Through the Brush of the Interpreter

Writer Amanda Christmann

Photography by Carl Schultz

Artist Paul Pletka is notoriously private. At 73 years old, this renowned American neo-surrealist artist has never been one to demand a spotlight. In fact, he’s seldom even bothered with an interview. 

Instead, he allows his paintings and drawings of Native American warriors and shamans to speak for themselves. For nearly five decades, they have done just that. At exhibitions of his paintings he’s accessible, personable, and readily discusses his art.

Pletka was born in San Diego in 1946, the son of Howard and Anna Marie (Pletka) Johnson. His father was intrigued by Native American culture, and young Paul became enamored too at the age of 4 when his father shared with him his collection of arrowheads.

Even as a small child, Pletka expressed himself through art, drawing pictures of the chiefs and warriors of his imagination on paper with crayons and pencils. 

One of his first explorations on canvas occurred at the expense of one of his mother’s white sheets, which he used to create one of his only unappreciated works of art.

When Paul was 11 years old, his family moved to Grand Junction, Colo. where he explored the untamed canyons and rugged backcountry of western Colorado and eastern Utah with his father. He’d come home from those trips with renewed inspiration, creating on paper his imagined scenes of unadulterated Native American life on the range.

By the time he graduated high school, he’d won his first prestigious award when Seventeen magazine published one of his drawings. By then, he’d discovered that he could sell his work to friends, neighbors, teachers—and even strangers.

Pletka first went to college at Arizona State, where he’d earned a scholarship. The desert wasn’t ready for him just yet, however, and he made his way back home shortly afterward, enrolling at Colorado State University in Fort Collins. 

Surprisingly, Pletka never took a single course in painting; rather, he chose printmaking as his field. He later taught himself to paint, becoming one of the best autodidactic artists of his time.

Throughout his career, he has remained interested in Native American culture and history while looking past the stereotypes so often depicted by non-native artists.

For many years, Pletka’s trademark works were his large, vivid paintings of Native American people with unrealistically large hands. Some are depicted wearing clothing from historical European soldiers—“the garb of the conquerors worn by the conquered,” as one collector stated. Other Pletka paintings contain symbolism extracted from 19th-century Euro-centric cultures, including Christian religious icons.

Though Pletka’s work emerged from the late 1960s and early 1970s during a time when civil rights activism was at its peak, he remained solidly apolitical. He managed to bridge the chasm between two schools of thought in Native American art at the time: one that was attempting to rewrite history in such a way that validated the brutality of colonialism; and the other that implied strong messages of social justice, depicting Native Americans as silent victims of oppression.

Instead, Pletka recognized the value in the artistic contribution of Native American cultures—art, for the sake of, and the significance of, art in itself. It was a fine line, but the fact that his work was not politicized is what many continue to find so appealing.

Out of his appreciation for Native American culture, Pletka also recognized his role as a non-native person.

In a rare interview, Pletka told a writer from online art magazine ARTtalk, “When I was a youngster and first enchanted with Indian costume, lore and artifacts, I would sometimes pretend I was an Indian. I soon realized that was not intellectually reasonable. I am not an Indian. I am simply an interpreter.” 

An Artful Friendship

Collector Ken Johnson says he and Pletka have been friends for eons. He met Pletka in 1965 while the two worked together, along with museum curator Dr. S. A. Dulaney Hunter, to establish a museum in Grand Junction. Paul worked at the museum and became assistant curator. A wall in the museum featured an 80-feet-long frieze by Pletka in 1967.

Dr. Hunter left his museum in 1968 after falling out with the small-town politicians of the day. He gave Johnson a small Pletka watercolor as a 1968 “Christmas Card”.

The museum of 1965 has now matured into three locations and is the Museums of Western Colorado.  

“Paul found his first market in Ouray, Colo. We talked about how his work felt to him. It validated his work had a receptive market.  

“He wanted to venture into large, dramatic canvases, but those required a lot of studio and great light. Around 1972  Paul and I engineered a deal for a home for he and his wife, and his big studio! It was an old farmhouse and barn out west in rural Grand Junction. The barn gave space for doing the monumental paintings he had visualized, his signature artwork.

“It was a major life change. His discoveries in that new workspace let him soar! His work pace and creativity blossomed to astonishing levels.”

By 1973, Pletka had found that Scottsdale collectors were among his biggest followers. He began working with a Scottsdale gallery, which sold his paintings nearly as fast as he could produce them.

By 1977, he and his wife Nancy were in his new studio not far from Santa Fe. He was solidly established in Scottsdale, Aspen, and even New York following a solo exhibition in 1978.

Ken Johnson remembers the early days warmly.

“Paul and I go back quite a way—back to the day when one of his detailed watercolors, a simple sandstone cliff with a cedar tree atop, was signed “Paul Johnson” he recalls, recollecting the days before Pletka took his mother’s maiden name as his surname.

Around 1979, Johnson bought a Pletka piece titled “Sarsi”,  He recalls it was from a fundraiser for the Mesa County Center for the Arts.

“It resonates with an emotional appeal I find in Paul’s work, his spiritual concerns throughout all stages of his painting; it gives Sarsi, gazing into the distance, a soul.

“Sarsi graced our walls for 40 years, the last 19 on our very fitting adobe,” Johnson said. “It’s a treasure.”

Today, it is among some of the treasures Johnson is parting with following a move to the East Coast. He has entrusted Carefree’s Grace Renee Gallery with its sale. A special viewing with a wine reception will be held Nov. 14 at the gallery, located in Historic Spanish Village.

Today, Pletka and his wife, Nancy, live and work in Santa Fe where their Pletka Gallery is located.

Pletka’s following grew immensely through the years, and his early works have grown increasingly valuable. Among his many admirers was Eddie Basha, whose compilation of Native American art is one of the most extensive and revered in the world. The Eddie Basha Collection holds several of Pletka’s pieces in its care.

Since the early 1970s, Pletka’s work has been featured in solo exhibits throughout the country. It is now part of more than 40 public and private museums and art collections, including University of Northern Illinois, Albany Museum of Art, Hallmark, Mel Pfaelzer Collection, and United States Department of Interior.

It’s a remarkable accomplishment for a noteworthy artist whose work, and interpretations, will no doubt be cherished for many years to come.

Paul Pletka’s “Sarsi” 

Nov. 14 | 4–7 p.m. with wine and appetizers | Grace Renee Gallery | Historic Spanish Village | 7212 E. Ho Hum Rd., Carefree

480-575-8080 |

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