"Half of my life passed in striving to complete the pictorial record of Indian history, religion, rituals, customs, way of life, and philosophies . . . a graphic record that a million words could not begin to tell."
- Woody Crumbo
Woodrow Wilson “Woody” Crumbo’s chronology reads like a Western adventure film. A little dark, but ultimately the protagonist conquers all and persevere in ways only possible in a work of fiction.
Setting the stage is an orphan, born in 1912 on his mother's reservation near Lexington, Oklahoma. His parents, an Indian mother (Mary Ann Hurd) and a French father (Alex, a horse trader) had died by the time our protagonist is seven years old. The orphaned boy was raised among various Native American families around Sand Springs, Oklahoma. He studied at the public school. In the desolate plains of Oklahoma Crumbo learned to dance and play the flute - creative exercises that would be a constant in his art and life. In fact, Crumbo played the ceremonial cedar wood flute of the Kiowas and was a featured soloist with the Wichita symphony in 1932-1934.
Crumbo began his college level studies at Wichita American Indian Institute, earning a scholarship and graduating as the valedictorian. He went on to study at Wichita University and The University of Oklahoma. While studying art, Crumbo supported himself as a Native American dancer. In the early 1930s Crumbo toured reservations across the United States, collecting traditional dances and disseminating what he learned to other tribes across the nation. Crumbo enjoyed continued success as a young artist, including the sale of 22 paintings to the San Francisco Museum of Art in 1932 . The sale, which was initiated and completed by his former art teacher Susie Peters, ensured Crumbo a place in art history.
The Native American culture saturated every ounce of Crumbo’s creative efforts. Dancing supported him through his early years as a student. Working behind the scenes to ensure respect for Native American culture, Crumbo became one of its most influential promonents. In 1939, the U. S. Department of the Interior commissioned Crumbo to paint murals on the walls of its building in Washington D. C. His works there are the Buffalo Hunt, Peyote Bird and Symbols, Flute Player, Wild Horses, and two others. In 1943 he was commissioned to paint the mural Rainbow Trail in the Post Office in Nowata, Oklahoma
Crumbo's work collecting and distributing music and dance throughout the Indian nation was incomparable. But perhaps his most influential efforts came by way of a deep and mutually respectful relationship with Thomas Gilcrease. His relationship with the Oklahoma collector began when Crumbo served for three years as a resident artist at the Gilcrease Museum. During that time Crumbo developed a large body of paintings that are now part of that museum's permanent collection. Additionally, Crumbo's His "peyote bird" design became the logo for the Gilcrease Museum. From 1945 to mid-1948, Gilcrease hired Crumbo to assemble an American Indian art collection. Today, most of the Gilcrease's collection of Native American art was Woody Crumbo. According to Carole Klein, Associate Curator of Art at the Gilcrease Museum, " Crumbo had a great influence on the collection itself. He traveled extensively with Gilcrease and introduced him to members of the Taos school, beginning with Joseph Henry Sharp. And because of that, Gilcrease was able to amass a really stellar collection of works by the Taos school artists."
Crumbo’s Deer and Birds was the first Native American painting collected by The Philbrook Art Museum in Tulsa.
Woody Crumbo’s success as an artist, curator and administrator did not make him a rich man. A life in the non-profit world continued to be a struggle for the Crumbo Family. In 1948, Crumbo and his family moved to Taos, New Mexico. It is here that his curious life takes an even more curious turn. The 1950s brought with it a flurry of entrepreneurial opportunities in the form of 1 -3 dollar newspaper ads. Crumbo recognized the opportunity. He and fellow artist, Max Evans, bought a $3 mail-order mineral identification kit. The two began prospecting. What they discovered would set the two of them up financially for life. They discovered deposits of ore worth millions, including a vein of beryllium (a metallic chemical element). The element is able to resist corrosion, and it has a very high melting point. It is used in many structural components of the space shuttle, and in other aerospace craft. Beryllium foil is used in x-ray lithography for making integrated circuits, and as a reflector or moderator in nuclear reactions. Beryllium is used in gyroscopes and computer parts.
Crumbo was able to produce exquisite works of art as well as work succesfully in administrative, leadership and humanitarian positions. He set the precedent for the aesthetic of the minimal, flat style of painting that was popularized by Kiowa artists in the early 20th century. The use of flat areas of color, with little or no spatial depth representation, became popularized by the cubist process and are currently popular now in the graphics industry and Japanese contemporary works. These paintings, which primarily utilized tempera, oil, ink and watercolor, demonstrate Crumbo’s innate need to share and preserve knowledge about the culture of Native Americans.
Crumbo’s administrative and curatorial accomplishments include; Director of Art, Bacone College in Muskogee; Assistant Director of the El Paso, Texas Museum of Art from 1960–1967 and briefly as Director in 1968. In 1960, Woody Crumbo was named Assistant Director of the El Paso Texas Museum of Art. In 1968, he was appointed Director, a position he held until 1974. Crumbo was involved in many humanitarian efforts, including his work with the Ysleta Pueblo Indians of New Mexico. According to the Koshare Indian Museum, “Crumbo heard of the plight of a group of who had years earlier moved to El Paso. They had lost both their identity as Indians and their tribal status. Crumbo obtained legal assistance and was responsible for the group regaining their tribal status, helping build a community center and obtaining health care”.
Woody Crumbo was a quintessential member of the third chapter of artists in Taos. Utilizing his printmaking skills (acquired from studies Olle Nordmark in 1939) he developed unique skill in silk screening techniques. Like R.C. Gorman, Crumbo had a desire to create work that was affordable to everyone. As Carole Klein states, "Besides being a great artist, Woody Crumbo was a pretty savvy marketer. But it was all part of his goal, to help spread knowledge and understanding about American Indian culture with the rest of the world."
In 1978 Crumbo was inducted into the Oklahoma Hall of Fame. He died in Cimarron, New Mexico in 1988 and was buried in Okmulgee, Oklahoma.
- Jina Brenneman, Curator of Collections and Exhibitions