Chief Joseph Series

Charles Strong's father, a grain and bean merchant, had been an avid amateur archaeologist interested in Native American material; by age ten his son first came into serious contact with these powerful works, and Charlie has continued to research and collect in this field.  It is not surprising, therefore, that works with a Native American theme comprised his first extended series.  The CHIEF JOSEPH paintings were a paean to the efforts of the great Nez Perce warrior who attempted to escape the American settlers and army, leading his people two thousand miles north before being captured just shy of the Canadian border.

Antonio das Mortes, 1971, acrylic on canvas, 102" x 81"


The CHIEF JOSEPH paintings were pivotal in many ways.  Formally, they introduced a systematic, geometric delineation of spaces: a door or inverted U-shape contained a smaller rectangular field within which different visual structures could be rendered.  Typically, a "ribbon" of color, representing the spirit-line, or vein, as a source of energy or life, wound through the inner rectangle, restricted by its external boundaries, yet occasionally breaking through.This new approach of formally delineating different fields of visual activities did not eliminate opportunities for gesture and movement: on the contrary, while setting up structural format restrictions on the canvas as a whole, Strong accorded himself complete freedom within those demarcated fields. 

Chief Joseph (For My Father), 1971, acrylic on canvas, 92" x 69"


The spirit-line or "vein" subconsciously moves us to the second theme - that of containment, of restriction, of loss of freedom.  In most of the CHIEF JOSEPH paintings the internal ribbon image is unable to pierce through to the outside.  The shapes swell, try to break out, and press against the perimeters.  Occasionally the ribbon will penetrate, but it is not an even movement from one environment to the next: the flow is broken, and if it escapes, it becomes modified or fractured, mirroring the changes in the Native way of life after the coming of the Euroamericans.

Falconetti, 1971-72, acrylic on canvas, 102" x 81"


This leads us to the third theme: that of individual heroism and commitment to a greater cause.  The restriction of the spirit/life force is symbolic of restrictions imposed upon people who are different, or who are independent thinkers.  Throughout history we can chart how such individuals or members of groups were seen as a threat to societal order: resisting, some were burned at the stake, some murdered on the run, some incarcerated, some driven out of the country.  Yet the personal strength of these people, or of these groups, has often ultimately enriched our culture, and, perhaps not infreqeuntly, may even have fundamentally changed our perceptions about our world, ourselves, and each other. (1)

Nez Perce Myth and Memory, 1972, acrylic on canvas, 70" x 59.75"


(1) Fire and Flux, An Undaunted Vision: The Art of Charles Strong, by Jo Farb Hernandez and Paul J. Karlstrom, and with an Introduction by Steven A. Nash