John Stermer Painting: Sioux Eagle and the story about it.

Thunderbird: The Story About the Commission of the “Sioux Eagle”


John Stermer Painting: Sioux Eagle and the story about it.

Greetings!  This essay is about the genesis of the painting “Sioux Eagle” by my father, artist John H. Stermer.  The subject of the painting, the sacred thunderbird, is an unusual one for my father.  I would like to tell you about on the clients who commissioned the painting.   Then I will tell you a story about the commission and in doing so, explain why I think this painting is unique among the John Stermer works

The story I tell is based on my best recollection.  Some of the observations about the painting itself are based on my conversations with Dad and my own experience.

Introducing Ralph and Gertrude VonKuster, Clients.

I think the best place to start is to introduce you to the clients: Ralph and Gertrude VonKuster.  They were our neighbors and family friends in Silver City, NM, for several years.

Ralph:  Lived Among The Sioux.

Ralph was from the Northern Plains, South Dakota to be specific.  He left home at an early age.  He lived with the Sioux peoples and considered them family; they raised him.  When we met Mr. VonKuster, he was retired and he loved to create beautiful pieces of fine wood furniture.

Gertrude: From The Pacific Northwest.

Gertrude was from the Pacific Northwest.  I remember Mrs. VonKuster telling me stories about working in the salmon canneries.  She also told me about how the rain could be relentless in Washington state and the Olympic Peninsula in particular.  When we met Gertrude, she was in her final years of employment as a Social Worker.  She did needlework and helped me learn to knit and crochet.

Both Ralph and Gertrude were passionate about the native peoples of this country.  I recall that one of their close friends was a Princess of the Blackfoot Nation in Montana.

I am not sure of the connection to Montana.  I was a teenager when I heard the stories and not so diligent in remembering the details.

Ralph Thinks Dad Ought To Paint A Thunderbird.

So, in the 70s and 80s, the VonKusters were living in Silver City, NM and were our neighbors and friends.  At some point, Ralph figures Dad is a pretty good painter and starts asking him to do a painting of a thunderbird.

Resisting the Thunderbird Project.

My Mother, (Luci Stermer) and sisters remember Dad resisting the idea.  Here are my thoughts on possible reasons for being reluctant:

  • First of all, a commission is at least three times the work as a “normal” painting.  That is, in a commission you have to work with the client to gain an understanding of what is wanted, expected and possible.  It is a type of collaborative project.  It is just not the same as doing a painting for yourself.  Dad did commission work often, but I’m sure there was a lot of discussion a head of time.
  • Second, there is the entire issue of creating a painting of a sacred being from a culture with which the artist had no direct connection.  I would imagine Dad would want to respect and honor the culture.  To do so he would need to do research and learn what made the great thunder-being so special.
  • Third, its always a good idea to make sure friends are serious about a commission before you launch the project!

Something Different.

This thunderbird was not Dad’s usual subject.  John Stermer’s works include landscapes, still lives, portraits, figures, florals, animals, city-scapes but not sacred beings from native peoples.

Determined Client.

But, Mr. VonKuster persisted.  Dad and Ralph talked about George Catlin; talked about medicine men like Black Elk, for example.  I even remember them talking about how horses gallop and which artist’s depicted the movement of horses correctly.  You might surmise that Mr. VonKuster is crafting a large net to catch a painting he thinks will be magnificent and monumental.

And, soon enough, Dad is reading books such as “Black Elk Speaks”.

Thunderbird Commission.

Eventually, Dad took on the project and commission.  One day, in the archives of John Stermer Estate, we may find the preparatory drawing from the “Sioux Eagle”.  I am certain that Dad did several as he worked to find his own personal way to depict the great spirit of so many native peoples.

And, then, it is finished.  My sister Dorothy reminded me that “Sioux Eagle” had pride of place in the VonKuster household.  She remembers that the VonKusters collected art but Dad’s painting was hung prominently in the VonKusters living room.  Dorothy said “Its brightness lit up the room”.

Dad and Ralph continued to be good friends for the rest of their lives.

My Observations.

What I see when I look at “Sioux Eagle” is a crackling, active sky dominated by the huge, screaming thunderbird.  Lightening strikes and jagged angles dance across the vast yellow sky and blue-gray-purple-black thunderbird.

Below, there is what looks to be a tranquil Great Plains with buffalo and tipis.  However, the storm is coming as foretold by the thunderbird’s shadow- shape on the plain between the tipis and bison.

I remember my father talking to me about he used geometry, that is angles, lines and triangles to activate the thunderbird and the surrounding sky.  He included a dark, red lightening shape.

Typical of Dad’s paintings, he used the angles, lines and triangles to connect the plains below to the sky above.  He also used complimentary colors (yellow and purple) as the dominant color scheme.

I have read that the sacred thunderbird is associated with spring and the return of migrating animals to the Great Plains.  At the same time come strong storms with lightening and thunder.  I also read that the talons of the great bird spirit were both threatening and protective of the people. I wonder if Dad read something similar when I look at the “Sioux Eagle”.

In any case, it is not my intention to do a comprehensive narrative about the thunderbird or the Native Peoples of the United States.

A Painting To Honor The Sacred.

It was my intention to say that I believe my Dad, artist John Stermer sought to honor the sacred Thunder-being of the Sioux Nation in a personal way.

This was a unique painting in the collection of John Stermer works.  The painting was done specifically for some close friends.  These friends, Ralph and Gertrude had a deep connection with the Native Peoples from our Northwest and Northern Great Plains.  What was unique was the subject matter:  a spirit sacred to native peoples.


About The Painting.

Thus, the “Sioux Eagle”, by artist John Stermer, then of Silver City, NM.  A commissioned piece done in oil paint on linen for Ralph and Gertrude VonKuster.  Now, the painting resides in a private family collection.

The images shown in this blog post were done by Carr Imaging in Albuquerque NM.  They also created a limited edition of giclee reproductions of the painting for the John Stermer estate.  Please contact the estate or see the giclee reproduction at The Gallery ABQ, (also in Albuquerque) through the month of October, 2017.

John Stermer Giclees by Carr Imaging

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