Merle Locke has conversations with his ancestors. His art tells the story of a time, not so long ago, when warriors and bison roamed the Great Plains freely.
Through the tradition of Ledger Art, Locke brings the past to the present. From a place of abject poverty, great beauty arises.
Come along with us to the Pine Ridge Reservation and see the sum of Merle Locke.
The Story of Merle Locke
We don’t know much about Merle Locke’s early life. A private man, he keeps the stories of his childhood close. One of the teachings he received during his career guides his introverted nature. He “was taught to leave something for himself” out of his paintings. For us, he’s left out a biography.
Locke came to art through customary means. As a child, he learned to paint alongside his brother. Their artist father passed down the traditional style and methods of his people. Locke, a member of the Oglala Lakota tribe, grew up on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation.
Raised in the Porcupine District of the reservation, the landscape appears as a significant theme in his work. Before 1993, Locke studied art with his father and developed his skill as an artist.
In 1993 he entered and won the Black Hills Expo, a juried market. He felt out of place, like he didn’t deserve to be there. The jury decided differently, awarding him first place. Juried art shows became his path to recognition, leading him out of poverty. In 1995, he decided to change directions and began working in Ledger Art.
Locke’s paintings harken back to the final gasps of the Native American warriors on the Great Plains. Steeped in traditional iconography, his paintings comment on the Native American experience.
He calls his style “primitive,” and in his Ledger Art, he maintains the traditions of his forebears. Out of respect for the history of Ledger Art, Locke researches and attempts to uphold historical accuracy in his work.
Throughout his career, Locke has won thirty jury awards, many logo and event design contests, and two NativeAmericanMint.com coin design contests. On the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, the Red Cloud Heritage Center holds several Locke paintings in its permanent collection.
Is Merle Locke Still Alive?
As far as we can tell, Merle Locke is alive and well on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. He likes to keep a low profile, but the word of his passing would undoubtedly have made a splash in the art world.
Where is the Pine Ridge Reservation?
The Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, in the southwestern part of South Dakota, is a place of beauty and sadness. It’s the site of several critical clashes between the Oglala Lakota and the United States government.
The Wounded Knee Massacre occurred in 1890 when US troops attempted to disarm a band of Lakota camped on the Wounded Knee River. The attack, part of the Ghost Dance War, saw over 250 men, women, and children massacred by the US forces.
Eighty-three years later, on the same site, the American Indian Movement (AIM) occupied the town of Wounded Knee to protest a corrupt US leader. After the FBI and US Marshals surrounded the town and laid it under siege, they arrested leaders of the movement and threw them in prison.
Leonard Peltier, one of the AIM leaders, is still in prison following a controversial trial in 1977.
These events, chronicled in Incident at Oglala: The Leonard Peltier Story, provide the backdrop that Locke grew up in.
What Inspired Merle Locke’s Art?
Locke’s work, at times, comments on the hypocrisy of the United States in its interactions with Native American tribes. By its very nature, Ledger Art comments on the relationship between Native Americans and their oppressors. Art created by Lakota men is historically narrative; it tells the story of a battle or hunt that needs remembering.
Locke carries on this tradition in his creations. In his work, he uses color as a symbol and animals and insects as totems. His years of research into Ledger Art give him a rich history to draw from as he reimagines this curious art form.
Where Did Ledger Art Come From?
Ledger Art emerged in the 1860s in the Great Plains region of the United States. Native American men traditionally painted and drew representations of battles and hunts. Because they did not have paper, buffalo hides were the preferred medium.
As more and more invaders settled Native territory, they brought paper with them in the form of ledgers. Portable enough for keeping track of information on the go, ledgers were perfect for the nomadic lifestyle.
Usually, ledger books told a story through the hands of many artists. It was common for multiple men to work on the same image in a book. Each ledger told a complete story, and it wasn’t until later that collectors broke them up.
Prisoners of war at Fort Marion in St. Augustine, Florida, were the first to see their work commercialized. Twenty-six Native American warriors created Ledger Art under the tutelage of Richard Pratt.
In the 20th century, after the origin of the ledgers was lost, collectors began to break them up and sell individual pieces. The stories held within are now lost to history.
What Are Some of Merle Locke’s Art Pieces?
Merle Locke’s art covers a range of subjects and styles. His major works are Ledger Art, but he also produces fine art for sale. Here are a few of his best-known pieces.
Honorable Legends isn’t a Ledger piece, but the artist incorporates style elements into the work. Locke includes victorious warriors in many of his compositions. Two warriors fly across a gorgeous sunset sky in this painting.
The colored lines coming out of the horses have symbolic meaning to Locke. An outline of the state of South Dakota and the landscape of the Porcupine area of Pine Ridge complete the piece.
Among Our Great Legends
Locke captures beauty and sorrow in Among Our Great Legends. This painting depicts a winyan (woman) facing out, surrounded by dragonflies. In discussing his work, Locke points out that dragonflies represent hope because they can dodge bullets.
During the 19th and 20th centuries, Native children were removed from their parents and forced into boarding schools. The document that holds this Ledger Art is a land grant to Maud Little Bird. Viewers can’t miss the connection between a sorrowful mother and a land grant for her three missing children.
A Nation of Great Legacies
National disgrace is writ small on this Ledger Art. A Nation of Great Legacies, on the first pass, looks like three majestic women and animals. Dragonflies, turtles, and buffalo surround the women and create a sense of flow.
The map that Locke paints on contains the shame of the nation. Looking closely, the viewer can see offensive slurs in the names of land and water. Combining beautiful paintings and challenging documents is one of Locke’s strong suits as an artist. We can’t look away from the legacy.
Where Can I See Merle Locke’s Art?
There are few places where you can find Merle Locke’s art offline. His paintings list for sale across the Internet for a range of prices. But they’re hard to find in person. Seven Council Fires Art houses an extensive collection of Locke’s art for sale.
This non-profit organization seeks to help impoverished reservations preserve and sell their traditional art forms. Without the ability to make a living off their art, these artists must seek other means. Seven Council Fires aims to open an Art Center store at some point soon to support Native Artists.
You can also find Locke’s work in our gallery. The piece in our collection features a victorious warrior riding across a Chattel Mortgages ledger. At Outside Folk Art, we seek to amplify the voices of Outsider artists, immigrant, black, Native, and working mother artists.
Currently, we’re an online gallery. But we hope to feature our permanent collection in popup shows around the country. We also plan to work with small galleries to bring these essential voices to the public.
Giving Voice to Native History
Merle Locke represents a marginalized voice in the art community. Though, he transforms a classic Native American art form into social commentary. You can’t miss the power and beauty of this Lakota artist as it rides across the page.
Do you have a favorite traditional Native artist? Tell us about them in the comments!