Profile: Jerome Tiger

The work of Jerome Tiger is nothing short of incendiary; it ignites the mind. For every perfectly expressed line on a human form, there are 10 more that could be laid down and aren’t. Tiger’s work asks viewers to engage, to fill in and imagine, as his did when creating it. He was a working artist for only five years, until his untimely death, and his mark was enormous. This important solo exhibition closes soon!

by Veronica Pasfield
Travelers. Jerome Tiger (Muscogee/Seminole, 1964. The Arthur and Shifra Silberman Collection, National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum.

The work of Jerome Tiger is nothing short of incendiary; it ignites the mind. For every perfectly expressed line on a human form, there are 10 more that could be laid down and aren’t. Tiger’s work asks viewers to engage, to fill in and imagine, as his did when creating it.

Tiger exacted the restrained movement of Japanese Ukiyo-e paintings. He often worked with tempura, which dries almost instantly, and he never erased. The austerity of his work, like moments of silence in a great musical composition, gather up the energy and hold it for a breath. By the age of 25, Tiger had attained mastery and fame. At 26, he was gone forever.

The Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum recently commemorated the 50th anniversary of Tiger’s passing with a solo exhibit Life & Legacy: The Art of Jerome Tiger. It was an opportunity to take a longer look at this extraordinary artist.

Born in 1941, Tiger was Muscogee (Creek) and Seminole and lived in Oklahoma his entire life. Born in Tahlequah, Oklahoma, on July 8, 1941, Tiger was Muscogee (Creek) and Seminole. He lived in Eufaula and Muskogee, and left school at age 16. He joined the U.S. Navy, serving in the Reserves from 1958-60. When he was 21, he found encouragement at the Philbrook’s American Indian Artists Annual exhibit.

Tiger worked prolifically until his untimely death five years later, and was known to be so inspired by Oklahoma storms that he’d stay up making paintings all night. He died of a heartbreakingly random firearms accident, leaving behind his wife, Peggy, and their children; Dana, Lisa, and Chris.

In 1992, the Cherokee National Museum exhibited Tiger: A Retrospective. The accompanying catalogue contained a brief biography. It's excerpted here, courtesy of the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum.

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Biographical Sketch

Encouraged by his grandfather to “put on paper what the Creek feels in his heart,” Jerome Richard Tiger used exquisite detail and accuracy in portraying spiritual overtones and humor in his paintings.

Born July 8, 1941 to John and Lucinda Tiger, Jerome was at one time more interested in football, baseball, and boxing than he was in painting. The full-blooded Creek-Seminole spent his early childhood and schooldays at Eufaula--learning the old customs and tribal way of life.

By 1951, the Tiger family moved to Muskogee to establish their own home. The Tiger children; Johnny, Jerome, Kenneth, Marcy, and Rosalee, quickly adapted to the new life. ... Struggling with school and disillusioned by lost love, Jerome quit his junior year to join the (N)avy. Jerome returned home after two years to live with his grandparents in Eufaula. It was there he met Peggy Richards, the woman he would marry in 1960. After starting his professional art career in 1962, Jerome accepted a scholarship to the Cooper School of Art in Cleveland, Ohio for 1962-63. Jerome became increasingly disenchanted with his studies at Cooper, and never completed a term at the drafting and design school. He returned to Muskogee to successfully resume his pursuit of an Indian art center.

Jerome’s philosophy in painting was simple:  he painted what he knew and lived. His Indian people laughing, playing, cooking, and attending the stomp dance were real and true to life. 

Perspectives and Friends

Jerome surveyed the world with an artist’s eye. He committed to memory what he saw and re-created in his paintings the scenes, the feelings, the spirit of Indians being themselves. He painted his culture from the inside, capturing the humor of the small children in tasseled belts trying to imitate their parents, the competitiveness of rival dancers, the poignance of old men trying to keep up a pace they had enjoyed years before....

He showed the magnificent efforts of stickball players in the hot afternoon sun after an all-night dance. Stomp dance and stickball, subjects dear to the hearts of Creeks, remained Jerome’s favorite themes throughout his career. He lived he paintings. He subjects was part of his experience.

“Tiger’s delicate line and expressiveness of contour, exquisite, color and flawless workmanship continue to astound critics when they learn  that the Creek-Seminole artist in largely self-trained. “ noted a newspaper “Without schooling,” one impress critic asked of Jerome, “how can you know anatomy - muscles, for example - so well?”  “i’ve got muscles,” Jerome’s answer, closing the discussion....

Jerome’s medium was tempera. He usually painted on posterboard, using brushes so small they they had only a few fine hairs. But for most of his life his artistic tools were paper and pencil. He had developed his ability to drew before he mastered painting. Jerome taught himself to paint by experimenting with pastels, oils, charcoals, and watercolors. He worked well with oil, which he used in his early effort as a portraitist, but he had an aversion to it because he had to work much slower using this medium.

...Later, after Jerome's death, a color-separation expert, who worked with many of the original painting in order to reproduce them as prints expressed surprise at finding no erasure marks on any of his work.... Even working at his great speed, Jerome seldom made mistakes.

By the time the Indian-art critics and enthusiasts had discovered his work, Jerome was sure enough about what he was doing to be largely indifferent about schools of thought, critics, and criticism. He seemed to have his own standards against which he judged his work. His own approval and that of his friends - none of them, except Nettie, was a knowledgeable critic - were what mattered. He had extended the traditional style, adding subtlety of color and a great deal of feeling to it without exceeding its limits. He was able to extend the traditional while remaining within it, in his own unique style. A final “ test” for hims was whether his friends liked his work, an his friends, mostly amateur critics, were well pleased.....

Although Jerome was gentle and patient in the company of old people, his nature was a mixture of opposites and he was often restless. He liked excitement. He loved storms. He responded to them as though the were calling to a part of his being. The violence of thunder and lightning seemed to find answers somewhere in Jerome. Anytime, day or night, he was drawn toward the outdoors at the first outbreak of turbulent weather.

Although Jerome was gentle and patient in the company of old people, his nature was a mixture of opposites and he was often restless. He liked excitement. He loved storms. He responded to them as though the were calling to a part of his being. The violence of thunder and lightning seemed to find answers somewhere in Jerome. Anytime, day or night, he was drawn toward the outdoors at the first outbreak of turbulent weather.....

One possession that Jerome cherished and took care of was a medicine pipe given to him by the medicine man. He would wait  until he was alone and it was late at night before he used the pipe... . Sometimes he used the pipe for simple good luck; at other times, to help him with specific problems. He believed wholeheartedly in the powers of the medicine and refused to let others scoff at of belittle the ritual.

He did many mystical paintings, yet one of his favorite subjects was the everyday life of the Indians whom he knew--and they seldom resembled the contemporary Western stereotypes with headdress and warpaint. An eagle feather, a beaded hatband, or a tasseled belt might be their only Indian regalia, and they were a far cry from the Indians who existed in the popular imagination of the tourist.

‍‍Stickball, “Beginning to End.” Jerome Tiger (Muscogee/Seminole), 1966. The Arthur and Shifra Silberman Collection, National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum.

War to Peace

By 1967 Jerome’s life prospects for the future looked very bright. He had achieved national recognition and both critical and financial success as an artist. His work was in great demand from eager exhibitors and buyers. He worked hard, full-time, and sometimes nonstop, never taking a shortcut to save time if in meant sacrificing quality.

He (Jerome) also gained widespread local recognition as  sportsman. To the dismay and horror of Nettie Wheeler and others, who worried about physical damage to his hands, he continued to box.  In this enterprise, too, he was clearly outstanding: in 1966 he won the state Golden Gloves championship in the middleweight division. He also horses which the kept stabled in Muskogee, and he and Peggy rode regularly, for exercise, enjoyment, and relaxation.

Jerome's personal life seemed comfortable and rewarding, with enviable support from his family and many friends in the Muskogee-Eufaula area. Except for the loss of his grandfather three years earlier, his family remained intact....

On July 29, 1967, Jerome and Peggy’s third child and only son, Jerome Christopher Coleman Tiger, was born. Jerome wanted him to have his name but not a “junior,” so the baby was given the name Jerome, after his father, Christopher, for himself, and Coleman, after his great-grandfather. Jerome was overjoyed at the birth of Chris.  The morning after his birth, when close friends raved about how happy he must be to have a boy at last, Jerome agreed but added, “I’m proud of my girls, too.”

When Chris was born, money was no longer a problem. Jerome was an artist of national prominence, with a long waiting list of buyers for his paintings. Instead of thirty-five dollars, the going rate in 1962, some of the painting were now selling for four figures. Although money was not an important part of his life, Jerome could be lavish in its use. With happy abandon, he splurged in buying things to clothe the new baby.

Jerome possessed a deeply private sensitivity to his own spiritual world. After his grandfather’s death in 1964, Jerome said that he could sometimes feel his presence when he was alone, and they seemed to be able to converse wordlessly. To Jerome the division between life and death was almost transparent. He said he was not afraid of dying, that he thought is was the culmination, and perhaps the final achievement, of life.... During the summer of 1967, Jerome was plagued by a recurring dream…on more than one occasion he referred to his death in the presence of close friends and family. “When I’m gone and you hear the sound of a cricket,” he would say, “that will mean I am near.”  And several times Jerome said, gesturing toward the portrait of himself atop the bookshelf, which he call The Guiding Spirit, “When I’m not here, he will still guide you.”

On August 13, 1967, Jerome, his brother, Johnny and several friends pulled into an all night restaurant and service station. While exiting the car, Jerome, carrying a .22 pistol, unwittingly put pressure to his right arm. The gun accidentally discharged striking him behind the right ear. He never regained consciousness.

Tiger’s legacy lives on in his three children and grandkids, some of whom are artistically gifted. They still maintain Muskogee’s Tiger Art Gallery.

"Life & Legacy: The Art of Jerome Tiger" exhibit closes Sunday, May 13. National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum. 1700 NE 63rd. Details here.

Excerpts in the last two passages taken from "The Life and Art of Jerome Tiger by Peggy Tiger" and Molly Babcock, as credited in "Tiger: A Retrospective." Opening image: :The Coming Weather." Jerome Tiger (Muscogee/Seminole), 1967. The Arthur and Shifra Silberman Collection, National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum.