to sit, what to wear and how to turn and hold his head. Sitting Bull always held his head high and the last thing he did is what he was told to do, but that is what I saw in the photo, a powerful warrior, leader and prideful man that couldn’t show that in front of the lens of camera and nor did the photographer know how to portray it.
So, there it was, I figured out what he was trying to tell me, don’t just draw me as he just took my picture, but show the intensity that made a great warrior and leader of the Lakota. From that point forward it was as if the charcoal danced across the paper as if I had new known him personally, drew his wrinkles as if I had seen them daily and knew them by heart, the shape of his nose shaped by the sun, the outline of his jaw and chin flowed on the paper as the shadows were cast without effort.
Without realizing I had finished the portrait, I sat there practically breathless, looking into his eyes again, I saw the intensity and power that Sitting Bull wanted me to portray. The intense spiritual feeling that filled my studio had gone, I got chill bumps on my arms and a spiritual feeling of approval overcame me. I knew then that Sitting Bull approved what I had done. I haven’t felt his presence since.