First published: Summer 2020

In his complex historical portrait – Swift Runner and the Colonialist Windigo Effect – Coleman presents a dark tale

Swift Runner was a native American trapper and guide in central Canada in the 1800s who killed and cannibalised his family while supposedly possessed by a demonic Windigo spirit. A member of the Cree tribe, which inhabited the area now known as Alberta, he was born in around 1839 with the name Ka-Ki-Si-Kutchin (meaning “Swift Runner”). He led a regular life – marrying and having six children – until European settlers arrived and killed off the buffalo in an attempt to drive the indigenous locals off their land. The introduction of whiskey also changed Swift Runner’s life dramatically. Taking possession of his mind and turning him into a troublemaker, it led to him being forced out of his village. In the dead of winter, he took his mother, brother, wife and children into the wilderness to hunt for food – but, in spring, he returned alone. He said that he was the only one to survive while the others had starved, but his wife’s family were suspicious and the authorities thought he looked too fat to have been famished. Taken back to the campsite where his loved ones had perished, Swift Runner confessed to having mercilessly killed, cooked and eaten them. Despite his claim that possession by a Windigo spirit had turned him into a flesh-eating monster, he was arrested, tried, convicted and hung at Fort Saskatchewan.

The horrific story of Swift Runner made him an ideal subject for US artist Joe Coleman, who had previously painted tale-telling portraits of the murderous Charles Manson, Albert Fish and Mary Flora Bell. In 2019, during a talk with fellow storytelling artist Walton Ford at New York’s Andrew Edlin Gallery – where Swift Runner and the Colonialist Windigo Effect was on view – Coleman stated, “I stand with the accused, whether they are guilty or innocent. I stand by the accused and want them to tell their story in their own words, without apology”.
 

Detail of Swift Runner and the Colonialist Windigo Effect, 2018, acrylic on wood panel with wood and resin frame, with period artifacts including human teeth, bullets, coins, arrow heads, battle axe, toys and whiskey labels, 41 x 33.5 in. / 104 x 85 cm, courtesy: Andrew Edlin Gallery

In a fearless pursuit of the macabre, the self-taught Coleman is widely celebrated for creating fantastical paintings of historical subjects culled from the dark side of humanity. With an appreciation for the Old Masters, Indian religious paintings, sideshow banners and graphic novels, he wields a single-hair brush to paint detailed worlds within worlds, while getting deep inside the psyche of his subjects to tell their tales. Coleman is on a path of his own and keenly appreciated by musicians, actors, writers and collectors who look beyond the conventional art world for more sinister creative content.

This is an article extract; read the full article in Raw Vision #106.

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