Winnebago artist Henry Payer works on a portrait on glass at the Great Plains Art Museum in Lincoln, where he served as the 2018 Elizabeth Rubendall Artist in Residence. Photo by Kevin Abourezk

Winnebago artist Henry Payer taps into tribal history

'I’m interpreting Ho-Chunk culture'
Henry Payer has been filling sketchbooks since childhood
By Kevin Abourezk

Henry Payer’s earliest memory involves an 18-by-24-inch sketchbook his father once gave him.

When the young boy handed the sketchbook back to his father with only a small drawing in it, his father handed it back to him and told him to fill the entire page.

“It instilled in me that discipline and that need to create, that want to create,” said Payer. “For the most part, I’ve always remembered doing art.”

The 32-year-old Winnebago artist has spent much of his life fulfilling his father’s request to “fill the page.”

Recently, he completed a nearly four-month residence at the Great Plains Art Museum in Lincoln as the 2018 Elizabeth Rubendall Artist in Residence.

During his residency, Payer used the museum’s lobby to create a painting of an ancestor that will become part of the museum’s permanent collection. He also was able exhibit much of his other work in the gallery.

Indianz.Com Video by Kevin Abourezk: Henry Payer - Winnebago Artist Reclaiming History

Working primarily with collage and mixed media, Payer’s work references the altered landscape through indigenous cartographic methods of “picture-writing” combined with European modernist models of cubism, spatial distortion and collage. Each work offers a visual narrative of symbols and appropriated voices from American consumer society that reconfigures history, the landscape or the identity of a portrait.

Payer received a Bachelor of Fine Arts from the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, New Mexico, in 2008. He then obtained a Master of Fine Arts from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 2013.

He has exhibited his work at the All My Relations Gallery in Minneapolis; Sherry Leedy Contemporary Art in Kansas City, Missouri; and Janus Galleries in Madison, Wisconsin.

He has taught at the Oscar Howe Summer Art Institute in 2015 at the University of South Dakota in Vermillion and at Little Priest Tribal College in Winnebago, Nebraska. Payer has been awarded Best of Show at the annual Northern Plains Indian Art Market in 2014 and 2011 and Best of Division: Two Dimensional at the 2016 Fourth Annual Native POP: People of the Plains.

"Winnebago Camp" by Henry Payer, 2018. Photo by Kevin Abourezk

He said attending the Oscar Howe Summer Art Institute when he was in high school helped him realize he could make a career out of art.

“It was there that it kind of pushed and allowed me to know that you can do art as a profession,” he said.

He said teaching art also has provided steady income and offered him the opportunity to continue to create art as well. Much of Payer’s work is displayed in community buildings throughout Winnebago.

"Le Interpreteur" by Henry Payer, 2018. Photo by Kevin Abourezk

When Payer first began creating art, he focused on acrylic painting but was forced out of his comfort in graduate school, where he began creating collage and mixed media, he said.

Collage, he said, allows him to physically represent his own people’s history of removal from their homelands in Wisconsin, where some Ho-Chunk people stayed, to Nebraska.

“You’re physically removing something and placing it into this world,” he said. “I felt that related to how my history was as a Ho-Chunk person, being taken from Wisconsin and placed in Nebraska.”

"Ed and Annie" by Henry Payer, 2018. Photo by Kevin Abourezk
"Self portrait (as smiling Indian with feather)" by Henry Payer, 2015. Photo by Kevin Abourezk

When he attended graduate school in Madison, Payer would travel a route similar to the one his people would take back and forth from Nebraska to Wisconsin, where they would visit relatives. On the road between his home and school, Payer would often stop to pick up materials for his art and found many historical documents of his people’s plight that he also has incorporated into his work.

He said the history he has attempted to represent in his work doesn’t only belong to the Ho-Chunk people.

“It’s a shared history,” he said. “It’s a collective history.”

"& of the road" by Henry Payer, 2017. Photo by Kevin Abourezk

In one of his pieces, “Winnebago Camp,” Payer shows a gathering of wagons being used by his people on their journey back to Wisconsin. He said the painting is meant to reference the use of the name Winnebago for a popular recreational vehicle.

Payer theorizes that the use of the name Winnebago was used by the motor home company because the company’s founders may have seen the wagons used by the Ho-Chunk people – who became known as the “wandering Winnebago” – on their journeys to and from Wisconsin. From afar, the wagons look a bit like the motor homes used today.

The motor home company even named many of its first models Chieftain, Brave and Indian.

“That’s just my theory,” Payer said.

"#currentmood" by Henry Payer, 2017. Photo by Kevin Abourezk

Many of his pieces also incorporate antique windows, a building material Payer began using as frames for his canvas because they cost less than actual art frames. At first, he would take the glass panes out but later began incorporating the glass into his pieces.

By doing so, he was able to create art that could be viewed from the front and the back, he said.

“Anything I can find, I’m trying to use, in any way,” he said.

He said his humorous pieces, such as “#currentmood,” which features a historical photo of a Native man with a yellow smiley face emoticon placed over his face, are meant to demonstrate Native humor.

“We like to laugh and poke fun at each other and even poke fun at ourselves,” he said. “That’s an important part of the struggle, especially as we have to constantly be reminded of this history.”

Another piece, “Le Interpreteur,” is a portrait of his ancestor, Alexander Payer, who was an interpreter for the Winnebago. The painting on glass, Henry Payer said, hearkens to his own role as an artistic interpreter for his people.

“That’s kind of what I feel like I’m doing,” he said. “I feel like I’m interpreting Ho-Chunk culture for non-Natives and outsiders.”

Winnebago artist Henry Payer poses before two of his works – (left to right) "Lucy Logan & Edith Rave," 2017, and "Vestige," 2018 – at the Great Plains Art Museum in Lincoln, Nebraska. Photo by Kevin Abourezk

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