Release Date: June 03, 2020
by Chickasaw Nation Media Relations Office
NORMAN, Okla. – Broad appeal of Chickasaw artist Billy Hensley’s paintings has been growing, with this year shaping up to be the most promising and important of his career.
With invitations to participate in the Seventh Annual Chickasaw Nation-sponsored Artesian Arts Festival; his fourth acceptance to the Santa Fe, New Mexico, Indian Art Market; and opening of “Visual Voices: Contemporary Chickasaw Art” in North Carolina, Hensley anticipated a breakthrough year.
Then a pandemic hit America.
The Artesian Arts Festival is one of America’s fastest growing American Indian art shows, Santa Fe’s reputation is renowned and “Visual Voices” has wowed art lovers nationally for two years.
With the festivals stymied and “Visual Voices” delaying its opening on the University of North Carolina (UNC) campus, Hensley won’t be able to show his art in-person for the foreseeable future.
However, the Artesian Online Art Market has offered Hensley, along with other Chickasaw and Southeastern Indian artists, the opportunity to show and sell their art online at ArtesianArtsFestival.com.
Hensley will use the time to catch up, create new art and experiment with fresh ideas.
“I think the decision to cancel the festivals is wise. You can’t be too cautious. Really, for me, things haven’t changed much. I stay at home and paint. I have a studio set aside in my garage where I work,” he said.
Hensley’s unusual and fascinating linear and abstract work – many portraits of famed Chickasaw leaders as well as warriors and impressionistic American Indian art – is on display at Exhibit C Native Gallery & Gifts in Oklahoma City. His paintings are included in retired Austin, Texas, attorney Ray Donley’s online art exhibition and online at “Rainmaker Gallery” in Bristol, England, where paintings of famed Chickasaw actress and storyteller Te Ata Thompson Fisher and Jim Thorpe, Sac and Fox, hailed as the greatest American Indian athlete of all time, may be purchased.
The sites may be visited online at ArtesianArtsFestival.com, BillyHensley.com, RainMakerArt.co.uk and Wyld.Gallery.
He credits the Chickasaw Nation with helping his recognition by putting forward “Visual Voices.” The exhibit features Chickasaw artists and honors the designs, work and detail of Southeastern Indian art concepts in a variety of media.
Southeastern Indian art has been “overlooked for far too long,” Chickasaw Nation Governor Bill Anoatubby noted when “Visual Voices” premiered in summer 2018 at the Fred Jones Museum of Art on the University of Oklahoma campus.
From there, it moved to the Mississippi Museum of Art in Jackson and then to Santa Fe’s IAIA Museum of Contemporary Native Arts. As “Visual Voices” was being transferred to UNC’s Museum of the Southeast American Indian, the coronavirus pandemic hit, postponing the exhibit opening as Americans shelter in place to stem the tide of new infections.
An opening for the exhibit will be announced in the future, officials said.
Since he was a child, Hensley has been interested in art. He would spend time drawing and creating things with his mother and has always used his creativity to think outside of the box.
“I have a lot of techniques and I am always trying to do something a little different. I try to paint with many different tools,” Hensley said. “I think as a kid my mom instilled it in me to be ‘out there.’”
Hensley started taking art classes his freshman year at Sulphur High School.
“When I first started in school, I worked with colored pencil and charcoal and I did pen and ink for a long time after that,” he said.
After high school, Hensley attended the University of Science and Arts of Oklahoma (USAO) in Chickasha, Oklahoma, where he enrolled in painting courses. However, Hensley considers himself a self-taught artist. He did not wish to take any of the advanced courses for painting.
“I feel like when you take those courses you start to paint like that person,” he said. “I wanted to find my own way to paint, so that’s what I started doing.”
Hensley’s previous work was with portraiture, pencil drawings, pen ink, wood cuts and printmaking. However, for several years, painting has been his chief medium of expression.
“I became a full-time artist only making money when I sold a painting. My wife was very understanding. To be an artist, you must have that kind of support,” he said. “I started to get better and better the more I worked on my art. Now it’s taken off pretty well.”
Childhood memories, as well as old photographs, inspire him.
“I try not to pigeon-hole my art with a title. I like to paint what I feel, put it out there and see how people react to it,” Hensley said.
Hensley said there are times when he has up to 15 paintings going on at once. He has numerous techniques he uses to create his art.
“I just build it. I start with the background and might start off with lines and go over it with a trowel. Pinstriping is also something I have started,” he said. “I just go with it, I’m not afraid to mess a painting up. I can mess things up quick, but I’m not scared to try something different and see what people think of it,” he said with a laugh.
Hensley’s creativity has always allowed him to think outside of the box. Hensley said he has always been different from most artists and not so uniform. He uses some old images and the Chickasaw culture to help popularize the rich history of the Chickasaw people.
“I feel like most people, even in Oklahoma, don’t know who these people (in the paintings) are,” he said. “I feel like if we get them out there, then maybe people will understand and will learn more about who we are as a tribe and where we came from.”
First American imagery is one of many things Hensley uses in his art, but he does his best not to limit himself.
“I am also leaning going back to be a little more abstract,” he said. “When you start doing certain things and people like it, you feel like you have to keep doing that. I don’t want to trap myself into that kind of thinking.”
Hensley said painting is something he loves, and he paints how he feels. Painting for him is not about making a statement, it’s about letting his feelings come out.
“People see things and they think things, but art is what you make it. Everyone has their own opinion of what they think you’re trying to say in your art. I would say my art is more emotional, rather than political or anything else. If you look at my art, I think you can kind of understand who I am and get a feel for what I do,” he added.