|By Jonathan Gramling
While Chris Sweet, a Ho-Chunk artist and muralist, grew up in and was
surrounded by art and dabbled in it, his artistic career didn’t blossom
until later in his life when a patron of Native art “discovered” him and art
has been at the centerpiece of his life ever since. In some ways, art was
in Sweet’s genes.
“Since I can remember, I’ve always appreciated art and have always
loved drawing,” Sweet said. “Even when I was a little guy, I enjoyed
drawing. My mother was an artist. She was actually an art teacher once
upon a time. I found out later on in life that my dad was also an artist. I
think that might have been a little part of my interest. I did a lot of
artwork. I did some works here and there for friends and family.”
Sweet was dedicated to art enough that after high school, he attended
the renowned Institute of American Indian Art in Santa Fe, New Mexico.
But a degree was not in the works.
“I spent a little time out there,” Sweet said. “I didn’t complete my studies
out there. But it was a valuable time. It was a good learning experience.”
When Sweet came back to Wisconsin, he pursued his art more on a
personal or hobby level. Sweet Also had to earn a living and worked in
the casinos most of his adult life. He never left his artwork, but pursued it
more as a personal interest.
Sweet’s big break came in 2016 when Sweet’s talent was recognized by
a patron of American Indian art.
“I was offered an opportunity through Melanie Tallmadge Sainz who is
with Little Eagle’s Arts Foundation,” Sweet said. “She opened up a
gallery in the Wisconsin Dells called Native Presence Gallery. She was
looking for Ho-Chunk artists to do the opening show. She reached out to
me and I was very grateful for that opportunity. I decided to go for it
because I had never really done any major painting before that. I said,
‘What the heck. I’m going to dive in and give it a whirl.’ I got a bunch of
paintings done. I did 12 large paintings for the opening. I loved it. It all
came together. The gallery show was a hit. It was interesting. I was
hooked after that and everything took off from there.”
From then on, Sweet focused on his art as a form of expression, but also
as a way to make a living. He took his shop on the road.
“I got interested in doing set-ups,” Sweet said. “I would go to pow-wows.
They would have set-ups there as vendors. From there, I was given
opportunity to do a show in Stevens Point. I was invited by Karen Ann
Hoffman. She is from the Oneida Nation. I kept going from there. Ever
since then, I’ve been doing paintings and shows. We just came back
from Duluth. We’re in Eau Claire now. I stopped at the Eagle Gallery up
there. They created a billboard in Duluth out of one of my paintings to
spread the word on being safe and wearing masks. I was real happy to be
involved with that.”
Sweet was also one of the artists of color who was invited to create a
mural for Madison College’s new Goodman South Campus in 2019. He
wouldn’t have been in a position to create the mural if it weren’t for his
patron, Melanie Tallmadge Sainz.
“I was involved in another mural project in the Reedsburg area,” Sweet
recalled. “I was being mentored through a mural artist from Red Lake.
|His name is Wesley May. He was invited down to create that mural. Melanie Tallmadge Sainz
asked me to be a part of that so that I could learn the process. It was very interesting and fun. It
was a community project as well. We had children from the area come and help. People from
other counties came and helped. It was really neat. The mural was called Honoring Blue Wing.
His name is Chief Blue Wing or Chief Ahuchoga. He was kind of the founder of Reedsburg, the
Native founder, of that area. They were trying to remove him from Reedsburg and send him on
that Trail of Tears. But all of the people came together and they stopped the military from taking
him and his family away.”
While Sweet has created “realistic” art, he prefers to create art that has a sense of mysticism
“It’s a healing message, which is what I strive for: healing,” Sweet emphasized. “That’s the main
goal of my art, to promote healing and unity. One of my main paintings that I did early on was
called Unity in Healing. It’s of three American Indian women in jingle dress outfits and regalia.
The jingle dress represents healing. It’s a dance they do. I’ll actually smudge a lot of my art work.
There are prayers that go into my work. When I smudge it, I’m putting healing prayers into my
work. There is good medicine that goes into each piece. I want people to feel that when they
look at my artwork. It just makes me feel good creating it.”
Sweet uses a layering method to his paintings to give them depth in terms of their visual feeling
and their message.
|"I like to work a lot with applicade design,” Sweet said. “It’s like a story
on top of a story on top of another story. One painting is underneath.
And then I will go on top of that one. I builds more character and the
story is even stronger after I am done. Each painting tells a story. You
have to look at it for a while. There are sceneries there that you don’t
see at first. But the longer you look at it, you kind of start seeing the
other stuff in there.”
During this time of COVID-19 when people have been hit by illness as
well as economically, Sweet is grateful that he can make a living as an
artist. The casinos where he used to work have shut down or severely
curtailed their operations. And in this time when people are
experiencing a lot of misery, Sweet feels an obligation to help them
“When people look at my work, I want them to know that there are good
thoughts and good feelings and good meaning and medicine inside of
my work,” Sweet emphasized. “When you look at my work, I want you to
be able to take the time to look at it for a while and take it in and find
your own good feelings and medicine within it.”
Sweet’s work is uplifting, allowing people’s spirits to soar like an eagle
over the valley of misery. It is truly a wonderful gift to have and fulfill.