Artist pays tribute to Suzan Shown Harjo in mural project 

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For 34 years, Concho Indian Boarding School stood as a vacant reminder of a time when the U.S. government tried to assimilate members of the Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes into European-American dress, language and customs. But thanks to the vision of a local artist, the empty school is now a monument to the accomplishments of Native American heroes and will soon pay tribute to a recent Presidential Medal of Freedom winner.

Steven Grounds, 38, began work on his mural two years ago in an effort to turn the decaying building into a place of honor for the tribes, first painting a portrait of Chief Black Kettle of the Northern Cheyenne and then portraits based on turn-of-the-century tribal photographs. While working on this first stage of the project, Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes honored Cheyenne-Muscogee activist Suzan Shown Harjo with a tribal dance to celebrate Harjo’s award from President Barack Obama.

“So, she happened to be out here, and I coincidentally was painting the same night that they were having the dance,” Grounds said. “So she came out there and we met, and we talked for 20 minutes. She came across as a really gentle, powerful person, and she inspired me right then and there.”

Born in El Reno in 1945, Harjo worked in radio in the mid-1960s and hosted the first Native American news show, Seeing Red. Some of her early work involved activism and repatriation of sacred garments and artifacts housed at New York’s Museum of the American Indian in 1967. She became a congressional liaison for Indian affairs under President Jimmy Carter and led the National Congress of American Indians.

She heads the Morning Star Institute, where she is responsible for returning 1 million acres of sacred lands to native tribes, including Cheyenne and Arapaho.

“She is from here, and these are her people,” Grounds said. “So I just decided I had to include her.”

Grounds, one of four Native American artists working on the Sheridan Avenue underpass project that links Bricktown to downtown Oklahoma City, initially planned his work on the Concho Indian Boarding School as a place to hone his muralist talent.

“Once I got permission, I started it, never thinking about painting an ongoing, evolving mural,” he said. “But it became sort of like the Sistine Chapel, and I realized it could be the biggest work I’ve ever done. I have eight portraits on it now, and the more I paint on it, it feels like a magnum opus, a broad, sweeping mural that I want to continue working on without any specific end date.”

Grounds said he is also talking with Cheyenne and Arapaho leaders to help clean up and restore the school’s interior. The structure was built in 1968 and served as the last of four buildings to house Concho Indian Boarding School. He has painted murals inside and would like to transform the currently disheveled interior of the building into a mural gallery.

“On a personal level, I’m happy to be giving back to the Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes. I feel that if I can see this through and actually stay with it and stay inspired, then I think I can do just about anything within the realm of street art,” Grounds said. “I was talking to my friend about this the other day: Within the realm of art, if you’re really being purist about it, there isn’t really a moment when you say it’s done unless there’s a deadline. What I’m doing out here in Concho doesn’t have that aspect or endpoint, so it’s maybe never going to be technically finished.”

The finished mural of Harjo will be unveiled noon Aug. 6 at the school, located about 4 miles north of El Reno on White Antelope Road in Concho.

See more of Grounds’ work at multi-artist exhibit Native Pop! The show celebrates its successful run with a closing party 6-10 p.m. Thursday at The Paseo Plunge, 3010 Paseo St.

Print headline: Art school, Muralist Steven Grounds transforms Concho Indian Boarding School into a Native American mural. 

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