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June | July 2014

From Cowboy to Contemporary

Architecture in the West: From Northern Idaho to the San Juan Islands Triumvirate: Ken Bunn, Gerald Balciar and Walter Matia Melanie Yazzie: Printing the Legend Around the World Z.S. Liang’s Tribal Influence


Wanderings: Vancouver, British Columbia Bill Owen: A True Cowboy Artist Overland Partners on Architecture + Art

Tribal Influence Z.S. Liang brings his passion for the Native American story to canvas after canvas

f it weren’t for the giant canvases and easel in Z.S. Liang’s studio, one might mistake it for a small natural history museum. The stuff of Native American people and their long-ago lives is everywhere. Badger and skunk

Written by Isabelle T. Walker

skins hang on the wall below the beaded shirt of a tribal chief. A quiver (full of feather-tipped arrows) wrapped in mountain lion fur, its tail still attached, quietly inhabits a far corner. And that’s just a start. Liang uses every one of the items, and many more, to breathe realism and life into narratives

Offering to the Sacred Water Oil | 28 x 40 inches

130 WA


Joe Kipp Trader, Missouri River, 1879Â Oil | 44 x 68 inches


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The Charge of Crazy Horse on Fort Laramie, 1864 Oil | 40 x 60 inches

that are visually luscious and historically true. Many of the moments captured in Liang’s paintings are taken from actual recorded events — some famous, others little known — that the artist has dredged up through research and close listening to Crow, Lakota, Blackfeet and Arapaho tribesmen who trust and respect him. Through painstaking attention to detail, he recreates encounters — some highly complex and evocative of cultural differences — by visiting the actual sites where meetings have occurred, arranging for models to stand in for long-gone participants and photographing them for use in his studio. Take his work Lakota Warriors, Little Bighorn, June 25th 1876, which now hangs above the living room mantel of avid Western art collector Bob Sandroni. A Lakota warrior on horseback is charging across the battlefield holding one of Custer’s guidons in his right hand; in his left hand are the reins and a rifle. In full headdress, his expression is triumphant, defiant and intense; his mouth open, one imagines a Lakota Warriors, Little Bighorn, June 25th 1876 Oil | 51 x 39 inches 132 WA


American West and the 2005 Oil Painters of America President’s Choice award. Liang’s ability to paint vivid, historically accurate, multilayered narratives is fueled in large part by his passion for the subject matter. “The more I learn, the more I get involved and interested [in this subject matter.] In a way, I feel it’s my mission to [bring] these vanishing stories back to life on my canvas and eventually in my book,” says Liang. Considering how far he has come and the depth of his commitment, the fact that Liang’s interest in the subject was triggered by an encounter at a highway rest stop is ironic. He was living in Boston, painting portraits on commission after receiving a bachelor of arts from the Massachusetts College of Fine Arts and a master of fine arts from Boston University. One day, after pulling off the highway, Liang noticed a poster for a Wampanoag outdoor museum. Half the poster depicted a young Wampanoag Indian of yesteryear, the other half showed a pilgrim. It drew him in. When he visited the plantation, exhibits of 17th-century Wampanoag life evoked memo-

Deer Hunter Oil | 40 x 30 inches

ries of Liang’s childhood in rural Guangzhou, China: tending animals, farming, gathering

war cry containing the unmistakable sound of victory. The

and making use of every resource.

battle was one of the most decisive Native American victo-

“I grew up very poor. We raised chickens, [there was]

ries of the Great Sioux Wars and its story is captured in the

basically a shortage of everything. Nothing was wasted. … It

painting. Sandroni loves it not just for its masterful mix of

was pretty easy for me to relate to [the Wampanoag people].”

hues and expert composition, but also because of its historic

Liang painted Deer Hunter, his first of the Native American

accuracy down to the rips in the guidon that Liang photo-

experience, after spending time with a Wampanoag tribes-

graphed before embarking on the opening pencil sketches.

man (actually the same man photographed for the poster)

Liang is rising to the top of his profession probably faster

who took him to the woods and taught him exactly how

than any other artist devoted to this subject matter, says John

early Wampanoag stalked and shot deer, kneeling down

Geraghty, a trustee at the Autry National Center and a long-

afterwards to touch and prayerfully release its soul back to

time collector of Liang’s work. His works are collected and

the spirit world. More canvases followed and, within a short

sought after by those who understand and appreciate the

time, Liang’s colleague and friend, Mian Situ, introduced

genre most — including fellow painter of Native American life,

him to Trailside Gallery owner Maryvonne Leshe.

Howard Terpning — and are in the permanent collections at

“I think Z.S. takes the time that it requires to do better

both the Autry National Center and the West Point Museum

paintings, not just a pretty painting. It has to be historically

of the United States Military Academy. His awards include

accurate,” says Leshe, who represents him exclusively. “He

the 2011 Masters of the American West Purchase Award, the

has always stressed more than money, more than quantity,

David P. Usher Patrons’ Choice at the 2009 Masters of the

it’s quality.”


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134 WA


Rejecting the Metal Shield, Ft. Mackenzie, 1835 Oil | 46 x 72 inches

Liang’s paintings are sold before they even arrive at the

the chief, examining the shield, is expressionless; a more

gallery and when he has a show, collectors vie for them

elaborate shield is carried by a second white man in the

through a draw.

background; the American flag is raised. The details are

“When you first look at his paintings, what catches you is

everywhere, bringing the story to life.

the beauty of the subjects,” says Situ, who happens to be from

“For the Indian, the spiritual protection is more than the

Guangzhou as well and knew Liang when they both studied

physical protection,” says Liang. “If you need a shield, you

at the fine art college there. “He’s very sensitive to the beauty

have to ask the medicine man and do a lot of the ceremonial

of the people, the subjects, the landscape, the lighting.” The

things and paint it and decorate it with feathers and then

well-known Situ is highly respected for his paintings of the

it becomes effective for you. So it means the two cultures

Chinese immigrant experience in San Francisco.

are clashing. Different thinking. Totally different,” the artist

After talking and sipping black tea in his studio, Liang


pulled out a digital image of a painting that is now part of

Amy Scott, Ph.D., the Marilyn B. and Calvin B. Gross

the Autry Center’s permanent collection, Rejecting the Metal

curator of visual arts at the Autry, said that in the last few

Shield, a 46- by 72-inch work the artist modestly refers to as

years Liang has really come into his own, and Rejecting the

“successful.” In it, a white fur trader holds a pipe while lean-

Metal Shield represents a new level.

ing in and gesturing to a seated Blackfeet chief. The chief is

“Each year [Liang] sends us something that is a little more

examining a plain, silver metal shield. Beside the chief are a

sophisticated, more agile and more ambitious. There is a lot of

medicine man and other Blackfeet tribesmen, some holding

[work] based on interaction between figures and that’s a hard

items gained in a just-completed trade. In the background

thing to paint. You have to capture gesture and the reaction,

is the hum and bustle of the busy Fort McKenzie, located

and he’s getting better and better at that every year.”

in northern Montana in the mid-1800s. (Liang visited the site and studied the floorplan of the fort before beginning the painting.) As you gaze, the story unfolds before you —

Isabelle T. Walker is a freelance writer and editor based in Santa Barbara, California.

Arapaho War Chief (opposite) Oil | 52 x 30 inches WA

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Z.S. Liang, Tribal Influences-Western Art & Architecture-June/July 2014  

Z.S. Liang, Tribal Influences-Western Art & Architecture-June/July 2014