Frank Day (Konkow Maidu) was born in 1902, in Berry
Creek, Butte County, California, and died August 13, 1976, in Sacramento.
Day was educated in the Berry Creek public school system and at Greenville
Indian School, but he had no formal training as an artist. Day explained:
"I talk my paintings, say them, sing them, and then paint them." In
1967, the American Indian Historical Society (San Francisco) featured
a solo exhibition of Day's work at their Museum of Indian Art. Other
exhibition venues have included the Crocker Art Museum, the C.N. Gorman
Museum (Davis, CA), the Heard Museum, the Museum of the Plains Indian
(Browning, MT), the Office of California Governor Edmund G. Brown, the
Native American Center for the Living Arts (Niagara Falls, NY), and
the Oakland Museum of California.
Day's extraordinary life and unique
artistic legacy have been the subject of extensive study and scholarship
by both Rebecca Dobkins (Willamette University) and Frank LaPena (CSU
Sacramento). Their profiles of the artist are offered below.
was born in Berry Creek, California, into the Konkow Maidu tribe. The
Maiduan peoples - the Konkow, Nisenan, and Mountain Maidu - have occupied
the region of California from the northern Sierra Nevada Mountains to
the Sacramento River Valley for hundreds of years. Day's father, Billy,
was one of the last traditional leaders of the Bald Rock Konkow Maidu.
From his father and other Konkow Maidu elders, Frank Day learned the
language, myths, legends, songs, and traditions of his people. Day and
his generation grew up under extraordinary pressure to assimilate to
American society and were unable to sustain all of their ancestors'
cultural practices. Following the death of his father in 1922, Day spent
over a decade traveling through Indian country in the western states.
In 1930, Day returned to California, where he worked as an agricultural
laborer. After a serious injury in 1960, he took up painting as therapy.
Although he began by painting 'non-Indian' subject matter, Day soon
began painting Maidu themes. In doing so, he transformed his cultural
memory into a visual record characterized by bold color, strong composition,
and a distinctly self-taught style. — Rebecca J. Dobkins, Memory and
Imagination (Oakland Museum, 1997)
"Frank Day was one of those charismatic
individuals we come across in our lives that causes us to respond to
our surrounding environment in a way that is partly defined by their
personality and work. In the Indian community, three pivotal areas where
the charismatic individual is important is in leadership, religion,
and the arts. These are the areas where vision and the creative personality
are allowed expression and recognition.
Frank Day was creative in his
art and storytelling, and he was a culture bearer in his singing and
sharing of his traditions. Frank learned from his father who was the
headman for the Berry Creek Maidu. His father knew the leaders of the
other village areas and was known and recognized by them in return.
A sense of dedication and hard work was taught to Frank by his elders,
which encompassed not only learning about social and cultural mores,
but also having he opportunity of gaining first hand information about
the rich ceremonial and traditional practices the headman's family had
to be responsible for. His father was in his sixties, when Frank was
born. When Frank Day was twenty-one years old, his father died. Frank
left Concow territories and traveled for twelve years. He visited and
met new people and places and studied religions, both Christian and
Even though we have some general knowledge about the kinds
of job and work done, such as his involvement in some commercial sign
painting and his interest and pursuit of religious knowledge, it is
exactly this period of time when he was away from home that we need
to have people who knew him then, tell us more.
One of his legacies
is the organization of the Maidu Dancers and Traditionalists. The group
came into existence because of the support of Herb and Peggy Puffer
of the Pacific Western Traders. They worked with some young California
Indians who were interested in tradition and dance. One method Frank
used to teach us was to explain the dance and have us work out its movements.
For the songs, he would give us the Maidu words and explain what they
meant in English. The first time we danced at a Maidu gathering in Oroville,
the elders who had not seen their dances for a long time, sat watching
with tears in their eyes. He always wanted us to use the dances to teach
Franks Day's teaching was done by talking about his culture
or explaining the symbolism in his paintings. Frank Day spoke to school
classes and at his art openings. He would usually sing a song, which
was the traditional basis for most of his paintings. He was thinking
about writing his life story. Rebecca Dobkins' dissertation, and her
organization (along with the Oakland Museum) of the exhibit "Memory
and Imagination: the Legacy of Maidu Indian Artist Frank Day" was the
definitive work on the artist. Sometimes the stories were so strange
or the point of view so unfamiliar one was unsure if he was listening
to Frank's personal creative style or just found them hard to understand
because the stories represented another place in time. For instance,
his explanation of several canvases dealt with the time when 'there
were once monster beasts in the beginning of creation.' These were better
understood if one knew Maidu tradition or had a chance to see what he
was talking about. He visited some of those places with students. One
of his last paintings, done in 1976, was called "Serpent Lizard." The
rich saturated color and attention to detail makes this a striking example
of his mastery of painting and interpretation of tribal history. The
Pacific Western Traders were important in gaining a broader market for
Frank Day's paintings and have loaned the three paintings for this exhibition.
Frank Day died in August of 1976, at the age of 74. Sometime earlier,
he had told Kitty, the wife of Frank LaPena, that he would 'leave at
the time of a big wind,' and sure enough, at the time of his death,
there was a storm and a strong wind that passed through the area." — Frank
LaPena, Image as Identity, 2004