Warrior With Shield

Artist: Tillier Wesley, Jr.

Tillier Wesley was a self-taught Muscogee-Creek artist who incorporated traditional Native American symbols and themes into his paintings. “He liked to think of his paintings as parables,” said the artist’s son, Micah Wesley. “He used imagery to tell stories.”

In a 1994 interview with the Lawton Constitution, Tillier Wesley called his venture into art completely serendipitous. “I started doodling to keep from being bored and it started from there.” Rather than trying to replicate traditional tribal clothing from a particular tribe, he preferred to rely on symbolism in his work. Warrior With Shield features a decorative bird, a figure that appeared frequently in the artist’s work. “I like to use birds because, to me, they show innocence. Most of the time birds are just there. You don’t always notice them at first.”

Cancer cut Tillier Wesley’s painting career short, and Micah said people sometimes tell him they wish his father had been able to produce more art and meet more people. Influenced by his father, the younger Wesley has a more symbolic approach. “Near the end, his work had come full circle as he began to understand his own mortality,” Micah said. “Those later paintings convey his essence. They are like a very intimate conversation, a rare moment captured in time. To know his work was to know him.”

Wesley’s paintings continue to speak to audiences and even inspired a musical composition, Color of the Spirit. After his death, Kay Buskirk, a viola instructor at Friends University in Wichita, Kansas commissioned composer Daniel Racer to honor Wesley through music. Racer wrote a six movement piece intended for viola, double bass and English horn. Racer incorporated symbolism from the painter’s work, including Wesley’s habit of doing things in threes, so the theme of the piece comes back three times. Color of the Spirit’s prelude includes the numerical equivalent of Wesley’s birth and death dates transformed into pitches. The debut performance of the work took place at the Doss Center in Weatherford, Texas, in 2009 and accompanied an exhibition of Wesley’s paintings. A performance of the composition can be found on the YouTube channel, DanielRacerComposer.

Tillier Wesley’s artistic legacy lives on through his son, Micah Wesley. Micah’s work has been featured alongside his father’s in several gallery exhibits, including the Native Arts Center in Dallas and the Red Earth Museum in Oklahoma City. Tillier Wesley’s work received many honors, including the Grand Award at the Red Earth Festival in 1998, and grand prize at the Trail of Tears Art Show in Tahlequah. His pieces are included in the permanent collections of the Smithsonian Institution and the Fred Jones Museum at the University of Oklahoma. Warrior With Shield is one of Tillier Wesley’s earlier works. It is on permanent loan from the Oklahoma Historical Society.