Deer, coyote, rabbits and other prairie animals inhabit the artwork of Julie Buffalohead. The St. Paul artist, known as a painter/drawer, creates whimsical scenes with animals.
“I take the oral traditions and animal characters in the stories, drawing from my Native American heritage, and make my own stories and narratives,” says Buffalohead, who is an enrolled member of the Ponca tribe of Oklahoma.
Although whimsical in appearance, the animals in her artwork appear often as metaphors and speak as anthropomorphic creatures – sometimes more human, sometimes more animal. “They’re all telling stories and usually those stories are centered around me – things going on in my life or my thoughts about things going on in the Native community.”
Buffalohead is attracted to canine figures, such as the coyote, which is considered a trickster figure, she says. “They are seen as characters that are reflective of the duality of nature – you’re greedy but at the same time you’re generous, you’re gluttonous but at the same you’re giving. I think what the native narratives are trying to say is that these are characters that reflect what it means to be a human being – that you’re not good or evil, that you are both.
“Sometimes it’s a way of doing a self-portrait without doing a self-portrait. I’ve seen the coyote as a figure as a substitute for myself, reflecting my own actions or feelings,” she says.
Another trickster figure that appears often in Buffalohead’s artwork is the crow, known for causing mayhem and problems. “They are shape-shifters. They can be a little destructive, but at the same time, through their behaviors great things happen,” she says. “It’s a very ironic figure to have in our stories. I tend to use them a lot in my work.”
As a member of the deer clan in her tribe, she often features deer in her compositions.
Choosing to be an artist
Growing up in St. Louis Park, Buffalohead gravitated towards art classes in junior high and high school. Upon graduation, it seemed a natural choice for her to go to art school at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design
Humor, irony and motherhood
When her daughter was born eight years ago, Buffalohead found that her artwork shifted – from large oil paintings to smaller, more intimate drawings; away from the toxicity and chemicals of her former materials to simpler tools.
“Becoming a mother was an eye opener to the world,” she says. The artwork on this month’s cover, “Be Careful What You Wish For,” was made when her daughter was young. “The piece is about being a mother – something I know that I wanted in my life – but no matter how much you think you are prepared for it, the reality is much, much different,” Buffalohead says.
“I don’t know if every mother goes through the positive and negative feelings you have as a first-time mom, and the difficult time of dealing with the fact that you have these negative feelings. … Feelings like being stuck, like things aren’t working out right, like you don’t have a life. But, you chose to become a mother, it’s what you wanted. It’s kind of a double-edged sword. It’s a difficult thing to deal with. Everyone does it in her own way.”
These are the stories – these personal narratives – that get transformed into her artwork. “My intent is to do playful, whimsical kinds of stories or narratives. It’s a way to draw people in,” Buffalohead says. “I got these little feelings in my life and I weave them into these stories. That’s essentially what raising a child is like – a host of feelings and they draw you in.”