- Harry Fonseca, Maidu, American, 1946-2006
- Born: Sacramento, CA
- Work Locations: Santa Barbara, CA; Sacramento, CA; Santa Fe, NM
About the Artist
Harry Fonseca was born in Sacramento, California in 1946, and passed away in December of 2006. He came from Maidu, Hawaiian, and Portuguese background, and his Maidu ancestry largely influenced his work. Much of his early inspiration came from traditional Native art forms, including basketry and dance, and from the Maidu creation story. Fonseca also studied the art of European masters and loved the opera. He connected to tradition in new ways, combining themes and patterns from his heritage with his own artistic vision and ideas from contemporary society. Fonseca traveled internationally to paint and lecture, and participated in numerous exhibitions, including the Venice Biennale in Italy in 1999. He was the recipient of a number of grants and awards, including the Alan Houser Memorial Award, presented to him by New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson, celebrating “an outstanding individual who has demonstrated artistic success and community involvement.”
What Inspired It
Fonseca began using the character Coyote in the late 1970s (the Denver Art Museum owns two from the series; Coyote #1 shows a Maidu dancer dressed as a coyote wearing a condor feather cape). Coyote appears in several traditional Native legends from different tribes and has many meanings, including, but not limited to, the trickster, the wise man, and the changer or transformer. He has a strong place in the Maidu creation story. Fonseca created a series of paintings that places Coyote in contemporary settings—as a biker, or a dancer in the ballet Swan Lake, for example. In placing the Native American folk hero in contemporary, mainstream settings, Fonseca created imagery that can break down stereotypes. He shows both Natives and non-Natives that Native people are active participants in making mainstream life and culture.
The title, Shuffle Off to Buffalo #V, comes from a song in the Broadway play 42nd Street.
Fonseca applied glitter to the border, adding to the theatrical and playful look of the painting. Fonseca may also have used glitter here to reference the California gold rush. Between 1846 and 1870, in California alone, the gold rush caused an 80 percent decline in American Indian populations that directly affected Maidu culture.
Fonseca placed Coyote on a stage dressed in an Uncle Sam costume. By placing Coyote in this contemporary setting, Fonseca made the suggestion that Coyote is the president of the United States. Coyote himself represents Native Americans, and in this painting asserts that Native people can take on any role they choose.
Fonseca chose to apply the paint thickly. The red curtains appear velvety and heavy. The yellow frame, enhanced with glitter, seems to emphasize Coyote as a celebrity.
Quick Classroom Ideas
- Create a comic strip with Coyote as the main character. Have your students pay attention to how Fonseca’s painting is framed.
- Have students consider the ways that they are tricksters – do they ever pretend to be something that they are not? Have them create a self-portrait in which they are disguised.
- Have students design a new costume for Coyote that reflects a part of their everyday lives (e.g. sports, fashion, or other interests). Trace the outline of Coyote’s outfit, cut it out, and have students fill it in with their own designs. The students can then paste the new costume on top of the image of Coyote. Students can also create a new stage set that reflects things they see every day at school.
- Introduce the concept of personification. Have students make a list of their own traits/characteristics. Using the list, students will choose an animal that will take on their characteristics and write a story.