A version of this story appears in the Sunday Life section of The Oklahoman.
‘The Guardian’ sculptor Enoch Kelly Haney continues artistic career in Oklahoma
A former Oklahoma senator and representative, Haney has been named Ambassador of the Year for the 28th Annual Red Earth Festival, set for Thursday through Saturday at a new venue, Remington Park, one of the many venues across Oklahoma that showcases Haney’s monumental bronze sculptures.
A transformation is taking place on Enoch Kelly Haney’s kitchen counter
“Certain tribes, particularly the Muscogee (Creek), believe that certain people have the ability to turn themselves into owls. … It’s the Five Civilized Tribes that mostly believe that. That’s what he’s doing here,” Haney said, using strong fingers to add more definition to the upraised arm of his latest partially completed sculpture, an about 2-foot-tall figure of an American Indian warrior changing into a bird.
“I’ve never had the experience, but I’m assuming it would be pretty excruciating to go through that expression, that feeling, of this owl just kind of busting through the body.”
Over the decades, the Oklahoma native, 73, has gone through many transformations himself, from state legislator to principal chief of the Seminole Nation of Oklahoma, from business consultant to adjunct professor at Oklahoma City University. But he is perhaps best known as the creator of “The Guardian,” the 22-foot-tall bronze warrior sculpture that keeps watch atop the state Capitol dome.
“I have a degree in art and I’ve been an artist all this time,” Haney said during a recent interview at his home east of Norman. “My grandfather and father were great storytellers, so I have that ability to tell stories, about Native people and their history and so forth. So I guess in one sense I’m still the keeper of the traditions.”
The Seminole/Creek standard bearer will again be exhibiting his artwork at the Red Earth Native American Cultural Festival, after taking a break from the event for several years. In addition, he also has been named Ambassador of the Year for the 28th annual festival, set for Thursday through Saturday at Remington Park, a new venue for the event.
Honoring a role model
The Red Earth Ambassador of the Year title goes to an honoree that’s not necessarily American Indian but has helped to depict a more positive image of American Indians, said Red Earth Deputy Director Eric Oesch. Past recipients range non-Native Americans like actor Kevin Costner and author Tony Hillerman as well as Natives like astronaut John Herrington (Chickasaw) and Olympic gold medalist Billy Mills (Oglala Lakota Sioux).
“Talk about a role model. Kelly Haney has helped to portray a more positive image of Native Americans to the non-Indian community and to the Indian community with his achievements and his ethics and the beautiful art he creates,” Oesch said.
“Not only is a world-acclaimed artist, he is bringing a delegation of businessmen from China to attend the Red Earth Festival. And then they buy art to take back to China. He has an office in China, and he sells a lot of monumental sculptures to people over there.”
In 1987, a group of community and tribal leaders founded the Red Earth Festival to showcase American Indian dance and art. After serving in the state House of Representatives for six years, Haney had moved to the state Senate, where he was leader on the appropriations committee and able to find some funds to help launch the event.
“When I look back over my participation, I’m just only one of several that were likeminded and were trying to move things ahead,” he recalled. “I found a number of Senators who were willing to chip in together what they could. So it made a pretty nice little financial pot to operate from. Not enough, but it was enough to get started.”
The only full-blood American Indian to serve in the state Legislature, Haney also recalled serving as the first chairman for the Red Earth art selection committee.
““I think some of the rules that we set forward at that time are still in effect,” he said. “I tell people all over the world when I visit that at Red Earth you can buy what you like and you don’t have to worry about the quality because the quality’s just there because of the selection process. We have a lot of young artists coming up that I’m really excited about.”
Although he hasn’t exhibited at the festival for many years prior to the 2014 because he has been slowing his art career, Haney said he has attended every Red Earth and feels honored to be named Ambassador of the Year. He also is excited to show his artwork at the festival’s new venue.
“I know that I am best known for ‘The Guardian’ and always will be because of where it is and the size and so forth. The significance for Oklahoma and Oklahoma history. But the finest sculpture I’ve done to date is at Remington Park,” he said, referring to his monumental depiction of a Chickasaw warrior astride a galloping horse, which was unveiled last year on the grounds of the race track and casino.
“’The Guardian’ from start to finish took me 10 months … but with ‘Chickasaw Horse and Warrior,’ that was a whole different thing. I’ve ridden horses and had some, but I’d never really done anything like that. So it took me two full years to complete that project. And to me, that’s the best project I have to date. I’m looking forward to having better ones.”
Making new art
The prolific painter and sculptor keeps creating artwork. Along with “Owl Transformation,” his recently crafted a new, more detailed rendition of his “Standing His Ground” sculpture, the monumental version of which is displayed in the Enoch Kelly Haney Center foyer at Seminole State College in Seminole.
“Sometimes I need to fix things. I didn’t get them like they need to be. I have never finished a piece of art in my life … but with art, you just come to a point that you’ve got to stop,” Haney said, patting a small version of “Standing His Ground I” in the foyer of his home.
“The story is that whenever a warrior was faced with insurmountable odds in enemy territory, he would dismount and tie himself to the ground and then prepare to make the last stand. He said, ‘This is as far as I’m going.’ You see, you have to look past the message in my sculptures as Indians. You have to look at it as a message for everybody. I mean, everybody in the world – a mother, a father, a teacher, a businessman, a little child – every now and then you go ‘That’s it. I’m making my stand.’”
At Red Earth, Haney will be selling some of his popular small-scale versions of “The Guardian,” and he’s working on a new treatment of that concept, too.
“I’ve never done a painting of ‘The Guardian.’ I’ve got this contemporary concept of ‘The Guardian.’ In my mind, it looks good. … I just gotta get it on canvas. I’ll get it done. All it is from here to here,” he said, pointing from his head to his hands
“The most difficult thing for me about art is developing the concept. Once I get the concept, then the painting, sculpting, is easy. … The way I function and I see other artists, if we can see an image here, it goes down and travels down our fingertips and it creates in front of us what we have in here,” he added, tapping his temple.
“So I can still tell stories – some wonderful stories – about Native people and value systems and beliefs and so forth.”
28th Annual Red Earth Native American Cultural Festival
•Featuring: Dance competition, art market and competitions, food booths, children’s activities, live music.
•When: 6 to 10 p.m. Thursday and 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. Friday and Saturday.
•Where: Remington Park race track and casino, 1 Remington Place.
•Parade: 9 a.m. Friday in downtown.