John Coleman's Infinite Possibilities
Posted on October 19, 2017 by Blaine Smith in The West
John Coleman (second from left) with wife, Sue (left), and Frankie and Howie Alper. The most prolific collectors of Coleman’s work, since 1994 the Alpers have purchased the first casting of every sculpture Coleman has produced. Photography by Jerry Hymer.
One learns in school there are several basic tenets of good storytelling, including a main character who undergoes change and, perhaps most vital, the presence of conflict. For John Coleman – a Cowboy Artists of America (CAA) Emeritus member who has participated in the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum’s Prix de West Invitational Art Exhibition & Sale for 12 years – conflict and change are an implied, yet fundamental aspect of the stories told by the characters he creates in bronze, oil, and charcoal.
As Coleman said, most of the individuals featured in his artwork are Plains Indians whose lives are set in the years from the Lewis & Clark Expedition (1804) to the Battle of the Little Bighorn (1876). Thus, viewers approach his work cognizant of the conflict surrounding each subject (the Westward expansion of the United States) and aware of the cultural upheavals that were transforming the Native American way of life at the time. Perhaps this is why Coleman’s work possesses such power, and why he is one of the art world’s most celebrated storytellers: His ability to convey the whole of America’s 19th century Western mythology in the gaze of a young Indian girl, or in the proud yet resigned countenance of an aging chief.
However, it is not only Coleman’s work that tells a compelling tale, for his own life’s journey is a story suffuse with conflict and of change. As a child, Coleman’s ability to read and write was hampered by a learning disability. He possessed a visual acumen, however, that would translate early into artistic skill. He also heeded this bit of advice: “Play to your strengths.” Coleman found solace from his academic difficulties in art class under the tutelage of an instructor who allowed him to spend several periods each school day honing his craft.
Unfortunately, Coleman’s dyslexia precluded his graduation from Aviation High School in Redondo Beach, California. Yet he did leave school with two things that would prove vital to his future success – an education in the fundamentals of art, and a girlfriend, Sue, whom he married just out of high school. Soon after they wed the young couple moved to Arizona, establishing a comfortable life not in art, but in home remodeling and real estate ventures.
Yet the conflict in Coleman’s life had yet to find resolution. Though Coleman had a new wife and made comfortable wages, his life was beset by conflict. Not by coincidence, his life was also, at the time, bereft of art. As he told Southwest Art magazine in 2016, this was because his life was being consumed not by creation, but by the same destructive force that had claimed the life of his father: alcoholism.
“When I was 35, I came to realize that my 12-year-old self was making my decisions for me,” Coleman told Southwest Art. “I decided then that I wouldn’t play that role anymore, but live my life based on the reality of things as they were at that moment.
“That’s when I quit drinking.”
Having weathered the conflict and emerged transformed, Coleman embarked on an artistic odyssey that finds him still today exploring the thoroughfares and byways of America’s 19th century Western mythology. Along the way, Coleman has made lasting connections, including a close relationship with the National Cowboy Museum and Prix de West, where he has won both the James Earle Fraser Sculpture Award and the Buyers’ Choice Award multiple times.
The 2017 Prix de West this past June, however, was momentous for Coleman for several reasons. One, his life-sized sculpture Honeymoon at Crow Fair, which depicts a brave and his new bride atop a horse, was recently installed outside of the National Cowboy Museum’s main entrance. And second, Coleman’s work was featured as the annual Prix de West Collector’s Bolo, a tradition that each year features a work from a different artist. Depicting the profile of a young Native American woman, Coleman’s bolo design – titled Dragonfly – shows the young lady’s hair decorated with several symbols referred to as “dragonfly crosses.”
These dragonfly crosses are packed with great meaning, not just for Coleman personally, he noted, but for the Plains Indians too. “They’re a very popular motif for the Native Americans,” he said. “They believe that the dragonfly represents infinite possibilities – they’re not bound by the same rules as other creatures, they can move in any direction. Of course, I felt that would be a real symbolic, obvious choice for the bolo.”
Indeed, as a character in a proper story, or like Coleman in his own life’s journey, the symbolism in the Dragonfly bolo represents change, growth, and catharsis. “A lot of my pieces, I’ve included that dragonfly motif in them,” he said. “It’s a very powerful idea. The dragonfly is a lot like the butterfly, when it comes out it has a metamorphosis concept to it, so [the Plains Indians] literally think of it as being from another world. … So I’m attracted to that naturally, and it’s probably one of my favorite symbols, that particular dragonfly cross.”
The infinite possibilities and metamorphosis represented by the Dragonfly bolo also pertain to Prix de West itself, Coleman said. “The title, I think, represents a lot of the spirit of the show in that sense: the endless possibilities,” he said. “How can you go wrong with that?”
For Coleman, both his art and his life have exemplified the age-old concepts of conflict and transformation. While his art reveals him to be a master of visual storytelling, where his artistic journey will take him is a story still being written. Luckily, we get to bear witness as the tale unfolds.
To purchase your own 2017 Prix de West bolo by John Coleman, titled Dragonfly, or one of several Prix de West bolos still available from years past, visit store.nationalcowboymuseum.org. Make plans now to attend the 2018 Prix de West Invitational Art Exhibition & Sale Opening Weekend June 8 – 9, 2018. For information, visit nationalcowboymuseum.org/prixdewest.