1923 - 1985
Clayburn Straughn was born in 1923 and grew up during the Great Depression of the 1930s. Clayburn’s mother, Frances Carlton Straughn, was an original Chickasaw enrollee and his great-grandfather came from the Old Chickasaw Nation during the Great Removal of 1837. Clayburn was also a direct descendant of Governor William Guy, who was Chickasaw governor from 1886-1888. Like millions of Americans during the 1930s, Clayburn’s family managed to get by during a time of great financial hardship. The Straughn family home was located in Wilson, Oklahoma—a tiny community just west of Ardmore. As The Grapes of Wrath taught us, the depression affected everyone’s way of life, but it was especially hard in small-town Oklahoma “dust bowls.”
With food being a priority over store-bought toys, young Clayburn was forced to create toys with what little materials the land had to offer. One thing that south-central Oklahoma does have in abundance is red clay earth. In this clay, Clayburn fashioned cowboys on horseback, Indians, wagons, armies, and animals. He called these self-made sculptures “the greatest toys in the world.” What began as child’s play would eventually become an avocation for Clayburn Straughn.
Clayburn was a quiet, unassuming child. Working in the Oklahoma clay not only kept him busy, but also fit his personality. Though strangers might have considered Clayburn uncomfortable in the company of others, family members knew that his mind craved the solitude that allowed him to focus on his sculptures. Undoubtedly, young Clayburn spent countless hours in quiet moments of solitude along the banks of a creek, creating all manner of shapes from the red earth.
Through the years, Clayburn continued to hone his sculpting skills. Though he never had any formal art training, he was talented in many artistic mediums, not only clay. Later in life, he drew sports cartoons for the Oklahoma Journal and illustrated an Indian cookbook, which was published by a local Ohoyohoma Club (Indian Women). Clayburn was also an accomplished painter. However, working with clay, which he had practiced since childhood, was what he enjoyed most.
When World War II broke out in the 1940s, Clayburn, like many of his contemporaries, joined the army. He served his country as a Jeep driver. After his military service ended, he was drawn back to the familiar landscape of Oklahoma. The land of his ancestors called him home, and he again focused on creating Native American art.
Back in Ardmore, Clayburn got a job as a production clerk with the Samedan Oil Corporation. During this time, he met a receptionist for the company named LaVerne. She was gregarious, extroverted and demonstrative—polar opposite to Clayburn’s shy, reserved, and quiet demeanor. However, as some say, “opposites attract,” and they eventually married. They made their home in Ardmore and would live there for the rest of their lives.
LaVerne believed in her husband’s talent and was his greatest champion. She acted as his agent and worked tirelessly to promote his sculptures. They traveled extensively throughout the Unites States to shows and exhibits that would display his work. LaVerne and Clayburn always kept abreast of the Chickasaw political scene and were very interested in studying Chickasaw history and culture. According to LaVerne, Clayburn was working to “tie the past and present together.”
Clayburn used the “lost wax” method for casting his bronze sculptures. Lost-wax casting, also known by the French name “cire perdue,” is a complicated process. It begins when an original artwork is created from clay. Then a rubber mold is made to create a “pattern” of the original artwork. Hot wax is poured into this pattern until it forms a wax version of the sculpture. After any imperfections have been reconciled, the shell is then coated with a slurry of liquid silica or sand-like stucco to create a ceramic shell. This shell is heated at extremely high temperatures in a kiln until it becomes hard. In this heat, the wax is melted away, hence the term “lost-wax.” The ceramic shell is then filled with molten bronze. After cooling, the outer shell is carefully hammered off and a bronze sculpture is born. In the artist’s last steps, the sculpture is sandblasted and chemicals are applied to the bronze that affect its color. These colors are called patinas, and Clayburn often chose a dark brown patina for his sculptures. Clayburn noted, “… I hope that my Indian bronzes will leave behind a little of our proud heritage.”
Clayburn was an avid sportsman and an outstanding athlete in his own right. He made the All-Conference football team while a freshman at Wilson High School. When not sculpting, he could often be found at a local high school football or basketball game. Frequently, he worked his clay sculptures in front of a television so that he could watch his favorite teams play.
Clayburn always created meticulous studies of his subjects. “I guess I chose sculpting because of the challenge,” he said. “I like the detail required by traditional art.” The detail of his work, combined with his unique ability to capture the spirit of Native American culture, sets him apart from other artists.
After 40 years of developing his artistic talents, Clayburn Straughn was recognized as one of the premier Indian sculptors in the United States. He was honored by the Five Civilized Tribes Museum with the title of “Master Artist.” Moreover, because of his contributions to Native American art, he was awarded Artist of the Month at the Oklahoma State Capital in March of 1980 and was named “Honored One” at Red Earth Festival.
His work has been exhibited at The Philbrook Museum of Art in Tulsa, OK, the Heard Museum in Phoenix, AZ, Governor’s Gallery at the Oklahoma State Capitol, and at various shows in New Jersey, New York, California, Texas, New Mexico. In addition, his work has been exhibited internationally in South America, Europe, and the British Isles.
During his life, Clayburn Straughn completed 11 large bronze sculptures (20 editions each and three miniatures) depicting Native American life and history. These sculptures are a testament to his artistic talent and his dedication to Native American culture. Unfortunately, Clayburn died much too early in July of 1985 at the age of 61. After his death, LaVerne noted, “not a week goes by that I don’t receive an invitation to enter his work in a show somewhere.”
Clayburn Straughn’s work and his lifetime of accomplishments were honored during the Clayburn Straughn Native American Art Show, created by his wife in 1988, and held every year through 1999. His art show was held during the Chickasaw Annual Meeting and Festival in Tishomingo, OK. Some of the finest Native American artists from around the country gathered to exhibit their work in honor of Clayburn.
In 1989, Clayburn Straughn was elected to the Chickasaw Hall of Fame. At that time, he was only the second Chickasaw to be bestowed with that honor. Upon her death, LaVerne left the entire collection of Clayburn Straughn bronzes to the Chickasaw Nation. The collection is on display at the Chickasaw Council House Museum in Tishomingo. LaVerne also donated Clayburn’s studio equipment and furniture to the Greater Southwest Historical Museum in Ardmore.