Russell Means: A Man of Our Time

No doubt Bob Coronato‘s portrait of Native American activist Russell Means (right) caused more than a few jaws to drop at the Masters of the American West Fine Art Exhibition and Sale currently on view at the Autry National Center in Los Angeles.

Generally, the paintings in this annual event tend to portray historical scenes of Native Americans. This portrait captures a living Native American, a man of our time. Means is depicted draped in an upside-down American flag, an international signal of distress. Indeed, Coronato says he received lots of comments, including one viewer at the opening who said, “That was so far outside the box, you never saw the box.”

The painting was a decade in the making. Coronato acquired the activist and writer’s e-mail address and explained how he wanted to paint him as an important historical figure. It took several more years after that initial approach, but the artist finally got an invitation to Mean’s house. “We talked for a few hours about politics, reservation life and what kind of thoughts I had for the portrait.” Coronato says. “Russell seemed worried that I wanted to put him in a war bonnet and paint him as if he was living 100 years ago. He said to me, ‘I’m a late 20th century Indian, and that’s how I want to be portrayed.'”

While they talked, Means was sending out tweets, and for the painting no war bonnet was in sight. “The watch and T-shirt describe how Indians are—not the idea of old Hollywood westerns or to be thought of as ‘in the past’ but a people very much of today and with a rich history,” Coronato explains. R. Means is the first in a series of portraits of high-profile Native Americans the artist plans to create.

—Bonnie Gangelhoff


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One thought on “Russell Means: A Man of Our Time

  1. Larke Williams

    I found this by accident and I am so glad I did. I have met Russell Means, and this painting is so lifelike, I thought it was a photograph!
    I am amazed, the expression Means has in this painting speaks volumes. I feel as if he’s about to say something very important. I love the sense of pride he has in his face. The Flag is perfect for the message Means has always tried so hard to bring to light. What really impresses me is the subtle message (as you pointed out) with the watch and the T-shirt. He is a "modern Indian" and I wished more people could see this painting. I feel it would start a dialog that needs to keep happening until our reservation are better places for the Indigenous peoples of America to live and raise families.

    I would love to see this painting in person, Is it going to be shown anywhere else when it’s done at this show?

    Thanks so much for sharing, I am excited to see the other paintings in this series. What a talented Artist, and what a truly Important body of work!