The short answer is he can’t stop.
Thirteen years ago, John Thein created his first painting about the Wounded Knee massacre. “Ghost Dancer,” a portrait of a Lakota man, became the first piece in a series of paintings documenting the 1890 tragedy, when an Army regiment opened fire and killed hundreds of Native Americans on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation.
Over the next two years, Thein produced eight paintings, four oil and four watercolor. The resulting exhibit debuted at Creighton University, where he has taught art for the past 38 years, and later traveled around the state.
He thought he was finished, but a few years later Thein realized he had more to express. Images haunted him and demanded to be drawn. The drawings became a new painting, and then another, and another.
The paintings grew more raw, abstract and personal. Each took about a year to complete. A single canvas panel might measure 7 feet high and 6 feet wide. A single painting might contain three or four panels.
Thein finished the series, for the second time, last year. He completed the final work, “Dragon Fly,” a dark and oil painting featuring ghostly images of buffalo and horse heads superimposed on fleshy human figures. A sliver of canvas in the middle threatens to tear the painting in half.
Then, a world away, on a work-related trip to China, he felt it. A nagging sense, again, that the last painting wasn’t truly the last.
Now, in his studio on the Creighton campus, the 70-year-old Thein is at work on his biggest Wounded Knee painting yet. He started last December. When he finishes it, sometime next year, it will be more than 6 feet high and 32 feet wide.
He thinks it might be the last. He knows not to believe that.
He also has a problem. Thein would like the series to remain together, but outside of an acquisition by an entity with considerable space and resources, that may be unrealistic.
“To do this project is to realize it creates limitations,” he said. “So that brings up an issue: ‘Why in the hell are you doing it?’ ”
Why does he keep returning to Wounded Knee?
The long answer is that even though the subject remains the same, Thein changes. He grows older. He chooses colors differently. He applies brush to canvas in a new way. Over the years, he’s earned a reputation among friends, colleagues and students as an artist with tremendous technique and incredible focus, and he considers himself a creature of habit. But the truth is that each new Wounded Knee painting introduces something new. Something worthwhile. So he continues.
The short answer is he can’t stop.
Long before he started teaching at Creighton, before he studied and apprenticed at the University of Iowa under the famed Argentine-American printmaker Mauricio Lasansky, before he completed his undergraduate work at Marquette and what is now the Milwaukee Institute of Art & Design, John Thein worked in a steel factory.
He was 18. He worked there five years, putting himself through college. To this day he winces at the memory of the factory smell. He also sees a continuity from those clock-punching days to his artistic process.
“I’m very blue-collar,” he said. “I like routines.”
When he arrives at his studio, located a few blocks from his office on the Creighton campus, he follows the same routine. He turns on the light, then sits for a while to assess his painting-in-progress and study what he did the day before.
In front of him are three panels, each 6½-feet-by-6½-feet. The one on the left is still blank. The other two are a mixture of preliminary drawing and vibrant color. He looks at the intersection of the two panels and considers the relationship between them. Then he drags both to the studio’s lone window and paints.
It is a physical exercise, painting at this scale, and the end result can be imposing. On a gallery wall, this work — titled “12/29/90” for the date of the Wounded Knee massacre — might tower 9 feet off the ground. Its breadth will require viewers to stand back at first and approach carefully, like walking from a clearing into a forest.
“If you look at his work, it’s all about layers,” said Kristin Pluhacek, a local artist who attended Creighton in the late 1980s. “He’s got layers and layers and layers. I could absolutely see him not stopping. I could see him continue working until they’re 20 feet thick.”
A Native American friend of Thein’s, Bryant High Horse, remembers the first time he saw Thein’s “Day of the Eclipse,” a frenetic 25-foot-long painting overwhelmed by figures and symbols spiraling against a brilliant blue sky.
“All I saw were spirits,” High Horse said, adding that even in the darkness of the subject he saw positivity. “When you see people work on artwork like this, the thought is, they understand it, they feel it.”
Littleton Alston, a sculptor and Creighton professor who’s known Thein for more than 20 years, remembers when the subject of Wounded Knee came up initially. Thein is recognized for his versatility; he’s taught printmaking, drawing and sculpture, and his early combination of watercolor and pencil drawing is one of the first things his admirers mention. But this was something new.
“He wasn’t talking about doing drawings — he was talking about doing major, epic pieces,” Alston said. “Number one, that’s hard to pull off. Number two, you don’t do that lightly. That’s ‘War and Peace.’ That’s not a small novelette. It’s heavy lifting.”
That Thein continues the heavy lifting more than a decade later doesn’t surprise Alston. True artists, he said, dedicate themselves to a vision and toil in obscurity. But he worries about where the series will end up.
“An artist of national caliber working in Nebraska, dealing with a subject that is unique to this region — it should be in a museum collection,” Alston said. “It should be an acquisition. I think it’s very important. But I think it’s not something he pushes. Many artists are not recognized until they’re done, and then everyone recognizes them. I think he deserves recognition.”
The experience that first delivered Thein to Wounded Knee was, paradoxically, a trip to New York.
It was 1993, and he’d landed a one-man show in the big city. Just as he stepped into the grandest of settings, something unexpected happened. He felt out of place. Thein had lived most of his life in the Midwest — Wisconsin, Iowa, Nebraska — but he finally identified as a Midwesterner.
Soon after, he began to research Great Plains history. He read about Black Elk, an Oglala Lakota medicine man, which brought his attention to Wounded Knee. Early on, he wanted to document the event and based his paintings on historical texts and photographs.
“If I was able to walk away from it, I would have walked away for good,” Thein said. “But I did know after the first paintings, the cycle was not complete. That didn’t mean I knew where it would go. But I did feel an incompleteness. It was no longer the original commitment. It took on a different sensibility.”
He looked inward, and as he did, he found the subject kept giving back.
Late last year, after he finished what he thought was his last Wounded Knee painting, Thein visited China. Once again, distance provided perspective, and a familiar feeling washed over him.
“What happens when you are so far from home is you begin to evaluate what you have done,” Thein said. “Your sense of isolation causes you to say, ‘Have I done anything worthwhile?’ ”
Because the long and complicated answer to that question is always just out of his reach, Thein returned home from China and restarted a series that never really stopped.
He returned to his studio, day after day. Turned on the light. Sat and studied the previous day’s work.
“You have something worthwhile to say. Can you say it worthwhile?”
He looked at the intersection of two panels, focused on the connection of one to the next.
“Was your time spent worthwhile?”
Then he dragged the panels into the light and continued to paint.