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Browse: Woodrow Wilson Crumbo: An Artist with a Mission

By Duane King, Ph.D.

Woody Crumbo was an exceptional artist, but, more importantly, he was an extraordinary person. In his youth he faced more than his share of hardships and obstacles but always managed to maintain a positive outlook on life. He was determined to be successful and looked for opportunities to further his own education and career opportunities. Education and knowledge were extremely important to him. He sought ways to give back through teaching and continued to learn in order to be a better teacher.

Throughout his career he worked tirelessly to help Native American art gain the recognition it deserved. His efforts are seen in his teaching of aspiring artists at Bacone College, his later work with students in Taos and Santa Fe, and his creation of the Philbrook Indian Annual, which brought American Indian art to the forefront of public consciousness.

Woody was born near Lexington, Oklahoma, on January 21, 1912 to Mary and Alexander Crumbo. His mother was Citizen Band Potawatomi and French, and his father’s parents were immigrants from Halberstadt, Germany. In 1916 his mother moved the family to Kansas. His parents both died when he was young. Beginning in 1919, at the age of seven, Woody spent the next 10 years living with various Indian families around Sand Springs, Oklahoma. At age 17 he was sent to Chilocco Indian Agricultural School, near Newkirk, Oklahoma, where he studied art and music. Two years later, he earned a scholarship to Wichita Indian Institute, from which he graduated three years later as valedictorian. In 1936 he enrolled at the University of Oklahoma to study art for two years under Oscar Jacobson.

In the 1930s, Crumbo established himself as an artist, musician, and performer. A teacher at Chilocco sold a number of his paintings to the San Francisco Museum of Art. Crumbo soloed with the Wichita Symphony on a traditional Kiowa flute and performed Plains-style dances at numerous venues throughout the country. Woody’s identity was shaped not only by his Potawatomi ancestry but by the influence of Muscogee Creek families with whom he lived in Sand Springs and students of various tribes with whom he studied at Chilocco, Wichita, and the University of Oklahoma. At OU the strong images of the Kiowa artists helped guide the themes of his art. From 1938 to 1941 he directed the art program at Bacone College in Muskogee, Oklahoma, where he taught creative artists such as Willard Stone to master their craft.

Crumbo was also greatly influenced by Thomas Gilcrease, whom he first met in 1945. Despite Tom Gilcrease’s insistence on informality, Woody Crumbo had difficulty addressing the venerable collector by any name other than “Mr. Gilcrease.” Gilcrease, on the other hand, had no difficulty in addressing Woodrow Wilson Crumbo, an artist whom he deeply respected and admired, during their first meeting in 1945 in the dining room of the Mayo Hotel in downtown Tulsa, as “Woody.” Only after years of association did Crumbo feel comfortable enough to refer to his friend and benefactor as “Tom.”

In many ways they were like two peas in a pod. In other ways they were as different as night and day. It may be that Gilcrease had an easier time seeing the commonalities between the two. They were both born into mixed-blood families that identified with their American Indian ancestry. Their early childhoods were spent in abject poverty, and they lived in other people’s homes as a result of family circumstances. They both had an appreciation for art and culture as well as a strong sense of individual and collective identity. They were separated, however, by the luck of the draw. In 1899, nine-year-old Thomas Gilcrease, #1505 on the Muscogee Creek tribal roll, received an allotment of 160 acres of tribal land at Glenn Pool, 20 miles south of Tulsa. It was dusty farmland on which his parents hoped that Thomas, the oldest of fourteen children, would someday eke out a living. Six years later, wildcatters discovered that Thomas’s modest allotment was on top of one of the richest oil reserves in America. Eventually, Gilcrease’s oil business would give him the financial resources to pursue his avocation of collecting things he enjoyed. Over time, his life’s mission became assembling the finest collection of art and artifacts in existence that could tell the story of his own heritage and the American experience.

In 1945 Gilcrease wanted to add the art of Woody Crumbo to his collection. After the dinner at the Mayo Hotel, the collector and the artist adjourned to Woody’s home to inspect twenty-seven paintings decorating his house. Woody was surprised when he quoted a price and received no reaction from Tom, only a promise to be back in touch. Gilcrease was living in San Antonio at the time and commuting regularly back and forth to Tulsa. On his next trip back an agreement was reached at a price higher than Crumbo expected.

Gilcrease wanted not only the art but Crumbo as an employee. He offered Woody a chance to be artist-in-residence for several years to perfect his craft while creating art for the Gilcrease collection. As part of the agreement, Woody would move his wife and children into a stone house that Gilcrease purchased in 1913. The house would be retrofitted to include a studio where Woody could work uninterrupted while his family enjoyed the living quarters.

It was a very productive time. In the course of two years, Woody produced more than 150 works of art for the Gilcrease collection. Gilcrease paid Woody for the paintings and separately commissioned a piece to adorn the front entrance of the Quonset-shaped main building of the institute. After several designs were considered, they agreed on the symbol of the Peyote Bird or Messenger Bird derived from the traditional concept of a winged friend carrying messages to the Great Spirit from the supplicants. Gilcrease liked the design because of its simplicity and meaning. It remains as a lasting symbol of Gilcrease Museum.

In the three years immediately following the second World War, Crumbo frequently traveled with Gilcrease on buying excursions. Tom trusted Woody’s judgment and heeded his advice in the building of a 20th-century Native American art collection. Gilcrease was unconstrained by time or money. If there was a collection worth investigating, they went to see it, most often by automobile. As they were driving, Gilcrease would look out upon a vacant landscape and describe a scene from the past of buffalo, tipis, and Native activities. It was almost as if he transported himself into a different world. But in sharing his active imagination, he may have been challenging the artist to probe the depths of his imagination and to create art based on what he could envision, not on what he saw.

Crumbo was a man of many interests, not just two-dimensional art, but also jewelry-making and prospecting. He is credited with the discovery of the largest beryllium deposit in the United States, worth millions of dollars at the time. While his time as artist-in-residence at the Gilcrease Institute was brief, it was significant to both Crumbo and the institution.

During the same period, Gilcrease also employed other Native artists, such as Acee Blue Eagle and Willard Stone, to create works for the Gilcrease Collection. Collectively they helped shape Gilcrease’s notions about art. Woody Crumbo, in particular, enhanced the collector’s appreciation of Native art. As a result, the scope of collecting for the museum was broadened and the Thomas Gilcrease Institute of American History and Art became the first major museum to actively collect and display contemporary American Indian art. In turn, Native artists such as Crumbo were able to leave an indelible mark on the public consciousness and the art world of the 20th century.

King, Duane. “Woodrow Wilson Crumbo: Artist with a Mission.” In Woody Crumbo. Oklahoma: Gilcrease Museum, 2012, 15-17.