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Attention to details distinguishes artist 4-30-07

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) - American Indian artist Merlin Little Thunder has Noah Webster to thank for inspiring his distinctive miniature paintings.

As a child, the Tulsa artist would flip through the dictionary, captivated by the tiny illustrations that helped define words such as donkey, anvil and tepee.

“They were black and white, and they were just perfectly detailed. They looked just like whatever they were describing,” he said. “I would try to draw them exactly the same.”

Now, Little Thunder, 51, is famed for his finely detailed paintings of 19th and early 20th century American Indian scenes. He specializes in miniature paintings, many measure 11/4 by 21/2 inches, and other small paintings.

Many of his paintings are infused with spirituality, while others reflect his sense of humor.

“A lot of people don't see the humorous side of Native Americans. You just see the serious side,” he said. “I grew up in a time that was painful and humorous.”

Little Thunder grew up in the small Indian community of Fonda, between Seiling and Canton. He was raised Southern Cheyenne, but he and his siblings went to public schools.

Although they had learned the Cheyenne language, they were discouraged from speaking it once they started school.

As a youth, he dreamed of becoming an artist, but his father encouraged him to seek another career. George Little Thunder worried his son would become the proverbial starving artist.

“I've been painting and drawing pictures and getting in trouble for it since I was a kid,” Little Thunder said. “I used to hide my art; I wouldn't do it openly for a long time.”

At college, first at Southwestern Oklahoma State University and then at Bacone College, he majored in medicine. Despite his medical major, he seemed destined for an art career. He made spending money by selling paintings and making posters for student groups.

“People used to just slide money under my door in an envelope with a note saying they wanted 10 posters,” he said. “Soon, I had all these envelopes under my door and all these notes tacked to my door.”

He eventually moved to Eastern Oklahoma State College in Wilburton and changed his major to art. He left school for factory work and marriage. In 1980, he moved to Tulsa, seeking a fresh start after a divorce.

“I had nothing, just the clothes on my back,” he said. “For a while, I was flat broke and nearly starving.”

He worked odd jobs and sold as many drawings as he could. In 1984, he met his future wife, Julie, who had a small gallery space. They began to work together to sell art by him and other artists. After a few years, he had a wife and an established career.

“Miniatures were really popular at the time,” he said. “Miniatures tend to be more intimate because people will a lot of times put them in the small spaces where they spend the most time.”

His secret to creating luminous, meticulous scenes is painting in many layers, adding details with each layer. He finishes his paintings with tiny, sable-hair brushes for the finest features.

Since it takes six to 18 months to complete a painting, he works on several at once.

Little Thunder's paintings are in the collections of the Fred Jones Jr. Museum of Art and Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History in Norman, National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum and the Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C.

He regularly wins awards at Santa Fe Indian Market.

“Apart from being technically beautiful ... almost every image he does has a narrative element. There's a story behind it,” said Steve Grafe, American Indian art curator at the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum. “I love the storytelling element.”