Medicine Robe


I finished this painted elk robe recently and am quite pleased with the finished product.  It’s pictured hanging double and drying the paint and sealer. All paints are earth-derivatives and mixed with hide-glue binders.  Colors are black, white and blackcurrant red. The impetus for this piece grew from a chance encounter with a Howard Terpning print entitled “medicine robe.”  The piece was startling in its simplicity and striking use of contrasting color. I was mesmerized by its beauty and reminded why I love Terpning’s use of color to create a powerful reaction. The power of the print worked and drove me to experiment with bold contrasting colors as well. How does one create powerful images using historical content while simultaneously tweaking colors to produce the most dramatic of images?  I’m not certain I knew the answer but I went questing for some solutions. This robe was my foray into some murky land. Not my first, but definitely my most deliberate.

Painted robes were worn by native peoples for warmth, status, religious purposes, and messaging. So many robes were lost along with their intended interpretations that experts have gaps in their understanding of some extant pieces. Some robes are rather straightforward, however.  Many robes are colorful storyboards of warrior exploits including battles, stolen horses, coup counted and scalps were taken, weapons acquired, and enemy fatalities. Pre-reservation robe images were very two-dimensional in appearance. Faces were left undrawn, images were outlined in black and color was sometimes added. Sometimes not. These older pieces had a very glyph nature while those made later grew more European in appearance due to white contact and its consequent artistic influence. This “bear medicine” robe honors the role of the bear in plains culture. His image was often used to adorn shields, robes, shirts, etc. Native people had great respect for the strength and ferocity of the grizzly and often sought to associate with his power. I like to think this robe would have been worn proudly and imparted a sense of security to its owner. I love this piece!

Neal Armstrong