Native American artist Arloa Wheeler of Springfield works exclusively in pen and ink. “I like the contrast,” she says. “It’s total opposites: black ink on white paper. You take something that’s total opposites and you create a piece of art that looks harmonized, and, for me, that’s almost spiritual.”
Born in Illinois and a resident of Springfield since the early ’70s, Wheeler earned a bachelor’s degree in creative arts and a master’s in native studies, both from University of Illinois at Springfield. “I learned some basic techniques in classes, but I decided to sit with it and teach myself,” she says. In addition to her Native art, Wheeler works as a freelance graphic artist. “This [Native art] is my passion,” she says, “but I can do anything on commission.”
Two types of Wheeler’s art are on display during the Prairie Art Alliance gallery exhibition A Place for Everything. Her “Ledger Series” Native illustrations depict action, usually combat. These highly stylized line drawings include details of garments and ornamentation. Originally produced on ledger paper from frontier forts, such art was traditionally displayed on hides, including those used to make teepees and shields. “These were documentary art, intended to record our dreams and battles for posterity,” she says.
Wheeler’s portraits are photograph-derived. Before taking pen in hand, Wheeler sketches the basic composition with a soft-lead, chocolate-scented pencil manufactured by Hershey. “I like the idea of having chocolate when I’m working, and the lead is so soft I can easily erase it,” she says with a smile. Once the composition has been established, pen and ink come into play. Wheeler uses a Koh-I-Noor technical pen with a 0.30-inch tip and a Staedtler Mars pen with a 0.25-inch tip. “I like the tech pens because you get a finer point than with quills,” she says. The stippling technique of putting ink down one dot at a time is augmented with line drawing. Wheeler works exclusively with hard-surface Bristol board.
Pen-and-ink drawing is perhaps the least forgiving of the visual arts, and Wheeler adheres to a routine to ensure her portraits are exact. “The first thing I do is eyes,” she says. “If I can’t get the eyes right, I have to start over with a new piece of paper. This is all done without editing, no Wite-Out.”
A particularly poignant portrait displayed at the gallery is based on the last photograph taken of Sitting Bull when he was alive. “He was on a military transport train that stopped for those aboard to stretch their legs and get some water,” she says. “Someone handed him a butterfly, and he liked it so much he put it on his hat.”
Other portraits are based on photographs Wheeler has taken at Native American events, especially pow-wows. One depicts a young woman whose apparel is decorated with elk teeth. “There were only two teeth you could use out of an elk,” she says, “so you know, with so many teeth present on the garment, she was highly honored.”
Wheeler, an educator on Native American history and culture, says she’s addressed countless audiences in the three decades since she graduated college: “I believe education is the key to Native survival.”
A Place for Everything, which also features the works of Gary Groves and Rita Young, runs through Aug. 27 in the H.D. Smith Gallery of the Hoogland Center for the Arts, 420 S. Sixth St. Hours are 10 a.m.-5:30 p.m. Tuesday and 10 a.m.-3 p.m. Saturday. The exhibition is free and open to the public.