Bringing a new twist to one of the great myths of the Old West, Seattle artist Thom Ross is coming to Sun Valley for the Fourth of July. Ross has shown his work on the walls of the Kneeland Gallery in Ketchum for the past decade, but this time he is touring with 200 plywood soldiers and Indians depicting the Battle of the Little Bighorn, also known as "Custer's Last Stand."
The outdoor project will be installed in Sun Valley's Festival Meadow on Sun Valley Road from June 30 to July 4. Visitors will be welcome to walk through the exhibit to view two-dimensional historical figures up close, letting their imaginations of the events of that fateful day in 1876 run wild.
"You can walk around it, stand next to Gen. Custer and Crazy Horse," Ross said in an interview from his Seattle home. The life-sized exhibit is a moment frozen in time, before a drop of blood has been spilled.
The re-enactment celebrates a day that has lived on in Ross' mind since childhood. Western lore got a grip on Ross when he first learned about the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, another fascination of his and the subject of his first book.
As a painter, Ross is to the history of the West what fireworks are to Independence Day in Hailey—explosive and vibrant. His style is modern and abstract. He capitalizes on the colors, shapes and textures offered by famous historical events, but like fireworks he is focused on the message of the day. Because the theme of this year's Fourth of July parade in Hailey is "Honoring the troops: Past, Present and Future," Ross should feel right at home.
Ross is specifically drawn to the story that is obscured by the history in this particular period when the technological society of Europe clashed with native populations. "The focus of my investigation deals with the story behind these guys," Ross said, explaining that his passion for mythology of the West is also about understanding the value of it.
His thesis is that there is a basic human need for heroes and sometimes people who may have otherwise been minor historical figures are elevated to a new level of importance because they die in a tragic way, becoming martyrs. He believes the stories of the West are rich fodder because they have an emotional truth and fill the need for heroes.
When the myths are dissected, some of the history is ugly, but despite stumbles in U.S. history, like slavery, Ross is ultimately proud to be an American and attached to the positive value of the myths. "We kill each other for it. But, we do work it out in the end."
In an effort to bring out the man behind Custer, the myth, Ross literally paints his figures larger than life.
Perched on their horses, some of the characters to be assembled on Sun Valley Road are 15 feet tall. "Ross started off more cartoonish and rudimentary," said Kneeland Gallery Director Carey Molter. "Now, there is more detail. His style has matured. It is still whimsical but historically appropriate and accurate."
Ross grew up drawing pictures of famous Western stories and as he grew his understanding deepened. They are either tragedies or heroic tales, depending on one's perspective. But, for Ross the myth behind the man is all about perspective.
On the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Little Big Horn, June 25, 1976, Ross went to the historic battleground.
"I was a snot-nosed, arrogant (jerk)," he said. "I dug Custer and I knew the truth."
That day he saw Indians desecrating the monument.
"There were about 800 of them. I was scared to death, but it was great because it was radical," Ross said. "Then the white guys got up there and were weeping and putting wreaths up."
Ross said he spent five days at the battlefield and at one point a cold wind blew up and his hands turned purple.
"I knew right (then) the great mystery was trying to tell me something. All of a sudden I realized I knew nothing," he said.
A reason behind Ross's decision to make this installation for the seemingly random 129th anniversary is that he was upset by the reference to Custer as a murderer in the recent film "The Last Samurai."
"The impression is that Custer was a murderer because he killed all those Indians," Ross said, arguing that Custer killed more white men in the Civil War than he killed Indians. Ross claims that Custer is a scapegoat for a dark period of American history, a vehicle to assuage a nation's collective guilt about the treatment of American Indians.
"Custer was dead. This is just a fight that went haywire ... We're the ones who elevate him to hero and then cut him down. The facts show that Custer had (guts). But, he lost the battle."
Ross says Custer's story is the cult of the Last Stand, a sacrificial ritual people know around the world. For Ross the value of the story is ultimately that Custer had failings like any other human being. The dichotomy of Custer is that he not only fought Indians, but he also risked his life to fight for his country, the emancipation of slaves and the preservation of the Union.
"If he was a racist, he paid for it. He died for it," Ross said.
In Ross's view, Western lore catches the American psyche in all walks of life, but through an effect of martyrdom the stories can become myopic, often straining the facts.
How people interpret the history that created Western myths can send this idiosyncratic peddler of Western lore into an outright frenzy. It's not that he has a problem with differences of opinion. He'll defend a person's right to his viewpoint like any good patriot. Rather, he is more concerned that people sink lazily into convenient interpretations that have been placed in their laps.
Some of Ross's early figures did not have faces. As his understanding of history west of the Mississippi has deepened, he has added features. Expressions on the faces of his characters in the battle installation are vivid, to say the least.
Ross combines Western history with Western mythology to bring something new to Western art. His desire to educate and his love for the stories empowers his often entertaining depictions of the Old West. He tackles the greatest myths by adding new twists and thought-provoking angles—depicting a gunslinger in a standoff with a skunk and Indians having a good time playing ping-pong or golf, rather than just sitting somber on a horse or tending a campfire. Historical research and photographs, not just figments of his imagination, back up the images, Molter said.
Ross's task with the Custer's Last Stand is to battle against the two-dimensional stick figures Western art has made of Western icons and spruce them up again as festooned plywood action figures.
"When people paint Western (scenes) they can't get away from this attention to some sort of historical accuracy," Ross said. "The stoic Indian with a frown on his face. They eventually become a cliché ... This is why the art world doesn't take the Western art world seriously. What's important is what happened on that day in 1876. I'm trying to set the bar higher."