Monday, January 30, 2012

Collaborating on a Cigar Store Indian

My first job was at a Pittsburgh advertising studio. Another artist there was Paul Rendel, a very talented illustrator who became both a friend and mentor. Paul enjoyed carving wood, and when I said that his front door looked like a really fun project — he had carved a beautiful sun on it — he suggested collaborating on a wood carving.

I had just finished an illustration with a cigar store Indian, so that's the project I proposed. Paul liked the idea, too. The year was 1976, the Bicentennial.

We decided to do three things in preparation:
  • We each read different books on wood carving.
  • We drew our vision of an Indian, independently of each other.
  • And we visited the Smithsonian's collection of folk art.
left, photo by Edward S. Curtis  |  center and right, the Smithsonian Institution
Our drawings are long gone, but Paul's concept was an accurate depiction of a Sioux warrior, while my concept was a more romanticized and traditional cigar store Indian, which as you can see by the Smithsonian figures above (center and right), was purely fictional.

Our final piece, named Kicking Bear,
was a happy compromise.

Here's Kicking Bear in Paul's garage, at an early stage of the carving. Because uncured wood has a tendency to split, we used wood that was at least 80 years old, salvaged from the Queen City Railroad Station in Cumberland, Maryland. Paul tried various glues for the lamination, including marine glue, but settled on Elmer's Glue.

Because Paul had the working space, and because he was the more experienced carver, Paul did the major part of the carving, and I did detail work (always the detail man). When the carving was finished at Paul's house, it moved to my apartment, where I did most of the painting.

Smithsonian Magazine
Kicking Bear was a real person, an Oglala Sioux who was both a warrior and a medicine man, and sometimes called a prophet. He took part in the battle known as Custer's Last Stand, and shortly thereafter made a pictograph of the entire battle. Above is a detail. (Kicking Bear became a friend of Frederick Remington, and it's believed that Remington had asked him to do the drawing.)

The skirt on Kicking Bear — the statue — faithfully displays that rendering. Above, and at the front of the skirt, are chiefs and medicine men, the battle high command. Below, Custer is depicted alone and unscalped. Kicking Bear explained that the outlines superimposed over the dead cavalrymen were their souls rising.

Around his neck, Kicking Bear wears a bear claw necklace from which is suspended a medal from President Grant. The carved and painted medal replicates an actual one that states, "Liberty Justice and Equality," which of course was a broken promise, one of many.

While Kicking Bear offers a pipe (presumably a peace pipe) he holds a tomahawk behind his back. He appears to have one foot upon a stone, but from the rear, the viewer sees a skull.

The figure of Kicking Bear nests into the base, which proclaims on the front that the tobacco is "Mild & Mellow."

The two sides of the base depict a tobacco farm at different seasons. One side shows the crop in full growth, while the other side side shows the tobacco being dried, or "cured." Note that the barn sides open during the curing process.

Pittsburgh Post Gazette
And here we are in a very posed photograph from long ago. Paul Rendel is on the left, and I'm on the right. Needless to say, I didn't actually do any staining in dress slacks!

The carving of Kicking Bear was a year-long project for Paul and me, and Paul's wife endured sawdust in her house for much of that time. A selling price was established for the carving, and I eventually bought Paul's share, though not before Kicking Bear was displayed at several art shows. I later gifted the cigar store Indian to my older brother, at whose home it now resides.


  1. Hello Mark, This is a real tour de force. So many well-researched details create an historic verisimilitude while subtly updating the message of the originals. Perhaps the only detail that visually dates the piece to the 1970's is the carving style of the ironic and telling legend "Mild and Mellow". The quality and detail is unbelievable--I am in awe of painting and drawing skill, and sculpture to me seems to involve black magic.
    --Road to Parnassus

    1. Hello, Parnassus - Thanks for your comments. I have often encouraged art students to collaborate with other artists on projects not directly related to their own field. It's always a form of growth, and more likely than not will in some way relate back to one's own expertise.

  2. Dear Mark, I'm so glad that you also provided detail photographs or I would have missed the wonderful painting of the battle and all of the other very interesting carvings.
    My Father also used Elmer's glue to laminate his large pieces before carving.

    1. Dear Gina, It sounds as though your father may have gone through the same process of elimination that Paul and I did. I remember that Paul used one particular marine glue that had a good reputation, and later dropped the laminated wood to test it. The laminated pieces fell apart like barrel staves, but that didn't happen with Elmer's!

  3. What a wonderful adventure! You talented fellows created a handsome and detailed statue. That's some dedication--a year's work. Wow!

    Thanks for inspiring and teaching us Mark. I enjoyed learning about Kicking Bear. So glad you shared these photos with us.

    1. Hello, Linda - Of course when I say "a year's work," I mostly mean by that a year of weekend afternoons. In terms of hours, I'm no longer sure how long the project actually took.

  4. Dear Mark - what a wonderful collaboration, and so important that you have documented the full story. This will undoubtedly become a family heirloom, and its history is paramount to its future.
    I love the little scenes you have painted of the tobacco leaves growing and then drying in stooks (I presume). They remind me of charming American Folk Art paintings.

    1. Dear Rosemary,

      I'm glad you enjoy my views of the tobacco farm, and I was indeed shooting for the look of American folk art as I was painting it. I remember that I also looked at the work of Paul Davis for reference; I did a posting on him earlier:

  5. Brilliant! I had no idea of the scale until I saw that final photo. I remember Kicking Bear from reading Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee. My own stab at wood carving was a little more embarrassing. I fancied myself as some sort of Sioux shaman from the suburbs of Dublin, and carved a crow rattle out of a block of wood. The memory is a lot better than the artwork turned out.

    1. Thanks, Alan! Paul and I did the carving on the centennial of the Battle of Little Bighorn, and I think the research was as much fun as any other part of the project. As I'm sure you know from your own work, such creative projects lead down many diverse paths and open up just as many new vistas for exploration!

  6. Hi Mark,
    French being my first language, it takes me much longer to express myself properly in English so I will use the word 'awesome' to express what I feel about this post. No wonder you give us so much Mark, it's because you are so gifted, you can afford to be so generous.

    1. Dear Anyes - Thank you so much for this lovely comment. It has brightened my day and my spirits.

  7. Wow, I'm impressed, Mark. What a remarkable collaboration. It really does have an 'authentic' kind of 'antique' look.

    By the by, I've always been fascinated by that detailed painting of Custer's Last Stand. It is an amazing relic.

    1. One of the interesting things about the painting is that Kicking Bear represented several Indian chiefs who weren't at the actual battle. They played parts behind the scene, and Kicking Bear thought that merited reprsentation.