Gallery owner transformed Oklahoma’s art world

August 20, 2016 GMT

Doris Littrell isn’t an artist in the traditional sense, but what she did for Oklahoma’s Native American art scene was truly masterful.

As owner and proprietor of the Oklahoma Indian Art Gallery in Oklahoma City and as an art dealer for more than 40 years, Littrell is one of the individuals most responsible for bringing Oklahoma’s Indian art in from curio shops, gas stations, flea markets and roadside booths to art galleries, museums, universities and the Governor’s Office inside Oklahoma’s State Capitol.

A book on Doris Littrell’s unusual journey to become one of the genre’s greatest supporters, and her unique contributions toward bringing attention to Oklahoma Native art, has been penned by Julie Pearson Little Thunder. Titled, “A Life Made with Artists,” it was printed this summer by The Roadrunner Press in Oklahoma City. It is being released nationally in September.

A book signing honoring author Julie Pearson Little Thunder and Doris Littrell is set for 2-4 p.m. Monday, Aug. 22, at Westridge Manor, 4304 W. Second in Plainview. The public is invited.

Several artists from Oklahoma’s Indian art community will be on hand as well, including Robert Taylor who agreed to temporarily help out at Littrell’s gallery during an illness. Instead of days, he ran the gallery for two years. Also, the author’s husband, Merlin Little Thunder, will be there Monday. Several of his miniatures – painted without aid of magnification – decorate the walls of Littrell’s apartment at Westridge Manor.

Julie Pearson Little Thunder’s book tells the story of Littrell’s life from her hardscrabble upbringing in rural southwestern Oklahoma – she was born on a dairy farm in Apache, Okla. – to her many years as owner of the Oklahoma Indian Art Gallery on Southwest 44th Street in Oklahoma City.

The book includes 32 color plates featuring art representing the 65 artists or more she represented through the years. Butterflies flutter on chapter title pages and elsewhere as a nod to Littrell’s familiar logo. The book jacket is a work of art as well, a portrait of Doris Littrell by Robert Taylor.

“I’ve been blessed to be able to do something over the years that I so love and cherish,” Littrell said last week. “Many of these artists tend to have short lives,” she admits. “I’m so glad that I had at least some small role in helping them gain the attention and compensation where many were able to pursue and develop their talents. Many were able to make a living from their art, although others didn’t receive the recognition they deserved until after their deaths.”

While Littrell never claimed to be an artist, her staging of exhibits to set off individual work and to draw viewers from room to room have been described as nothing sort of magnificent.

“I consider it a God-given talent,” Littrell said. “Really it was just the Lord working through me to help them. They (the artists) are my extended family.” Even if an artist’s work didn’t attract the attention of collectors, Littrell made sure they received payment in time for holidays and special occasions. Those particular pieces would quietly being transferred to a closet inside the gallery or taken home to become part of her personal collection. Artists were never made to suffer or do without, even if collectors weren’t able to see the true value of their work.

With a remarkable eye for talent and a passion to bring it to the world, Littrell also knew when a struggling painter needed an extra word of encouragement. Julie Little Thunder writes that through that extra support, Littrell had a major role in promoting the contemporary Oklahoma Indian Art Movement.

“Rather than being jealous of each other, many of the artists would help each other out,” Littrell said. “Even when they knew months in advance of show, they’d wait until the night before to finish up their painting and then drive all night , coming right into the gallery to start framing. That’s when they would help each other out.”

Although declining health and advancing age forced Littrell to close her gallery in 2007, she remains an important fixture in the Oklahoma Native American art community. “Even living in Plainview, I still receive many phone calls and letters requesting information and reference material.” She’s still considered one of its most knowledgeable experts.

David Borne, former Oklahoma governor, U.S. senator, state representative and president of the University of Oklahoma, explained, “Doris Littrell’s enthusiasm for Native American art became infectious in Oklahoma. The works of Native artists were not only purchased and collected by individuals, they began to be treated more seriously by distinguished museums and institutions. It is hard to believe that one person could make such a difference. Without Doris Littrell there would not be thousands of works in collectors’ hands today. Without her, scores of Native artists would never have produced so many lasting images.”