Wichita statue focus of book about artist Blackbear Bosin

11/29/2010 12:00 AM

11/29/2010 10:10 AM

This is one in a series of vignettes celebrating history. The series' name comes from the state motto, Ad astra per aspera: "To the stars through difficulties."

The Keeper of the Plains is one of Wichita's and the state's most recognized works of art. Located at the confluence of the Arkansas and the Little Arkansas Rivers, the Keeper stands watch over the daily happenings in Wichita.

The sculpture is the focus of a new book by Margaret Williams Norton called "Keeper of the Plains: Blackbear Bosin's 'Great Indian' in Wichita."

Norton said curiosity initially drew her to want to know more about Wichitan Francis Blackbear Bosin, an internationally known Kiowa-Comanche artist.

He dedicated the statue to Wichita on May 18, 1974, and died in 1980.

Norton said she was struck by Bosin's quality and quantity of work.

Although Bosin's artwork is referenced in numerous articles and books, there were no books written about him specifically.

"He was always there and always one of the most prominent artists and is one of two or three considered to be the best Indian artists," Norton said.

The statue's image was used as one of four designs on the U.S. Bicentennial medals, along with images of the Statue of Liberty, George Washington's profile and a group of four faces representing U.S. diversity.

It became the logo of Wichita's Convention and Tourism Bureau in 1980, and Sedgwick County's logo in 1982.

Smaller replicas of the Keeper now stand in sister cities in France and Mexico.

Two years ago, the Keeper was chosen as a finalist in the 8 Wonders of Kansas Art contest.

Norton, who is a retired art librarian living in Oak Park, Ill., spent 10 years writing the book and in the process discovered much about Bosin's personal life.

Bosin was born June 5, 1921, in Cyril, Okla., near Anadarko.

His father was a Kiowa, his mother Comanche. He attended a mission school in Anadarko and, in 1940, moved to Wichita.

"Part of what I learned was that he had an interesting childhood that prepared him for this kind of painting," Norton said. "He was reared as a real Indian but in an educated family. He had white friends as well as Indian friends."

During World War II, Bosin served in the United States Marine Corps. After the war, he worked as a color separator and platemaker for Western Lithograph and was an artist for Boeing.

In 1955, Bosin was featured in National Geographic for his painting called "Prairie Fire." The painting shows Indians on horseback racing against the smoke-filled red and gray horizon with wolves and deer running alongside.

Bosin was the only American Indian artist to participate in the 1965 White House Festival of Arts.

Other works Bosin received recognition for include murals in the Farm Credit Bank of Wichita and the Broadview Hotel.

"He had many health problems," Norton said. "He had severe heart problems and diabetes."

He had open heart surgery in 1968 — and when he woke after the surgery, he had blurred vision and a blind spot.

Elmer Hall, then a senior vice president for Kansas Gas and Electric Co., went to Bosin as he lay in his hospital bed and encouraged him to build a sculpture.

The statue was intended as a tribute to Wichita's Indian heritage and to beautify the downtown area.

Until the Keeper, Bosin had created only a few wood sculptures — nothing on the scale and design of the Keeper.

Bosin did not accept payment for the Keeper and dedicated it to Wichita.

His original plans called for bonnet feathers made of hollow tubes, which would chime in the wind — engineers and musicians advised him against it, saying the chimes wouldn't be heard at that height.

Norton said when she first saw the Keeper while driving in Wichita, she was stunned.

"The image made a remarkable impression on me because it had all of the marks of authentic Indian art," she said. "The image connects and communicates at a deep level, using specifically Indian imagery, the kinds of imagery found in sign language, in pictographs — elemental and spare."

Bosin died Aug. 9, 1980.

"Blackbear Bosin put the Indian back on the Plains," Norton said. "Keeper rests very close to where specific important events occurred."

The confluence of the two rivers is where the Wichita tribe once lived — and near where Chief Dohausen of the Kiowa tribe in 1865 agreed to remove the Indians south of the Arkansas River into Indian Territory, now the state of Oklahoma.

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