Sweet hand-painted signage in southern Arizona.
The guy who owns the 95-acre lot at Pima and Happy Valley Roads in North Scottsdale, Henry Valentine Becker, has been on a longstanding rampage against the Coalition of Pinnacle Peak, which seeks to prevent him from commercially developing his property. He’s been there since 1995, putting up signs and making himself a nuisance.
No what? you may ask. The message has been lost to time, and now suggests, at least to me, a kind of quintessentially Arizonan plywood sentiment … no to gun control, no to “illegals,” no to same-sex marriage, etc. etc. But I like the mysterious No on its own. The signs rim the lot and insist upon their own importance.
Becker has put up other painted signs as well.
Wranglers. Kachinas. Lizards. I collect painted signs as long as they’re free. Brought one home off a telephone pole in a Midwest cornfield one time years ago. It reads Cherish.
Becker’s property, within the insistent boundary of signs, remains pristine. It reminds me of nothing so much as the as-yet-undeveloped lot across town where Gil land I took our wedding photos 25 years ago.
Among the saguaros, in a time when Scottsdale was more known for horse farms than tacky shopping centers.
Becker lives in comfort, fairly near the property in question, in a conventional home, if ideosyncratically littered with yellow Post-It notes. The weatherbeaten signs call attention to his plight, get his story across to the millions of cars that jam Pima.
Everything weathers here, even the proud-standing saguaros, the ones giving the finger to the sky.
You see their skeletons everywhere littering the ground.
Different, of course, yet similar to Becker’s faded attempts, the ledger art of the Plains Indians, a phenomenon through which artists got their story out between about 1865 and 1935. Originally, the tanned skins of bison were used for painting individual scenes or narratives, using natural pigments. This one dates from 1880, and shows a battle between the Cheyenne and the Pawnee.
The U.S. government initiated a mass slaughter of the bison in order to reduce the central food source of the Plains people. So no more natural canvas. Artists transferred their pictogram paintings to either muslin, woven canvas or, most interestingly, paper ledger books, the ordinary kind businesses used to keep their accounts.
They had to get their story across.
I love the transgressive nature of these illlustrations, which explode off the pages of the staid, “civilized” lined paper.
Chief Chief Killer distinguished himself among ledger-book artists.
Educated at the Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania, the Cheyenne went back to the reservation in Oklahoma as a farmer, butcher, policeman and teamster.
He excelled at scenes of ceremonial life, landscapes and cityscapes. Collected in a ledger book cryptically titled No Horse are a series of accounts or heroism in battle.
According to his last will and testament, when Chief Chief Killer died in 1923 he left one grandson a spring wagon, one a bay horse, his granddaughter a set of light harness, but neither he nor his descendents had the funds for his burial, which the government covered to the tune of one hundred bare-bones dollars.
The new Heard Museum offshoot in North Scottsdale has a beautiful exhibit of ledger books.
One of my favorite pieces of research for The Women of the House years ago was the 18th century ledger book of the Albany fur trader Everett Wendell, which I felt privileged to handle at the New-York Historical Society, wearing white cotton gloves. Wendell indicated the furry merchandise to be exchanged with pictograms that he and the non-English speaking Alquonquin trappers would both understand: three little beavers, for example, or two bears.
Big hand-lettered signs or pictures on ledger paper make a clear statement. What statement does this figure make?
The life-size mannequin stands outside a feed store in Cave Creek, sporting her Easter finery, advising motorists that they better come in and make hay while the sun shines.
Maybe all those No signs could be reconfigured… No Horse.