February 12, 2012

Michael Horse and the Revival of Ledger Art

Michael Horse at Gathering Tribes

I met Michael Horse at Gathering Tribes, the gallery/cultural center he and his wife, Pennie Opal Plant, operate on Solano Avenue in Albany. The name of the establishment might describe the man himself. Horse embodies contemporary intertribal culture. He tells me that Yaqui, Mescalero Apache, and Zuni blood runs in his veins, along with a drop or two of Hispanic and European. Born in Arizona, he moved to Los Angeles, “the biggest urban Indian community in the U.S.,” when he was ten. There, Navajo, Cheyenne, and Sioux families surrounded him. He participated in the ceremonial dances at intertribal powwows from an early age.

Gathering Tribes, Albany, CA

Not surprisingly, given his network of resources and diverse tribal bonds, Horse turned out to be a polymath, mastering several traditional artistic disciplines. He learned jewelry-making from his uncles. His mother trained him in the flat style of painting promoted by Dorothy Dunn at the Santa Fe Indian School. As a young man, he studied at the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe with the painter Fritz Scholder, the stone sculptor Allen Houser, and the potter-turned-jewelry-maker Charles Loloma. Horse built a successful career as a sculptor and jewelry-maker himself, working the fairs, markets, and Native American arts festivals.

Michael Horse, Counting Coup, 2010.

Then, Horse made a discovery that shifted his orientation as an artist: ledger art. The name itself hints at the history of this art form, which originated in the 1800s. Plains Indians, confined to reservations and deprived of the animal hides that served as supports for traditional painting, continued to make paintings using whatever materials they could find. Discarded sheets from the ledger books in which the white men kept track of their accounts were in abundant supply. These pages served as surfaces on which to preserve traditional stories and record contemporary events.

Moved by the creativity and resourcefulness of his ancestors under such oppressive conditions, Horse undertook to reconceive ledger art as a contemporary genre. He continues to work in silver and stone, but his study of ledger art and output in the genre has made him a leading figure the field of contemporary painting and a source of inspiration for other artists and cultural producers. “I don’t copy,” he clarifies, “or imitate traditional material.” Rather he employs a traditional formal vocabulary to speak about the past in the present tense and shed light on cultural continuities.


Michael Horse, We Are Still Here, 2011

Michael Horse, Buffalo Hunt

He tracks down old documents to use as canvases: maps, marriage certificates, pages from ledgers and hymnals. He outlines his figures in black against this background and fills in the outlined forms with bright planes of color. A rider gallops astride a green horse amidst a herd of buffalo. Warriors charge into battle. Clans gather to celebrate a feast day. The figures are stylized and iconic. The dynamic compositions have an uneasy relationship to the page, as if resisting containment within its  bounds. Man and beast are inscribed against a ground signifying extinction and interment — but they are light, swift, full of vitality. Many of the paintings bear biting titles: We Are Still Here, Don’t Take My Picture, This Land Is Your Land.


In 2010, as artist-in-residence at the M. H. de Young Memorial Museum, Horse explored ledger art and more traditional forms that contribute to the vitality of Native American culture.




Comments (6)

  • Dear Michael Horse
    I am very impressed with your work and inspired from it. I am a Cherokee/Lakota non registered artist. I am 67 retired and devoted to spend my time with my regalia snd paintings. Would love to get to know you and expect any guidance from you. Gary L (Redwing ) Hunt
    Many blessings to you brother

  • It is important that people can get more education on indigenous people. Although beautiful paintings, the story is heartbreaking, yet good when positive results come from these experiences

  • I, have just purchased One of Michael Horse Ledger art On Thomas McConnel l Ledger 304 Dated !895 March 7 Indain hunting buffalo Small Yellow Horse head above Indains head. asking four thousand dollors for.

  • Linda Isaac says:

    Since meeting Michael Horse I have been facinated by his ledger art; I have never seen anything like it and the powerful stories they tell. It made me want to learn more about the history of Native American art. Gathering Tribes is a real jewel for the bay area with such a wonderful representation of so many cultures. Michael & Penny are such loving, amazing people. Thank you for sharing this with us.

  • This is a very relevant and perceptive piece about one of the most relevant and talented Native American artists in the Bay Area. Michael Horse is true and accessible when he talks about his work and its relationship to history. Yet he is an original. Thank you for covering his work.

  • Fascinating, thanks for this Tirza. One of my students at CCA is part Native American and we often talk about these influences at play in her sculptural/painting works, in particular her relationship to the land.

See all responses (6)
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