(What about Bob? To learn more about the artist, go to Artist with an American Heart)
Nestled in the center of the sleepy town of Hulett, Wyo., resides western artist Bob Coronato’s Rogues Gallery from which a painting of the famed American Indian Movement activist, Russell Means, was selected to reside alongside the nation’s greatest artists at The Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C.
Means (1939-2012) was a political activist, actor, writer, musician, and Oglala Lakota member who dedicated his life to fighting for the rights of American Indians. He became a prominent member of the American Indian Movement (AIM) after joining the organization in 1968, was active in international issues of indigenous peoples, including working with groups in Central and South America, and the United Nations, and helped organize notable events that attracted national and international media coverage.
In 1993, Coronato opened a studio/museum with his friend and fellow artist, Tom Waugh, who spoke of Russell Means, inspiring Coronato to embark upon a journey that would forever shape his artistic career.
Waugh was married to a Sioux woman, Coronato said, when Waugh was the chief of police in Hot Springs during the rise of AIM, infusing him with valuable insight into both sides of the conflicts and protests. Coronato said Waugh was the first law enforcement on the scene of the murder of a federal agent during one of the standoffs between law enforcement and AIM.
“So, he was always talking about the American Indian Movement, and I was always painting modern ranching, cowboying, and stuff in the area,” Coronato said.
Occasionally, the artist said, he would do paintings of the Crow Agency and Pine Ridge reservations, and during a conversation with Waugh, he suggested Coronato paint Means, saying, “He’s the most famous American Indian since Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse.”
The initial spark of inspiration stoked the flames of Coronato’s continued interest in the topic, prompting him to learn more about Means and the dramatic chapter in the history of the West.
AIM’s armed siege of Wounded Knee in 1973 is one section of Means’ history that particularly inspired Coronato. The artist said Means and several hundred others fought the U.S. government in an armed standoff, prepared to die as free people, just as their ancestors had.
“The firsthand resource was inspiring to me, and he (Waugh) encouraged me to follow my heart, research the subject, and paint about that time,” Coronato said.
As he traveled with Waugh throughout the Black Hills, Coronato met the local people and heard firsthand stories of those involved in the events of the 70s and AIM and felt driven to record in paint what he felt deserved a place in the history of the West.
“Russell Means is one of a group of people who really changed the way American Indians are treated,” he said.
Ten years later, in 2009, Coronato finally tracked Means down and shared in an email his desire to paint Means in a traditional manner as an important historical figure.
After several years of trying, Coronato was invited to Means’ Porcupine home on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation and prepared for the portrait.
On the fated day, the pair spent hours talking about politics, reservation life, and Coronato’s vision for the portrait.
“We went back and forth because he wanted to make sure that I was on the right page,” Coronato said.
The artist said he thought for a considerable amount of time about how to make the portrait tell the story of the famed activist. While working on the piece later in his studio, Coronato said he would sit down and paint until the sun came up the next day, sleep, and wake up and do it all over again.
Between an entryway hinged with a jail cell door and a glass case filled with American Indian and frontiersmen artifacts in Coronato’s studio hangs a print of the Means painting, around 7 feet tall, nestled unassuming yet mightily upon a wall in the rear of the 100-year-old building. Wrapped in an upside-down American flag, an international signal of distress, a pair of long dark braids frame the powerful and piercing gaze perched upon Means’ rugged and worn face.
Coronato incorporated a traditional vest, hair pipe choker, paying homage to Means’ roots, and a black T-shirt and silver watch adorn Means’ wrist in an effort to portray him as the late 20th century American Indian that he was.
“I sat in front of it for probably six months straight,” Coronato said. “I knew that it was going to be controversial, and I didn’t want anyone to be able to criticize the art. You can criticize the subject if you want to, but I wanted the painting to be as perfect as possible.”
Because of the portrait’s sheer size, Coronato fashioned a three-foot-tall riser to sit his chair upon to work on the piece of art.
Following the grueling artistic process, Coronato displayed the Means portrait at the Autry Museum in Los Angeles, Calif.
The Autry’s Masters of the American West Fine Art Exhibition and Sale is considered the country’s premier Western art show where each year, more than 75 nationally recognized, contemporary Western artists challenge themselves to create and exhibit their best work.
“It’s almost impossible to get in — you can’t buy your way in,” Coronato said. “I’d shown in a lot of shows, working my way up, and I eventually got the nod to submit.”
After showing the first year, one of the directors in charge of the show called Coronato personally and wanted to dictate what the artist painted for the show. Much to the chagrin of the art exhibitor, Coronato explained that wasn’t his style. The next year, Coronato said he had an inkling that he would be kicked out of the highly respected art show if he didn’t do what the director wanted.
“So, I thought, well, if I’m going to get kicked out, I’m going to get kicked out on my own terms,” Coronato said. “So I showed up with a seven-foot-tall painting of Russell Means ... and I got kicked out.”
The painting was shown at the museum for the length of the show, causing quite the stir.
Coronato said he got many compliments from fellow artists and magazines about the piece.
After the art show commenced, he said he got a call from the museum director who told him that while he couldn’t find fault with Coronato’s brush strokes, he found fault in Coronato’s subject matter.
Reflecting on the situation, Coronato said he now thinks that the director simply didn’t understand history.
“He didn’t know who it was,” he said. “Russell is wrapped in the American flag, and it’s upside down and in distress. So, it’s nothing to do with a protest. It was Russell Means being Russell Means. He’d done that all throughout the 70s, and it sort of became the symbol of the American Indian Movement, and still today in Pine Ridge, the flag is upside down because they’re still in distress.”
Giving him the benefit of the doubt, Coronato said, he thought the director assumed it was an anti-American statement.
For Coronato, it was a highlight of his life and pinnacle of his career to meet, befriend, and paint a revolutionary in U.S. history.
“A true icon and leader, Russell Means is a person that history will hold in high regard,” he said.
The painting called Rogues Gallery home for seven years before American photographer Carol Highsmith was traveling and documenting the country and after hearing about Coronato’s gallery, visited Hulett in 2015 and photographed him at his easel.
After suggesting Highsmith check out the Means portrait, she shot pictures of the painting and moved on to the next stop in her tour of the country.
Roughly one year later, Coronato got a call that The Smithsonian Institution was interested in showcasing his painting.
When asked how he felt about the honor of having a piece of his work displayed on a national level, he joked that he thought his career would be all downhill from there.
“Pretty hard to top that,” he said.
Initially, because of the painting’s significance in the Black Hills, Coronato said he would have preferred to keep it in his shop, saying that he had people drive halfway across the country to see it.
After pondering the idea, the artist decided that his aging gallery was a potential fire hazard and wanted the painting to be in a location where it could be protected and preserved.
So off Coronato went, personally driving the painting the nearly 2,000-mile distance last October to ensure it safely landed at its new home.
“I didn’t even want to take a chance shipping it,” Coronato laughed.
As a reward to himself, Coronato said he bought himself a 1930 Model A Ford in Virginia Beach, Va.
“So I thought, OK, I’ll go to The Smithsonian, drop the painting off, drop down to Virginia Beach, get the car, and then drive back,” he said. “But, I hit every thunderstorm between Rapid City and Washington, D.C.”
The difficult driving conditions slowed his trip, and he arrived at 5 p.m. on a Friday afternoon.
“So, of course, they’re (museum staff) not going to wait around for it, and I didn’t want to sit there and twiddle my thumbs in Washington for two days,” he said.
So, he called a friend in Virginia Beach and asked what he thought of Coronato swinging down, picking up the car, and together bringing the car and the painting back to Washington.
After measuring the car to verify both the vehicle and the painting would fit in the trailer Coronato was pulling for the transport, there was barely three-quarters of an inch between the painting, the trailer’s walls, and the car.
“So we decided, OK, lets take a chance,” he said.
Coronato said he drove down to Virginia Beach, loaded the painting in the trailer, and drove the car in behind it
“We literally had about three-quarters of an inch on either side,” he said.
Off the pair went, headed toward the nation’s capital, car and painting in tow.
When they arrived to deliver the painting, Coronato said, the gallery’s staff said, “We weren’t expecting a car.”
With the museum staff looking on, the artist crawled underneath the car to push the paining out, which, Coronato said, proved to be cringe-worthy for the gallery’s conservators.
The conservators, he said, were used to features showing up in archival conditioned packaging.
“And a couple of guys from Wyoming in cowboy boots and hats were pushing this painting out,” he laughed. “I’m sure that story is still circulating around the coffee table.”
As for Means, Coronato said, he loved the portrait and even tweeted about it before his 2012 death.
The method of creating the painting took a toll on the artist.
“When you’re working on a painting like this, lets say you start the face, you can’t stop until you’re done because if you stop, then eventually you’ll be able to see where you stopped and started,” he said. “You might not get the colors just right, or the next day you might change your mood and all of a sudden, it looks different. So, when I started an area, I had to completely finish that area before I went to bed. If that took two days, you’re locked in for two days.”
After completing the Means painting, Coronato said he wanted to do something that was less strenuous and began doing rodeo posters instead of painting portraits.
“That’s what I’ve been doing for the last nine years,” he said.
The museum, Coronato said, would hold an unveiling reception at a date to be determined.
Coronato considers the Means portrait a once-in-a-lifetime piece of work.
“I’m never going to ever get a chance to do something like that again,” Coronato said. “I don’t think I have it in me to sit that long ever again in front of a painting, so when I say my career is over, it pretty much is.”