David Bradley has lost count of how many Route 66 ball caps he owns. His favorite is a black one he bought at a souvenir shop on the Turquoise Trail, where he lived for many years. It reminds him of striking out on his own as a kid, hitchhiking his way across the country. Of marveling at the desert landscapes along “that long, straight stretch of road.” The cap is kitschy—he knows it is—but it means something to him. Isn’t that what souvenirs are for?
Bradley may be a serious artist, but he won’t be told how to be taken seriously. For decades, while his Native art peers have been busy scrubbing their work of anything that smacks of cliché, he’s made his name doing the opposite. He takes shunned signifiers like coyotes or chieftains in head- dresses and stuffs them into zany, almost cartoonish canvases alongside other icons he holds dear: Godzilla and Zozobra, Tonto and the Lone Ranger, Alfred Stieglitz and Georgia O’Keeffe. He’s even painted souvenir shops, transforming them into fine art.
“He works a lot with stereotypes,” says Valerie Verzuh, a curator at the Museum of Indian Arts and Culture, in Santa Fe, which on February 15 opens Indian Country, Bradley’s sixth one-man museum exhibition. “He has people and motifs he uses over and over again. Mona Lisa comes in. Laurel and Hardy. He brings them into Indian Country.”
It’s a nonspecific place you might see on a postcard along the Mother Road, but like most things related to Bradley’s art, the words are layered with meaning—about his life, about millions of lives like his. “Indian Country,” he wrote in a recent e-mail, “is sort of a state of mind.”
Bradley was born in Eureka, California, in 1954, and grew up in Minnesota. Taken away from his Chippewa mother at an early age by Anglo child welfare organizations, he became what he calls a “restless Native,” raised apart from his tribal roots but still unmistakably Indian in a place where race relations were tense. Along with an early knack for art and music, Bradley was a talented long-distance runner, but officials at his high school wouldn’t let him participate in sports unless he cut his hair, a policy he saw as racist. When his adoptive parents divorced, a teenage Bradley moved by himself to the Twin Cities and got involved with the activist American Indian Movement.
Bradley’s interest in art deepened along with his interest in ethnic identity. While attending college in St. Paul, he sought out and befriended the artist George Morrison. Bradley was excited by the idea that a fellow Chippewa could make a living from painting, as Morrison had in New York as part of the Abstract Expressionist movement. Showing more interest in developing his own talents, he hitchhiked to Tucson and enrolled for a semester at the University of Arizona to study art. He soon got restless again, however, and left to join the Peace Corps.
During his two years in Latin America, encounters with Haitian folk painting and the arts and crafts of the rural Maya made a lasting impression, but it was a chance meeting with a pair of New Mexican tourists in Guatemala that changed the course of Bradley’s life. The couple “told me about this superstar Indian artist whose career was taking off like a rocket in Santa Fe,” Bradley said in an e-mail. In fact, Fritz Scholder was already an established name, but this was news to Bradley. He was inspired. Before leaving the Peace Corps in 1977, he was accepted to the Institute of American Indian Arts, arriving in Santa Fe that summer in time to witness his first Indian Market.
“David seemed to skip ‘rising star’ and ‘emerging artist’ to go straight from student to star in the early 1980s,” the Native American rights advocate Suzan Shown Harjo recalls in an introduction to Restless Native: The Art of David Bradley (2013). It wasn’t long before Bradley was part of the Southwestern art boom, showing alongside the likes of Scholder at the Elaine Horwitch galleries in Santa Fe, Scottsdale, and Palm Springs. His playful depictions of the Santa Fe art scene and Native renditions of iconic images like Grant Wood’s American Gothic and Henri Rousseau’s Sleeping Gypsy made him famous, but political undercurrents kept tugging Bradley in less commercial directions. He worked in bronze sculpture, printmaking, and mixed media, taking on difficult subjects like the massacre of the Sioux at Wounded Knee. Verzuh says that while culling from four decades’ worth of work for the MIAC exhibition, she began to wonder whether Bradley’s alternate for- mats were intended to speak more directly to a Native audience. “To me, these mixed- media paintings are so much more biting.”
Peter Stoessel, who’s sold Bradley’s work at Santa Fe’s Blue Rain Gallery since 2009 and considers him a friend, says that when they first met, “he was kind of the angry Indian. But the things he was standing up for were very valid.” Bradley’s highest-profile political battle came in the late eighties, when the appetite for Southwestern art attracted what he called “pseudo-Indians,” artists without a documented tribal affiliation who marketed their work as Native American. He saw them as “frauds who made their living by stealing opportunities that were set aside for Indian people,” and got involved in a grassroots push for legislation that would let tribes determine who could and couldn’t claim to be a Native artist.
Tensions over the issue ran high. When, 10 days before the 1988 Indian Market, the Santa Fe Reporter ran Bradley’s photo on the cover under the headline “Group Assails Indian Art ‘Fakes,’” he recalled, “it was like a bomb dropped in the middle of the Santa Fe Plaza.”
In 1990, after an acrimonious debate, Congress passed a beefed-up version of the Indian Arts and Crafts Act, and New Mexico soon followed with a similar law. Though Bradley’s side had won, he felt that lingering bad blood with certain artists and dealers left him “blacklisted” for decades afterwards. “The Indian art world can be a very nasty place,” he wrote.
Yet if the fallout hurt his career, these days you’d hardly know it. “There’s a lot of artists who say some radical stuff and they get in trouble and [tick] people off, but if they’re good at what they do, they’ll be okay,” Stoessel says. Bradley, he concluded, is good at what he does. “I wouldn’t be surprised if 50 years from now, people are going, ‘This guy was a genius. He had something going on here.’”
A few years ago, Bradley started to notice something strange in his voice. “I am a trained musician and I could hear slight slurring of my speech long before anyone else could hear it,” he wrote. He began to feel fatigued. He lost weight—too much, too fast. His muscles twitched inexplicably. In August 2011, while his friends and colleagues were at Indian Market, Bradley was down the road at Santa Fe Indian Hospital, trying to explain to a doctor that he felt “like something was stalking me.” Weeks of tests and visits to specialists ensued. Finally, Bradley received a diagnosis: He suffered from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, the neurodegenerative disorder commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. The condition is terminal.
In its early stages, ALS destroys motor neurons associated with speech and swallowing. Breathing becomes difficult, and muscles in the arms and hands wither, leading to a loss of dexterity. “I was a slow painter before but now much more so,” Bradley wrote. “Little by little, my muscle atrophy is stopping me from activities like being a musician or doing artwork.” His paintings have grown simpler, shedding their large casts of characters to focus on a few contemplative symbols. Recently he’s begun experimenting with abstract poured painting, which he finds “fun and relaxing,” spreading wild bursts of oils over canvas. He calls it “sort of an homage to the undefinable quality of death.”
On average, ALS patients survive a little more than three years beyond the onset of the disease. Bradley recently celebrated reaching that milestone. “I have been somewhat lucky so far but I don’t kid myself,” he wrote. In November, he watched his wife, Arlene, and their son, Diego, do a Corn Dance at her native Jemez Pueblo’s Feast Day, where Bradley has become part of the community. Diego is a student at Institute of American Indian Arts, the school that brought his father to New Mexico, to Route 66 and Indian Country.
“In that regard, my life has come full circle,” Bradley wrote. “As the cliché goes, I take it one day at a time,” but he hopes to be able to attend the opening of the MIAC exhibition. “It will be part of my legacy, something that my family and friends can be proud of.”