Noah Adams — A Western Painter of Cool Persuasion

By Peggy DeStefano
   Western painting is treasured for the scenes of early cowboys and Indians and of the ranges, mountains and prairies where they roamed. The excitement and unsettledness of the old West has been captured on canvas.
    But most Western painting has been depicted through the eyes of the newcomer not the native. Noah Adams’ work is an exception for he portrayed the West through the eyes of an Indian. Noah, whose life and paintings left their mark over most of the West, was born on the Oglala Sioux Reservation in Pine Ridge, South Dakota on November 2, 1911.
   Noah overlooked the traditional Indian artistic forms and took on the modern medium of oil painting. He took it on with a gusto that saw him produce over a thousand paintings in the Colorado, Wyoming and South Dakota areas before his death in 1966 at the age of 54.

Noah’s talent bequeathed by brother
   Noah alleged that his life as an artist began in 1952 with the death of his brother Roy. Noah would explain to his acquaintances that the artistic talent he himself had was not his originally but instead belonged to his brother and that his brother bequeathed it to him on his death bed. Joe Adams, 98 at the time of this interview, remembers his son, Noah, and his son, Roy, from the time they were young children sketching pictures with sticks in the dusty mud outside their little home.
   As he grew up, Noah became proficient at carpentry as did his father and brothers before him. Eventually he added a new dimension to his skills and learned masonry. He supported himself as a union plasterer in Rapid City, South Dakota from 1951.
   As of the fourth of July, 1958 he declared his independence of his plastering trade and decided to devote all his time to painting. His new occupation required one primary tool, a four inch house brush. Using whatever paints he could find (though he preferred oil) he would wield his oversized brush in a way that detail could not defy.

Sioux’s theory of nature on canvas
   Noah covered a canvas in ten or fifteen minutes as he mixed his colors directly on the canvas. He usually worked from the center out and could, just to show off his ability, paint the scene upside down and then turn it right side up to reveal a landscape that most people couldn’t paint in its intended position.
   The nature worshipper in Noah is apparent in all his paintings. And by painting from the center out it is as though Noah is expressing the Sioux theory of nature on canvas. To a Sioux, nature is infinite: it is a circle, continuous, without endpoint.
   All of Noah’s paintings have a feeling of being continuous. You can look at the painting from any angle and be into the scene. There is a mystical quality to his painting which would remind one of the airy style of the impressionists but with a definite individuality that was Noah’s alone.
   The Black Hills of South Dakota were Noah’s favorite subject and he returned from his travels every summer to paint in the yearly pageant in Spearfish, South Dakota. There he entered the painting competition and won first place many times. He also returned to Pine Ridge to help his father and stepmother on these visits home, staying the whole summer.
   The rest of the year Noah traveled and painted. Though he traveled to almost all of the United States some of his favorite haunts were in Colorado and Wyoming. Downtown Denver on Larimer and Curtis Streets and out on West Colfax in what is now Lakewood, Colorado were some of Noah’s territory. Evidence of Noah’s Colorado travels show his paintings in Grand Lake, Tabernash and Frazier, Colorado, too. In Wyoming you’re bound to find Noah Adams’ paintings in Jackson Hole and Yellowstone National Park.

Paintings not found in homes
   Noah’s paintings are not found in private homes as much as they are found in business establishments. Restaurants, taverns and barber shops in all of the cities of Noah’s travels are the best places to spot either a canvas or mural by Noah Adams.
   The reason for this seemingly unusual placement of art was that Noah either paid his debts with his paintings or bartered with his painting to buy a steak, a glass of Jim Beam, oil paints or to earn some cold cash from the people who knew him best.
   In the barber shop on West Colfax in Lakewood, Colorado, Noah did a mural for some paints and cash. The mural, a landscape with some figures is 34 inches by 101 inches. It took less than one hour to paint with Noah spending ten or fifteen minutes a day on it until its completion.
   When Noah finished he facetiously told the owner of the barber shop Glenn Young that he wanted to be remembered and that for a small additional fee he would gladly sign his name to the mural. No name appears on the mural and this unsigned painting represents one of the few times Noah’s bartering didn’t pan out.

Indians win in paintings
   Noah could appreciate the barber’s resistance since he possessed the same kind of stubbornness. When he painted the scene for the Stagecoach Inn in Grand Lake, Colorado his subject matter was Indians attacking a stagecoach. One of the owners Bill LaSasso prodded Noah to put a few dead Indians in the picture but Noah stood firm. His answer was, “Nope, the Indians are going to win this one.”
   Noah’s pattern of movement and life in his painting years was repeated time again in city after city. Had Noah lived during the Indian Renaissance that the West is now experiencing his talents may have been touted during his lifetime. As it was he knew very little recognition.

Noah received notice of death
   When he was told he had but two years to live Noah set out on one last journey. Taking his parents with him Noah went to say farewell to his three daughters who lived in Utah and California. When the California portion of their trip ended, he and his parents parted. His parents headed back to the Pine Ridge Reservation and Noah reassured the doubting oldsters that in 30 days he would be with them again.
   He then proceeded for Tucson, Arizona, the city whose hospital gave him his notice of death. On July 17, 1966, as he worked in the hot Arizona sun painting a sign, he felt ill. He went to sit under the shade of a tree. He died there. And, inexactly 30 days, as he promised his parents, he was home again, dead, and in a pine box.
   Noah’s father, Joe, took care of his burial as he had for his three other dead sons. The brothers all lie side-by-side five miles from Pine Ridge at the Holy Rosary Mission. And though Noah’s grave is as yet unmarked, his paintings serve to eulogize him in every city that he visited. The paintings say, “I was here, I painted, I will be remembered.”

Author’s Note:
   This article was written some 48 years ago. I have never forgotten my trip to Pine Ridge Reservation to meet with Joe Adams, Noah’s father. I still remember Mr. Adams telling me how his father and his grandfather had lived to be 110 years old. And, with every good chance he, too, would live to that age. But, with the most grievous sadness, he saw all of his sons die before even reaching the age of 60. No doubt that alcohol played a part and probably the lack of good health care made their deaths premature. Joe was one of the most solid individuals I have ever met. I thought to share the Adams’ story would honor them.

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