Imagine what Sitting Bull, Crazy Horse and Gall might have looked like had they ridden to an artist’s studio and posed for a portrait immediately after the June 25, 1876, Battle of the Little Bighorn. Far-fetched, of course, but that was John Coleman’s idea behind 1876, in which Sitting Bull sits at center, with headdress and pipe, flanked by Crazy Horse on his left, holding a repeating rifle, and Gall on his right, gripping a tomahawk.
Coleman conceived the piece roughly five years ago after he and wife Sue visited Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument in southern Montana. “I thought it would be fun,” Coleman says in all humility.
Of course Coleman knows that in the summer of 1876 Sitting Bull, Crazy Horse and Gall wouldn’t have posed for any artist. The sculptor is one of many who believe Crazy Horse never even posed for a photograph. Yet 1876 captures the Lakota warriors in their prime with Coleman’s blend of Western mythology and history. “The legend can be more interesting than the history,” Coleman says while waiting for a morning coffee before returning to his studio in Prescott, Ariz. “I make art, and I’m interested in history as a metaphor, but to get any historic record wrong is considered a disaster. You don’t ever want to do that. So I’m very particular to what I hold myself to.”
Take Gall’s tomahawk, for instance. “Legend has it Gall carried only his ax into that battle, to avenge the death of his family,” Coleman says. “I don’t know whether I believe that or not, but it’s a cool story.”
Crazy Horse holds a Winchester. “When we toured the battlefield,” the artist explains, “our guide told us that one of the advantages the Indians had was that many of them carried repeating rifles, while the cavalry had single-shot rifles.”
And Sitting Bull’s headdress and pipe? “There’s no real evidence he wore a warbonnet during that period,” says Coleman, “but I do know he was given a warbonnet after that battle, so I knew he owned one. The warbonnet also symbolizes prominence. And the pipe was specific to him as well.”
Coleman used models and photographs of Sitting Bull and Gall. But since there’s no documented photograph of Crazy Horse, Coleman had to turn to history. “I took reference from his family,” the artist says. “You can pick up physical descriptions, what he looked like, and we know how he wore his hair and what he liked and didn’t like. I also know what his family looked like, so this is my best interpretation, my best guess, as to what he looked like.”
Born in Southern California in 1949, Coleman knew at an early age he wanted to become an artist, and he was later schooled at the Art Center College of Design [www.artcenter.edu ] in Los Angeles. He married Sue when they were teenagers and went into real estate development. They left California for Parker, Ariz., but when business brought Coleman to Prescott, he knew he wanted to live there.
“I couldn’t believe this was Arizona,” he says. “It reminded me of a Frank Capra movie and all of those great old characters who came through here.”
After their youngest daughter was married, the Colemans decided it was time for John “to return to my passion, and that was art.” He’s been at it full-time since 1994. Prescott also connected Coleman to the Cowboy Artists of America [www.cowboyartistsofamerica.com], which he joined in 2001. Yet, ironically, Coleman hadn’t dreamed of sculpting. Before becoming a professional artist, he had always been a painter.
“Sculpture came really more as an impulse,” he says. “At that time it was something I had an opportunity to do, and it was a little bit different, and I thought it might give me more of an opportunity. Once that turned out to be successful, it’s taken me all this time to get back to painting. About four years ago I started painting again.”
He still creates five to seven original sculptures a year. He’s blessed in that he has “more projects than I know what to do with.” After he finishes another life-size or close to life-size piece, he’ll pick up his brushes again. “I’m still known as a sculptor,” he says. “But someday I hope to be known as a painter.”
Browse John Coleman’s works online.