Wichita resident Britt Brown met artist Blackbear Bosin in the late 1940s. Brown was working for The Wichita Eagle and trying to sell advertising to the theaters. Bosin was painting movie posters at the Fox Theater.
When Brown and Bosin discovered they'd both been Marines, they immediately felt a bond. Brown also had always been interested in American Indian lore, and Bosin was willingly to teach him more.
"He was Kiowa and Comanche, and he knew the Kiowa language," Brown said, remembering his friend who died in 1980. "I started studying Kiowa, and (Bosin's) father's clan adopted me, and we became blood brothers.
"When he died, his widow, as was his wish, gave me his collection (of Indian artifacts). I donated this to the KU (anthropology) museum (in 1999) to use and to remember Bear."
The collection of artifacts and five of Bosin's paintings, which are owned by Brown, are on display through Aug. 5 at the Kansas University Museum of Anthropology.
Among the artifacts are Hupa cradles; Paiute cradleboards; Seminole baskets; Cheyenne, Northern Arapaho and Sioux pouches; Eskimo dolls and games; Navajo sand paintings; Kiowa and Plains moccasins; and Pawnee Bandolier sashes.
Included in the paintings are "Medicine Whip's Coup," a gouache on illustration board commissioned by Britt in 1963 that depicts the heroism of Medicine Whip during a battle between Blackfoot and the Sioux Indians a century ago, and "Blackbear and Sun Eagle," a 1973 gouache on illustration board that illustrates the men's ability to look beyond their differences to form a deep friendship.
While he considered himself a painter first, Bosin is probably best-known for "Keeper of the Plains," the 44-foot steel sculpture that sits at the confluence of the Arkansas and Little Arkansas rivers near downtown Wichita.
A meager beginning
Frances Blackbear Bosin was born in 1921 to a Kiowa-farmer father and a Comanche-bead designer mother. The family, which also included three younger sisters, lived in Anadarko, Okla., and were quite poor.
"They lived in a one-room cabin without water," said Brown, who retired a few years ago after working his way up to become president and publisher of the Wichita newspaper. "During the season, they lived off tortoises. His mother put them into the oven alive, and they would scratch on the door to get out. (As an adult), the memory would still send shivers down his back."
Bosin attended St. Patrick's Mission School and Cyril High School. Brown said Bosin was offered an art scholarship to the University of Oklahoma, but turned it down because he was needed on the farm.
In 1940, Bosin moved to Wichita to escape the prejudice he experienced in his home state, according to the exhibit's narrative. He signed up for the Marines during World War II and was shipped to the Pacific. Bosin became ill on his way to Iwo Jima and ended up in a hospital in Pearl Harbor.
During his recuperation, the medical and nursing staff noted his drawing ability and encouraged him to take it seriously. He went on to work as a greeting card designer, industrial designer/production illustrator for Boeing and an art director for McConnell Air Force Base.
Bosin painted seriously from the 1950s to the 1970s and eventually opened Great Plains Studio in Wichita, where he sold his paintings and the jewelry made by his mother.
According to the exhibit's narrative, Bosin's earliest paintings are influenced by the Kiowa 5, a group of American Indian artists who produced works from 1910 to 1920. They created two-dimensional work with no perspective or background that were culturally accurate and impeccably detailed.
In the 1960s, Bosin began using more symbolism, gradiating colors and geometric backgrounds in this paintings.
In the 1970s, after open heart surgery, Bosin experienced a horizontal blind spot in both eyes.
"To paint he had to look 6 inches below or above (the blind spot)," Brown said. "With his earlier paintings, every hair (on a bear) was there. Later, his paintings don't have that. It broke his heart."
Painting a song
Brown describes Bosin as "very spiritual in the Indian way."
For example, the painting "Night Singers" shows two howling coyotes on each side of an empty-eyed onlooker who is thinking about the buffalo herds of long ago.
"It is my belief that each of my paintings represents an inner song. " Bosin wrote about his creative process. "It is a song I have listened to. It is a song that guides me until it cannot be heard any longer. Then, the painting is finished."
Bosin's paintings are gaining in popularity and status, Brown said. In the 1950s, his paintings were priced at $5,000.
In the 1960s, the price had doubled, and now Bosin's paintings can bring up to $50,000 each.
"There's only a handful of Indian artists of that quality," he said.
Brown says he thinks of his friend nearly every day.
When June 26 rolls around, Bosin won't be there to celebrate the Sioux's victory at the Battle of Little Big Horn a drinking ritual that the two men dubbed the "Custer got what he deserved" celebration. "I miss him," Brown said.
"And I'm delighted he's getting the attention he deserves and that his paintings are getting appreciated for their meaning and character."