Revelations of the White Buffalo: Painting the Power of Forgiveness
“I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free.” Michelangelo.
In 2003, I attended Southwestern College in Santa Fe. In one of my research classes, I explored the heuristic question, what is power? Everyday, I held that question and painted. Each day, a deeper meaning was revealed in the changing form of a white buffalo that manifested on a rusty piece of metal I reclaimed in the desert. It was a powerful experience, and to this day, White Buffalo remains one of my favorite paintings. It hangs in my living room and is a conversation starter. Recently, a friend asked about the painting. Her question led to a conversation about power and I was reminded of my class project.
The following narrative retools the journal entries that informed the White Buffalo. The inquiry reminds me to sit with difficult questions—to allow the answer(s) to reveal themselves. It’s not easy to be with uncertainty. By learning to open oneself to the complexity of inquiry without attachment to outcome, a much deeper, richer, meaning is often revealed.
I’ve taken to walking in the desert and finding scrap metal, alert to the images already drawn by wind and rain. My favorite haunt is the desolate back roads of La Cienega, New Mexico where locals illegally dump outdated, broken appliances and trash in the dry arroyos behind a curtain of sun-baked earthen hills dotted with Juniper and Sage. Here, I collect the raw material for my reclaimed art—auspicious images imprinted in rust, textured by light-filled bullet holes.
One day, I walked with a friend over the dry, sandy hills, dropping into a deep, long wash. We were on the lookout for artistic treasures.
“Oh, there’s a buffalo.” She pulled out a rather large sheet of rusted metal lodged deep into the heart of a Sage.
I saw what she saw, and knew I’d found the right piece to explore my question on power. The metal was thin and fragile, almost completely rusted, but we hauled it back to the truck, and I took it home. In a couple of days, I brought my scrap metal to campus to begin the painting process. As part of our assignment, we were asked to track our process through writing, and so I also began a journal. My journal entries are as follows:
Today I begin my project. I had a difficult time locating a place to paint because the rusty metal is big and awkward, and there is no room in the classroom. I had to bring my project outside, away from others. I soon discovered there were too many ants, so I moved even further away to the picnic table under a metal awning. I am alone. I am very aware I am alone, outside, by myself. It seems that BIG can be isolating.
I tentatively begin to paint, pick up my oil crayons, and lay them down on the metal. This is the moment of fear. To play with the unknown—the blank canvas, the empty paper, the clean slate. The nothingness reflects the best and the worst in me. There are five weeks ahead of me (ten hours of work), and that seems like a long time to sit with the terrible pressure of self-doubt. Then like a musician, I intuitively pick up my oils—colors like cords-and apply the base pigments. As I begin to move paint, a visceral expression, a mighty and sudden storm blows in. Hail thunders hard on the tin roof like a herd of buffalo raging across the high prairie plains. I am both excited and nervous about the power and force my image brings in.
A room has opened up at school, and now I paint beside a small group of classmates. I have enough space and no longer feel isolated. Now that I sit with my question, what is power, I find answers everywhere. For example, last week, after process, I went for coffee at the Aztec on Second Street. I love this coffee-house because it’s home to Santa Fe’s most interesting. Tattoos and Mohawks mixed with ties and pumps. The Aztec’s decor is as bright as a parrot, the coffee is brewed strong and fresh, and the best local art hangs on the walls. It’s an easy and slow-paced place to take a break. I was there with a friend, discussing our heuristic questions, when Big Blonde—a delightful, brash woman in line quipped. ”People don’t like me no more, but they listen to me. I have an eighty thousand dollar water truck with my name stenciled on the side. NOW people want to listen to me. NOW my advice and opinion are important. My boyfriend wants us to move back to the East. No way,” she said with a big grin.
I’m painting with Ted. It’s a beautiful day and the double doors have been thrown open to the second floor balcony. Light streams through the trees.
“How would you feel if White Buffalo becomes something else?
“I don’t think I’d like it.” I frown.
I look down the stylized form emerging. I’m in love with my creation. She’s beautiful with her silver and brown undercoat and dancing spirits, but there’s a tear in the metal. Her entire head could easily rip off. His question raises a tension in me. I’m attached to outcome, always have been, and yet my best creations come when I surrender and relinquish control. I’m aware of my inner conflict—control vs. acceptance. God’s will vs. my own. What is the greater power?
I become hyper vigilant of my painting to ensure the head will not rip off. I resent having to bring her to class at all. I flirt with the idea of painting at home and then processing at school. Someone told me that the teacher probably wouldn’t like that. I don’t know because I never asked. What I realize, however, is that people don’t like the rules bent. I gave my power away the moment I asked someone else for permission. I also discovered it feels safer to do so. I perceive my goodness by following rules, but by doing so, I consent to staying small. What I discover about power is that all too often, one trades it for the illusion of safety.
Today I pray in the energy of Buffalo Calf Woman. A tremendous wave of energy comes in and through me, damn, if this image isn’t painting itself. There’s no holding back. I simply step out-of-the-way and allow my movements to be guided.
“I don’t know what you’re doing over there, but my whole body just got chills,” said groovy girl painting near me. “Look, my nipples are hard.” I blush, and we all laugh.
Power, so it seems, turns others on.
I return home from the grocery store and there, in the fading six inches of shade cast by the garage door, is a black animal, nearly dead, down on its elbows, haunches up. I’m scared; don’t really know what the animal is or whether it’s dangerous. I cautiously step out of my car and see it’s a dog. It’s exhausted. Emaciated, it’s too weak to lift its head from its paws. I entice it into my gated yard with a bowl of water before going to class to look for help.
Susan is demure, pretty in her pink sandals and snug sweater. “I’m an animal communicator. I can help,” she softly offers. She follows me to my house where this dying dog stares into the light. There’s a severe groin wound, which I later discover is a glove rip, most likely torn on a barbed wire fence, and a deep infection has set in. We try to lift the immobile dog with a sheet, but when it yelps, we abandon our effort. Panic waves through me as I realize we’re running out of time. I don’t know how, but Susan deeply connects with the dog and somehow coaxed it the few feet into the backseat of my car. At the vet’s, the vet tech tries to wrench the dog from the backseat. The dog screams.
“Don’t pull on him like that,” Susan says. The tech reaches for the dog again. “DO NOT touch that dog again!” She could have made a cop stop with that command.
“Fine, I won’t help you!” The tech storms off.
Power can be heard.
“Is this dog viable?” I’d asked the vet on that day Susan and I had brought the dog in, expecting to euthanize him.
“Yes, we can save his life, but it’ll be expensive.”
My heart sank. I’m a student and didn’t have that kind of money. I remember standing there in the lobby a long moment before I called Mom. “The dog can be saved, but for $1,700 dollars.”
There was silence on the line. “I don’t know?” she finally said.
“Let me talk to Dad.” My father is the romantic. The artist.
“Okay,” he said. “It’s only money. When you save an animal it’s another jewel on your heavenly crown.”
Now, I’m back in the same lobby ready to pick up my new dog. “Charlie,” I repeat. The staff looks at me puzzled.
“You DO realize Charlie is a she?”
“Charlie is female. We think she’s half lab, half greyhound. She likes to run.”
They bring my bandaged dog, straining on her leash—grinning wide. “Charlie is a girls name too.” The vet tries to be helpful.
“Yeah, that’s right,” I reply, but in my head there’s a looping verse from a Dwight Yoakam tune.
Maybe I’ll be fast as you
Maybe I’ll break hearts too
But I think that you’ll slow down
When your turn to hurt comes around.
“She likes to run you say?” The vet nods. “I’ll call her, Sukie.”
Money is power, but even more powerful than money is using money to save a life. Power also knows how to ask for help.
My painting changes and begins to look like a water buffalo with Napoleon’s blue admiral’s cap. Someone else suggests it looks like a ram. I don’t mind these changes so I guess I’m not as attached to outcome as much as I think. It’s become easier to get out of the way of what the painting wants to become. The painting is nearly done and now classmates and the professor are paying attention.
“It reminds me of Chagall,” my professor tells me.
How could I not love that comparison? Power is having your work seen and appreciated.
“Closer To Fine,” by the Indigo Girls is blaring. I’m close to finishing. Images rise in my mind as quick as the brushstrokes. I remember walking with my grandmother and coming upon a dead deer. Flies buzzed over the rotting wound where its antlers had been. “Those hunters should rot in hell,” Grandma said with hatred. She was Choctaw, had lived with discrimination in Wyoming, and taught me how to respect the natural world.
“Why did they kill the deer?” I innocently asked.
“Maybe one day all the deer will rise and kill the hunters.”
She laughed, gave me a hug. “Perhaps they will.”
A blood-red wound has appeared in the center of my painting like a bullet hole. I’ve seen the photographs of buffalo skulls stacked as high as grain elevators to be ground down to dust and used in fertilizer. There were 4.5 million Bison on the U.S. plains between Canada and Mexico and within three years the number was reduced to less than five hundred (Wikipedia). Genocide. How could a heart not break at the loss of something so BIG eradicated with the power of advanced weaponry? Tears wet the rust. I spontaneously begin to pray.
“Forgive them Father for they know not what they do.”
There is no greater power than the power of forgiveness.
Jim beats the ceremonial drum. I’m journeying when Buffalo Calf Woman appears to me. “What does it feel like to be whole?” I rise from the inside like expanding yeast. This buoyancy leaves no room, no need for anything else but my own essence. I feel complete, whole, and content. Wow! So this is what (em)powerment feels like—power from the inside out. I look up at my White Buffalo, close my eyes, smile. Thank you for all you taught me. The ultimate power—to know who I truly am.