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June 3, 2014

'Go West, young man'

Oklahoma City Museum plays tribute to Native American and Cowboy heritage

OKLAHOMA CITY — Virginia “Ginny” Wilkins stood in the Western performers’ gallery at the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum staring into the illuminated glass cases filled with cowboy movie memorabilia.

Images of John Wayne, Roy Rogers and Dale Evans gazed back at her.

“I was a cowboy movie fan as a child,” the 70-year-old Nashville, Tennessee, resident said. “I don’t really see too many now. My husband and me have traveled out West a lot, but this is by far the best museum we’ve seen. It surely does remind me of going to see the old Western movies on Saturdays. ”Percy Wilkins, her husband of almost 60 years, agreed.

“We’ve seen a lot of these characters in so many movies growing up,” he said. “It’s a lot of interesting information that helps us understand different cultures and the Indian tribes and the progress of the West.”

Ginny’s husband suggested the gallery’s tribute to Western movie icons went deeper than paper movie posters, colorful cowboy costumes and the celluloid on which the genre’s history was recorded.

“It’s a good commentary on how these people dressed and how they were figures of history,” he added. “You can see what their lives were like and what they did to advance the culture of our country.”

Christy Ivey, 57, the Wilkins’ daughter and vacation companion, said she was enjoying her first trip into America’s West.

“It’s all so new for me,” she said. “I haven’t been out West, so this is really fun for me. This is an introduction to Oklahoma.”

Art and artifacts

Founded in 1955, what is now known as the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum has seen many changes. It has introduced more than 10 million visitors — including the Wilkins family — to Oklahoma and many points West. With more than 28,000 Western and Native American works of art and artifacts in its collection, the Oklahoma City museum offers one-of-a-kind Western paintings, towering stone sculptures and historic — and prehistoric — native artifacts. Works by Frederic Remington and Charles Russell hang on the walls of the 200,000-square-foot museum. Firearms of the famous — and infamous — abound. Tack, trail gear, rodeo and pop culture memorabilia entertain and educate guests.

Mike Leslie, the museum’s assistant director, is tasked with organizing and communicating the stories of the museum’s collections. He’s been doing so for more than 20 years.

While many visitors are drawn to the Western performers’ gallery, Leslie’s passion is Native American exhibits and Western art. More than two decades ago he was hired to curate the museum’s Native American collections. Today he’s responsible for much more.

“Our collections and exhibitions are quite different than they used to be,” he said. “Our visitors, especially ones who have been here before, are pleasantly surprised by the magnitude of the scope of the institution.”

One exhibit is a 17-foot-tall Plaster-of-Paris imagining of “The End of the Trail,” a famous 1894 James Earle Fraser sculpture depicting a warrior slumped on horseback. It’s the centerpiece of the museum’s glass-paneled atrium.

“Where it used to be located it didn’t have that presence and grandeur that it has now,” Leslie said. “The new space allows it to have an outdoor look with the windows. It’s magnificently and purposefully paced to do that.”

“The End of the Trail,” Leslie said, represents the Native American experience in the late 19th century.

“To see Native American culture go from there to the growth and revitalization of the tribal identity today is exciting,” Leslie said. “‘The End of the Trail’ highlights where those cultures were headed. It’s a reminder of the vitality of Native American culture.”

Another exhibit is “Canyon Princess,” an 18-foot-tall limestone sculpture of a sleek female cougar poised on a mountain ledge that was carved from a single 31-ton block of stone. The Gerald Balciar sculpture was placed in the museum in 1995. It weighs more than eight tons.

“That is a gorgeous piece,” Leslie said. “It’s just remarkable. It has a unique artistic quality and the very stylistic form of a cougar. It’s a neat blend of softness of details.”

While “The End of the Trail” and “Canyon Princess” offer oversized representations of the West’s impact on American cultural identity, smaller works within the museum’s galleries shed light on an equally important influence on our Western cultural past.

“The thing about the museum is that we have a remarkable diversity of holdings,” Leslie said. “Other museums have much stronger Western art collections, but they don’t have the Native American collections and the Western, Hollywood and rodeo collections we do. Other institutions may focus solely on the Western frontier but don’t have the other holdings. What we have here is probably one of the most diverse looks at the American West than any other institution in the country.”

The cowboys

While the museum offers a wide selection of Native American-inspired exhibits, the institution’s name pays tribute to another group that influenced America’s Western heritage: cowboys.

“If you look at the Western fine arts collection, it is very diverse,” Leslie said. “We have the typical Charles Russell and Frederic Remingtons. We have a nice mixture of contemporary Western art. It’s a broad cross-section."

Remington and Russell may be well known, but it’s a lesser known Western artist’s painting that impresses Leslie.

“One of my favorites is a 1923 painting by Walter Ufer called ‘Sleep,’” he said. “It’s remarkable. It’s one of the best paintings this artist did. It’s one of my favorites.”

But it’s hard to argue with the classics.

“We have two wonderful bronzes that are quite elegant,” he said. “One of the favorite bronze pieces we have is Frederic Remington’s ‘Hunters Camp.’ That night scene is quite nice.”

Another bronze sculpture, a 2012 Paul Moore creation “At the Powwow,” a recent museum acquisition, impresses Leslie, too.

“It’s a Native American in sunglasses, sitting reclined in a lawn chair and probably taking in a powwow celebration. It’s a just a neat piece to look at.”

Leslie said it’s nice to see multiple generations of visitors touring the museum.

“We also get a lot of grandparents bringing their grandchildren to the museum,” he said. “You get a more interesting perspective with multiple generations’ perspectives on things. Extended families don’t get together like they used to do. It’s something kids and parents and grandparents enjoy and is a special moment for us.”

He also is happy to see Native American families and groups tour the museum together.

“They come in with a reference and understanding that we won’t have,” he explained. “If you are going through the Native American gallery and history of the frontier West, our native community is going through with a totally different perspective on the way they look at objects and culture. It doesn’t mean that they are looking into all things with a Native American insight, but it does give them a different understanding than many of us have.”

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