I was so excited when Thom Ross agreed to this interview, and not just because he’s technically fluent, imaginative and exact.
Not just because his colors are stirring and the figures are drama in action (like the painting above, depicting The Gunfight at the OK Corral). You can see them move!
I was excited because ideas propel Thom’s art.
What you see means something.
He is interpreting Western legend, explaining its higher meanings and defending it.
And he’s the only artist who has ever created 200 full-sized figures depicting the Seventh Cavalry and the Sioux and Cheyenne fighting at the Little Big Horn–and in 2005 the figures were actually erected on the battleground.
Thom was born in 1952 and raised in Sausalito, California. He now lives in Santa Fe and owns an art gallery.
Thom explains his fascination with the West as “heavily influenced by all the westerns produced back then on TV and in the movies.”
“When I was young I thought all that stuff was happening RIGHT NOW…gunfights and massacres and hangings and I was missing out on it all!
“So I thought I was living in the EAST when, in fact, you can’t get farther WEST then where I was growing up!”
Q. Why did you volunteer to create the cutouts for the Little Big Horn battlefield?
A. Custer’s Last Stand – The event itself has moved from historical fact into that realm of mythic legend, sure proof that it IS more than it was.
I had that youthful arrogance when I drove to the battlefield for the 100th anniversary of the fight (June, 1976.) I KNEW the real truth and I KNEW what really happened (that kind of arrogance!)
Well, what happened to me (and the four friends I was with) was a cosmic experience not of this world.
It happened on the afternoon of the battle date (June 25, 1976) as we stood atop Last Stand Hill. It lasted 20 minutes and when it was over I knew that I had moved into a whole new realm of reality, and a reality NOT of this world.
I realized that although I was a college grad, the simple fact was that I knew absolutely NOTHING.
The profundity of this experience altered the entire way I now view both worlds that I live in.
My mind was blown and, in that manner, set free…free from convention and free from dogma etc. (hence my hatred of traditional western art: I’ve seen it ALL before and it does not teach me anything I don’t already know.)
So when I did my huge “Custer” installation it was to repay those men and women, both troopers and warriors who died that June day long ago so that I could be taught the lesson I needed to learn.
I owed it to them ALL..to the men who fought there that day and created that great and terrible tale.
Artists ever since paint and repaint to varying degrees of competence that silly fight for 100 years…..ok…..so I say, ‘Well, I want to do some Custer artwork but it has to be different in its venue….anyone can PAINT the damn thing…let’s raise the bar.’
So I do something that NO OTHER ARTIST has ever done or even attempted to do…..and who makes the western art money? The guys who take no chances and whose art work is as boring and blah as you can get.
Q. How did you create the figures?
A. “Custer” was the one that required more work; I had to draw out hundreds of figures on which I based the cut-outs.
Then, with my friend Guy, we spent two years cutting out Custer and 40 of his men along with 160 warriors (including two female warriors, as we know four women rode out to kick some Seventh cavalry BUTT that day!).
We had to sand and prep the surface of the cut-outs. I primed them and then had to paint them. Once the paint dried, I attached all sorts of buttons, pins, feathers, bells, fringe…just all sorts of shit on there and the wilder the better.
To recreate the Indian’s beadwork, I took small tubes of fabric paint and dabbed dot-by-dot-by-dot for THOUSANDS of dots to give the illusion of beadwork.
On nights when I worked late it would get dark.
I had placed upholstery tacks in the eyes of the horses and men to give those orbs a reflective quality. So I’d get set to leave the studio late at night and when I turned off the studio lights, the light from the city would flood the darkened studio and all these eyes would start to glow in the darkness! Fuckin’ freaked me OUT!
I mean all these warriors towering over me had come to life and their eyes were staring right at me! HAHAHAHA!!!
I had to back out of the studio all the while reminding them that I was their “father” and that I loved them and PLEASE don’t drive that hatchet into my skull.
A great sensation…..truly fearful….that’s when I knew I had something happening.
Q. How long were the cutouts on the battlefield?
A. Four days on the battlefield. Seven days in Sun Valley, Idaho. Seven days in Jackson, Wyoming (where they remain stored in a shed, unviewed to this day.)
Q. Did you later sell them?
A. I sold a few…..not enough to pay even for the trip. People had no idea how to deal with them because they weren’t rectangular and sitting in frames.
BUT, when someone DID buy one and have them mounted on a wall in their home they are GREAT!
They have a presence that just a standard painting does not have.
Q. You defend Custer. What convinces you he was a good general, despite cultural disdain?
A. I don’t think he was a good commander….he was an excellent subordinate who could carry out orders. On my dream football team he would NOT be the quarterback…he’d be the half-back and we’d win a shit-load of games.
What I defend is both his historical role in the Civil War, which must be taken seriously if you want to know the WHOLE man.
My problem is that THROUGH Custer and his last stand I came to a whole different way of thinking about things OTHER than that silly fight. Custer was the catalyst for this revelation.
So when people toss him aside because THEY think they know so much and they are so god damn right and Custer is SUCH a jerk….they toss out so much more! They cheat themselves out of learning something deeper and more profound.
And it could be Custer or Crockett or Billy the fuckin’ Kid….It could be Jesus or God…..behind ALL these things lies a deeper truth and THAT is what we must learn.
You like Howard Terpning’s work and I don’t mean to pick on him alone….but he doesn’t paint that thing that is so true that you haven’t seen or felt it before….He gives you veneer of art without the meat and bones.
To find that sort of thing requires the person (artist or otherwise) to delve deeper into those ethereal things that they love….it doesn’t HAVE to be George Custer at all.
But when you take that plunge and submerge yourself beyond the surface where we all find comfort THEN you might find out that truth.
This is why when historians argue points about who did what where and why and argue facts and dates etc…..I dig that all…but I pay no attention to it because you are arguing the paint job on the car while I’m trying to find out how it runs.
An artist’s job is to lead his audience to a place they never knew existed either in this world OR within themselves.
I’m at the Little Big Horn and this guy comes up to view the 200 figures. He is an attorney for Vietnam vets in Washington D.C. He asks if I’m the artist who did this thing.
I say “yes”….He leans into me and says, “I’ve seen three great things in my life. The Vietnam War Memorial in DC, the terra cotta soldiers in China….and what you have done here is the third!”
WHOA BABY!!!! I was in great company as far as that guy was concerned!
Q. Critics insist Custer was an Indian hater/killer. What do you think?
A. He was a product of his time, period. I was once asked during a lecture how I would have felt about blacks if I had been born in the South before the Civil War. I was stunned…I said, “I would have kept them as slaves and not worried a thing about that!”
They were startled…..so many of us THINK that we would have the clarity and honesty of contemporary thought which we have today! What a riot!
And THAT shows more to me about how people think then anything else…because they are not being truthful even unto themselves.
With no basis in the historical record on HOW he died (other than the bullet that smacked him in the left breast) it is remarkable that when we re-create Custer in art, he is standing (usually at dead-center) and battling away while the warriors swarm all around him.
He is, indeed, resisting the inevitable death that awaits not only him but ALL of us….and knowing this, he battles on, heroically wielding a saber he didn’t have, his long hair flowing out behind him (which he also didn’t have.)
So Custer represents something MORE than himself. You see this same thing when you watch ROCKY….the bum-boxer who, Custer-like, gets in WAY over his head yet will not concede defeat and, in the end, when he IS defeated, he is the hero.
Same story being told over and over for thousands of years….and in defeat, Rocky does not call out for redemption nor for vengeance, he calls out for love…”ADRIAN!”
Again, whether he meant to or not, Sly Stallone (who wrote Rocky) touched that area, that part of us, that responds to this heroic myth. Thru defeat comes victory.
I had a gal come into my gallery once and she dissed Billy the Kid! YEAH! In my gallery she dissed the Kid….
I asked her to leave NOW.
I don’t believe in God in a religious or traditional sense; but I know enough now to NOT discount Him either.
And it is not so much about whether He exists or not that matters, but I know that if I toss Him out, I toss out a lot more than Him.
So I am a man of faith and I have the faith and if I came to that belief IN that faith via General Custer or Billy the Kid WHO CARES!
The important thing is ARRIVING at that point which we can call “the center” and KNOW that for who I am and what I am ..You need to understand BOTH sides, history AND myth….the yin-yan of life.
Q. Tell me about the Crazy Horse painting.
A. Crazy Horse – would love to have dinner with him just to listen to how he thinks. That mystic quality is so intriguing. But what we have done is to give that kind of mystic power to Indians and Indians ALONE.
I have seen this and I have even HEARD it. Mind-boggling…as if the fact is, that if you aren’t an Indian, well, you have nothing mystical about YOU.
You can see it in that crappy Indian art that white people do….the Indian ALWAYS looks so stern as he gazes off into the distance and we all fawn over that shit.
We, as humans, have that ability to go beyond ourselves and touch the void, I know: I’ve done it many times.
And the fact remains that the Indian was also a prankster, a joker, a story teller, a gambler, a baseball player, a wife-beater, a drunk, and at times a cold-blooded killer (those feathers in his war bonnet were not for tying knots or helping old ladies across the street.)
He was a slave runner and, likewise, a slave long before the white guy got here.
We have endowed this guy with so much unreal crap that the REAL Indian has gotten lost (again, look at all that shitty artwork out there!)
The sad fact is that the Indian of today now believes the white man’s myth and has forgotten that he, too, is just another schmuck trying to get thru this life like the rest of us.
He hates me for things that never happened to him and that I never DID to them. Their clue? I’m white…..we call that racism.
So I would love to talk to Crazy Horse about that kind of stuff and I am sure he would be very disappointed in what has become of his once great people…..
Can you see Crazy Horse standing in front of a fucking casino going, “WTF is this?…who have we become? Embracing the very worst of the white man’s world!!!”
He’d never stop throwing up.
Q. You have painted so many OK Corral canvases. What interests you?
A. The story of the OK Corral seems to unfold in a Shakespearian manner rather then just as a singular burst of violence like the Custer fight. Maybe it’s the urban setting because I come from an urban area, not a rural one.
Where the Custer fight can be seen as a clash of cultures, the OK Corral saga seems to reflect how we as AMERICANS are going to deal with law and outlaw….it seems a simpler thing maybe.
I was with Paul Hutton once and a fellow asked him, “When did the OK Corral gunfight begin?” and Paul answered, in all sincerity, “When the Pilgrims landed on Plymouth Rock.”
Q. What do you think of the writers and historians who attack Wyatt Earp and accuse him of everything from being a gamber (as if that was a bad thing), to living with a floozy, to a hundred other things?
A. I think nothing of them because they are attacking a part of Earp which I am already beyond. Earp does not have to apologize to me or any of these other BUMS for being who and what he was.
Indeed, we created him and then for us to be shocked when that creation is wrong is a joke.
They do the same to Babe Ruth and even Jesus Christ…so Earp is at least in good company!
I dig Jim Bowie and a bigger swindler and con-man hardly ever existed. Yet with his martyrdom at the Alamo ALL his transgressions are forgiven!
Ain’t THAT Biblical?
So when I happen upon a book which sets out to attack one of my heroes I just close the book because I can tell that the author has already missed the point, the MEANING, of Wyatt Earp.
If he consorted with whores and low-life’s that is ALL fine with me…it was HIS life and not mine.
I am honored that my father and Wyatt Earp lie near each other in their graves……good god damn company for both of them.
Q. You’ve painted some Civil war scenes. What interests you?
A. I love conflict…..war, gunfights, baseball….men in conflict. But what happens in the midst of such carnage as the Civil War is that out of the muck and blood and shit comes a man like Richard Kirkland, the “Angel of Fredericksburg,”who brought water from his Rebel lines to the wounded Union soldiers lying in front of the stone wall and gave them comfort and solace.
I mean WOW……that act alone raised ALL humanity by his small example.
The Civil War (like most things) is full of such stories of man’s nobility rising out of the muck of battle.
Even the nerve shown by the Union men at Fredericksburg, or the Rebels during Pickett’s Charge, and the Massachusetts 54th black brigade charging Battery Wagner KNOWING that they were playing for a higher thing…..makes you believe in mankind again.
It is not the issue of who is right or who is wrong…..it is an issue of commitment of your own self. Columbus crossing the Atlantic. Mallory disappearing on Everest. Neil Armstrong walking on the moon. WOW…what a remarkable thing we are.
Q.Croquet???? Why have you painted indians holding croquet mallets?
A. I have either photographic OR eye-witness proof that Indians played ping-pong, croquet (Modocs – Quapaw Agency, OK. Nov. 1873), golf and baseball.
Same with outlaws playing croquet and cowboys playing golf (their golf bags hanging over their saddle horns!)
So if I can verify it, then I can paint it…I never make something up because I think it’s cute.
But I did a painting of Indians playing ping-pong and this dip-shit guy walks in off the street and verbally attacks ME for showing his “native Americans” in such a foolish scene.
He had no way of knowing that I had the photograph of them actually PLAYING ping-pong…..this is the kind of PC bullshit I have to deal with…..if it goes against the MYTH then we must destroy it, and the myth here is that Indians don’t have fun!
Stunning……but there is a very famous photo of Custer and Libbie having lunch in Kansas, 1867, and you can see the croquet mallets and balls right there by the tent.
Q. Are you selling art?
A. I was for 30 years! Making $150K a year!!! A GREAT life…..but it has evaporated in the last 6 years. I don’t know why.
It could be a cultural thing where art itself doesn’t matter…it’s been replaced by computers etc. so there is no need for art.
Maybe the “values” that my art embraces is anachronistic…..honest passions and heroic impulses have no place in today’s world of juiced up athletes and lying politicians.
The men of the Alamo, could they see who we’ve become, would reconsider their valiant stand.