by Sheila Julson
Some artists are driven by the sheer love of creation, with admiration or fanfare being secondary. Such is the case with Eldred Poisal, a painter who has quietly worked behind the scenes for most of his 50-plus-year career, telling the stories of his Native American heritage on canvas.
Born in Clinton, Poisal’s mother passed away when he was young and his grandmother, who was of Arapaho descent, raised him. His grandmother noticed how he and his brothers liked to draw. “You know those old brown paper shopping bags? My grandmother used to save those so we’d have something to draw on. We sketched on those,” he reflects.
While there were no formal art programs at Poisal’s small high school in Western Oklahoma, one of the school’s sports coaches noticed Poisal’s passion for sketching and strongly encouraged him to draw. After Poisal graduated in 1954, he went on to study art at Bacone College, in Muskogee. He met Bacone Art Department Chair Walter Richard “Dick” West Sr., who would influence Poisal’s Native American-themed work. West was a Southern Cheyenne painter, sculptor, educator and an honored member of the Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes.
Poisal also attended the University of Central Oklahoma (then known as Central State College), in Edmond. He also studied at the University of Montana, where through a National Endowment for the Arts-funded program, he had the opportunity to show his work at the National Museum of the American Indian, in Washington, D.C. He also worked at fine arts museums and galleries when he lived in Colorado.
Poisal returned to Oklahoma, where he enjoyed teaching art to children. “I was an art teacher off and on for many years,” he says. “I taught kindergarten art classes at a public school in Geary, and I also taught at the former Cheyenne-Arapaho Indian Boarding School, in Concho.”
Although Poisal has had his work featured at some galleries, he has been mostly private with his art. In addition to West’s inspiration, the artists and craftspeople in Poisal’s family influenced his paintings of Native American lifestyle. “My work leans more toward life on the Plains, because my grandmother was Arapaho. My aunts and uncles were also artists, having worked in silver, stone and beadwork,” he says.
Images of Poisal’s family’s crafts often turned up in his paintings. He reflects Arapaho life onto canvas, as his work also depicts dancing figures, moccasin designs, belts, wrist cuffs and feather work.
When asked about his style, Poisal finds it difficult to categorize his work and instead prefers to let the paintings speak. “I’m not an abstract [artist] or modernist, but sort of in between,” he says. “I just started capturing the traditions of my relatives.”
Like all artists, Poisal notices how his work has changed and evolved over the years. “I see things that I did years ago that I wouldn’t do now, such as changes in color schemes,” he observes. Yet embracing change is a learning experience, and at 80 years old, Poisal keeps exploring new styles and techniques.
Sheila Julson is a Milwaukee-based freelance writer and regular contributor to Natural Awakenings magazines throughout the country.