Reclaiming History: The Art of Terrence PoorThunder
Somewhere beneath a copper blue sky, a small, secluded city rests on arid hills. Miraculously, plants manage to grow. Sagebrush and wheatgrass rise out of the dry soil along with juniper trees.
A beat-up pickup truck suddenly blasts through the town’s only four-way stop. Many of the businesses are boarded up. Cardboard boxes and trash litter the street. Two feral dogs step off the road, avoiding the oncoming motorist.
Down the road the car passes mobile homes and an auto repair shop. On the shop’s exterior an anonymous mural, long scribbled over with graffiti, warns of the dangers of alcohol and meth. “We Are Not Dead!” someone has written.
For abstract and pop artist Terrence PoorThunder, this city was once home. “It was almost like a third-world country,” he recalls. “There were so much drugs and alcohol and everything.”
But PoorThunder did not grow up in the third world—he grew up in Lame Deer, Montana, a town right here in the United States: the beacon of the so-called first world.
Lame Deer, headquarters for the Northern Cheyenne Indian Reservation, is like many other Native American communities: it has its host of problems. Poverty, substance abuse, unstable family situations, and unemployment are daily obstacles for people living here. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, in 2012 nearly 40% of Lame Deer residents were living below the poverty line and 26.7% were unemployed—a stark contrast to the nation’s national unemployment rate of just 6.2%.
A member of the Lakota-Sioux, PoorThunder spent his early childhood here where he witnessed the debilitating poverty first hand. “It was rough times back then,” he says, recalling how many residents lived on government assistance. “We pretty much lived off of commodity food when we were kids. They’d give us big blocks of government cheese. And commodity bologna too,” adding jokingly, “They used to fry it in the pan and call it reservation steak!”
PoorThunder in his colorful in-your-face style is currently working on Res Life, a new series he describes as “a modern spin on where I grew up.” PoorThunder created the series to dispel misconceptions people have about reservation life. “I get a lot of questions like ‘how was the res? I bet it’s beautiful there!’ ” Apparently, a large number of people believe reservations are some kind of pastoral oasis. When asked why so many people are ignorant about the conditions on U.S. reservations, PoorThunder responds: “People are blind. They just see what they want to see.”
To make people see, PoorThunder creates pop and abstract work. His abstracts are vibrant while his pop pieces depict American icons like Sponge Bob, who wear feather headdresses, naturally. In another piece he renders an erotic Athena, thumbing his nose at Western ideals of female beauty by giving his Athena voluptuous curves and an ample derriere. Ironic, witty, and humorous, these works are his way of “reclaiming”—replacing Americana with an even-more Americana Americana, thereby imagining a world in which Europeans never crossed the Atlantic.
Eventually PoorThunder’s mother moved the family to Denver, where he spent the remainder of his childhood. It was there PoorThunder began to experiment with graffiti, tagging Denver streets with colorful, spiraling emblems. “I’ve been arrested so many times for doing graffiti,” PoorThunder recalls. “Every time I told the cops, how can I get in trouble for writing on something that’s supposed to be mine? ”—meaning his ancestral homeland.
PoorThunder later attended Lakewood’s Alameda High where he drew graffiti sketches while teachers droned on about math or history. PoorThunder had never seriously considered art as a career, but freshman year the art teacher Ms. Wulf noticed PoorThunder’s drawings. Seeing his potential, she encouraged him to enter an art contest. “She took me from graffiti and inspired me,” says PoorThunder. “She always believed in me. She always said I could do better.”
But PoorThunder’s journey wasn’t entirely a Cinderella story.
In 2009 PoorThunder became the victim of a drive-by shooting. He was at a house in Denver when a bullet burst through the window, grazed his nose, and traveled up his sinus cavity. “The doctors didn’t know how to stop the bleeding,” PoorThunder recalls. “I was sitting there on the bed, gushing blood out. They sent down someone to read me my last rites. All I could think was, ‘are you kidding me right now?’” PoorThunder survived, but with PTSD-like symptoms. “I had panic attacks from being so close to death,” he says.
Unfortunately, PoorThunder also made some poor choices, and spent time in jail as a result. But prison couldn’t stop him from making art. He kept a sketchbook, documenting every day. “I would sketch my cell mates, I would sketch what I was eating, every meal throughout the day. I would sketch the prison guard walking by.”
After being released, PoorThunder felt he had been given a new lease on life. “Some people will never know how great it feels to walk out of jail,” he says. From then, he began to take art seriously. “I woke up one day and thought—why not me, why not this life, why not right now?”
Since then, PoorThunder successfully established himself as an abstract artist. “I got put through a lot to be where I’m at right now. I had to kiss a lot of ass and meet a lot of people.” He hopes to pursue more socially conscious work in the future: “I want to create art that really says something to people,” says PoorThunder, for whom art has brought achievement, but also a sense of healing. “When I pick up that paintbrush and dip it into some paint, everything gets quiet. Everything gets deafened down. Nothing else matters.”
When asked whether art has the capacity to create positive social change, he responds, “Art can do anything. Art can do everything. I believe in art with all of my heart.”
To see more of Terrence Poor Thunder’s work visit his online gallery.