Artist Julie Buffalohead uses animals to tell unsettling stories

'The Standoff'
Artist Julie Buffalohead's "The Standoff" from 2012 features acrylic, ink and graphite on lokta paper.
Courtesy of the Minnesota Museum of American Art

Artist Julie Buffalohead often infuses her paintings and drawings with Native American storytelling and images of childlike innocence.

Her paintings feature woodland animals frolicking together. A rabbit might be wearing a party mask, or a coyote pouring a cup of tea.

But those who look deeper will find a darker, more complicated message. Buffalo uses animals to comment on popular culture, American history and motherhood.

She hooks many people by employing imagery that evokes Alice in Wonderland or the Brothers Grimm, said Minnesota Museum of American Art curator Christina Chang.

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"Looking at them closer you do start to sense that darker undertone that things aren't quite as they seem, not quite right," Chang said.

Born in Minnesota and a member of the Ponka tribe based in Oklahoma, Buffalohead has long drawn inspiration from Native American stories.

"If you research them, a lot of them are unsettling," said Buffalohead, who will appear tonight at a reception for her current exhibition at the Minnesota Museum of American Art in St. Paul.

"They're not these wonderful little stories," she said. "Some of them are sexual, some of them are about philosophy, some are oral history. They're just packed in there."

Artist Julie Buffalohead's "Mine" from 2005 features oil on canvas.
Courtesy of Minnesota Museum of American Art

Buffalohead is trying to explore a new form of storytelling, one that uses the playful humor found in Native American culture, but also includes her own very personal experiences and feelings. The coyote, known as a trickster, shows up regularly in her work — as do women wearing coyote masks.

In one particularly powerful painting a haggard coyote stands on its hind legs, nursing a Warner Brothers-style baby "Wile E. Coyote" with a bottle. Buffalohead said she painted it when she was struggling to get pregnant.

"It was a lot of these longing feelings about being inadequate and not being able to conceive like normal people," she said. "So it was a lot about placing myself in the body of the trickster ... and it came full circle when my daughter was able to come to the gallery to see that."

The works currently on display at the Minnesota Museum of American Art in downtown St. Paul span the past decade of her career.

Chang said Buffalohead's work questions human behavior and gender roles.

"Is it really natural for a girl to want to wear a tutu or a feather boa and have a tea party?" she asked. "By translating these sorts of frustrations and anxieties onto animals makes the unnaturalness of the behavior that we're conditioned to do by society — makes it even more apparent."

Master Printer Cole Rogers, who supervises the production of Buffalohead's prints at the Highpoint Center for Printmaking in Minneapolis, said people should see her work and experience her unique artistic voice — if only for their own benefit. That, he said, is what great art is for.

An exhibit of Buffalohead's work runs from Feb. 6 to March 28 at Highpoint.

Cole Rogers said Buffalohead's work evades easy categorization and is also refreshingly honest at a time when contemporary art can often seem aloof and standoffish. He was excited to get her to try her hand at printmaking.

"Julie, I think, really displays her drawing skills wonderfully," he said. "They're just gorgeous, gorgeous pieces."