MMichael Horse may be best known as an accomplished actor but it’s a career he fell into. A lifelong artist, from a talented family of jewelers, potters and painters, Michael Horse was renting a studio from an agent in Los Angeles when the agent cajoled, begged and, ultimately, convinced him to take the part of ‘Tonto’ in the 1980 remake of The Lone Ranger. “Terrible film,” Horse laughs, “but I learned very quickly that it's always in the writing.” It was the writing he’s still proud of with his roles in both “Twin Peaks” and the Canadian series “North of 60.” But with many films also on his resume, it’s still artwork that best defines Michael Horse.
Of Sonoran Yaqui descent, Michael Horse was born on the Pascua Yaqui reservation south of Tucson and moved as a child to Los Angeles when his grandfather was sent there as part of the relocation programs. Michael Horse remembers it as a culturally rich environment, one that taught him how important art was to the human spirit. "Art is one of the ways that native people celebrate and relate to their culture, their religion and to nature - it is a gift,” he explains. “Art teaches us beauty, humility and humor. You cannot be a healthy human being without art and music in your life."
A jeweler for over thirty years, Michael Horse moves between traditional and contemporary styles, enjoying the relationship between the two. The remarkably detailed silver katsinas he creates can seem a perfect blend of the old and the modern but they were, in fact, inspired by katsina jewelry made in the 1940s, styles that Horse now beautifully recreates in rings, bolos, earrings, and pendants.
As a painter Michael Horse has brought reinvigorated inspiration to the traditional Native American style of “ledger art.” In the reservation era, as the practice of painting on buffalo hides became impossible, any “canvas” readily available took its place with various scrap papers such as book pages, old letters, maps and ledger books becoming background for visual recollections of heroic battles, scenes of ceremony, hunting and daily life. Newer implements such as crayons, colored pencils and water-colors allowed for a new breadth of detail. This traditional folk art was very free-flowing, Michael Horse points out, incorporating symbols and movement, almost like a film scene with images leading right off the pages in a very uncontained style. Having had the opportunity to see many of the old, original ledger drawings through his work with museums, Michael Horse explains its pull on him: “I knew this was my history book, coming from my point of view.”
This is the inspiration that feeds Michael Horse as he recreates ledger art today, bringing added depth to his pieces by painting vivid scenes on authentic “canvases” of that earlier era, such as old maps, land treaties from Indian Territory, Hudson’s Bay trading correspondence, period newspapers and Cavalry papers; a Santa Fe Railroad claim adjusters record becomes the backdrop to a scene of thundering buffalo and mounted hunters, bows and lances drawn, all racing parallel to a railroad car rolling imperiously by. Michael Horse makes of point of seeking out pre-1960s watercolor sets to capture the richly standardized hues of that early era. His images are rich in traditional symbols such as the human hand print frequently seen painted on war ponies; for Horse this “coup mark” represents the facing of any adversity with strength and respect.
Michael Horse never runs out of inspiration. While nature and spirituality are constant influences in all of his work he also draws energy from non-Native artists such as Picasso and Michelangelo, and is deeply inspired by political artists such as Diego Rivera. Work by Michael Horse has been exhibited at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington D.C. and The Heard Museum in Phoenix, AZ. A 20-year retrospective of his work, “Dreams of Horses - The collected works of Michael Horse” was shown at Los Angeles’s Southwest Museum in 1997 and many other museum shows also stand to his credit.
Michael Horse is also a man who cares deeply about today’s youth: he has worked with the American Diabetes Association in a project called "Awakening the Spirit," tackling the Juvenile Type 2 diabetes epidemic on reservations. And along with providing information programs and fundraisers, he has also worked with Indian gang kids, taking them on 10-14 day horseback rides in a demanding outdoor program.