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Faces on the wall

Monty Little considers portraits, displacement, and PTSD

Tulsa Artist Fellow Monty Little in his 4th floor AHHA studio

Melissa Lukenbaugh

The painted portraits covering the walls of Tulsa Artist Fellow Monty Little’s studio remind me of a memory I can’t pinpoint. They are blurred faces of many colors—frightening, they look as if they are stretched through time, from the past into the present. One—a woman, I think—gapes, her teeth seem bare and her jaw to clavicle torn open in a mess of purple, brown, and green. Most of the paint on the canvas is pulled and smeared except for one detail: the right frame of her glasses and her right eye peering through. 

“A lot of my images and works derive from poetry I wrote,” Little said. “Thoughts and visions and whatnot from my time serving in the Marine Corps and experiencing wartime in 2007 in Iraq.”

The portraits are part of a series called “Displacement,” which will make up Little’s solo show at Living Arts in January.

“So the term that I’ve been using—displacement—is basically saying that I was a person dealing with war and post-war, feeling the effects of PTSD. It affects your whole emotional state. Knowing this, you’re kind of displaced from the majority of people. But, everyone is dealing with their own trauma, in some sense. Everyone associates themselves with their own emotional state.”

As a Diné (Navajo) Native American living away from the places he’s called home the longest, Arizona and New Mexico, Little feels that displacement geographically, too. While working towards a degree in creative writing at the Institute of American Indian Arts (IAIA), Little began writing landscapes, focusing on images of home territory as well as the terrain and experiences of Iraq. 

“Right then and there I started writing about serving in the Marine Corps and all those emotions started to surge out and surface,” he said. “I started to feel all these effects of PTSD and didn’t know how to deal with it and didn’t even really know what it was at the time … but I wanted to use it as a driving force in my artwork.”

He enrolled in a printmaking class as an elective at IAIA, which was his gateway to the visual arts. He began to translate the landscapes he wrote about into visual work.

“One of the images that stuck with me from when I was in war, it was seeing a friend in a house, and there was all shadow, but there was a bullet hole in the wall that he was looking through. The sun hit perfectly in the bullet hole while he was talking to me, and I remember seeing just his eye. It’s a little bit haunting but you remember those things.”

Several singular eyes peer out from the portraits on the wall of his studio, now.

“I want to separate myself from understanding what a true portrait is by focusing on color, placement of color—basically disfiguring a person, reinventing the portrait style.

“What I usually do is sit here and have a dialogue. Not really speaking, but looking and thinking, ‘well maybe this needs more distance or space.’ In a way, I’m helping my brain out by subconsciously thinking about PTSD and responding to it. I’m projecting the PTSD out here, and rearranging things to make myself better.”

The colored paints on the canvases—smeared, smudged, dragged, pulled—they hint at that emotional turmoil, show its displacement from inside Little to outside, hanging on the wall. Three-quarters of the way through I remembered whose work they reminded me of. 

“Do you know of Rick Bartow?” I asked.

“Oh yeah, I love his work,” Little said. 

TTV ran a story on Bartow this past February. Unfortunately, he died in April. Bartow had also been a Native American soldier, affected by PTSD after serving in the Vietnam War. That was the first body of work from a visual artist I’d seen mine the depths of his trauma and release what he found for the rest of us to see. 

“Art has really helped me,” Little said. “It’s therapeutic. There’s something about coming here and being able to work out and analyze everything. It’s almost like you’re painting or talking to yourself, as your own therapist.”

For more from Liz, read her profile of Tulsa Artist Fellow Akiko Jackson.

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