The famed Potawatomi artist Woody Crumbo depicted his life in the American southwest through paintings of intricately detailed horses, personal portraits and landscapes. Crumbo has etched his way into Potawatomi history through his art. Another Potawatomi artist following in Crumbo’s footsteps is Penny Coates.
Born and raised in Shawnee, Okla., at a young age Coates developed a taste for the artistic world. Her father, an artist himself, taught a young Penny and her three sisters the values and fundamentals of being an artist. This early exposure led Penny to a career as a master floral designer, a path she followed for nearly 40 years in Minneapolis, Minn. and Springfield, Mo.
After raising three children and relocating to two different states to pursue her career as a floral designer, Coates longed to move back to her hometown. After a chance meeting with her high school sweetheart, the couple married and Coates settled back down in the area of her ancestry.
Now serving her fifth year as FireLake Gift Shop Manager, Coates, is the artist behind all of the large, detailed murals inside the Citizen Potawatomi Nation Cultural Heritage Center.
“My work is a replica of my soul, and I feel like a part of me goes into each piece,” said Coates. “Every piece of art has a story; you just have to look for it.”
When she has a pen or brush on canvas, Coates says she hears the words of her father telling her to give the artwork more depth or detail. His voice, transfused to her thoughts, is just one of many aspects that Coates says has helped push her to be a better.
“One of my favorite memories while painting in the heritage center was the time I was up on a ladder painting and an elderly lady came in with her granddaughter. The little girl was maybe 11. She came up to me and just stood there in awe, watching me paint,” recalled Coates. “I came down from the ladder and asked her if she wanted to paint some leaves on the wall. I took a minute or two to show her how to paint leaves and she painted about five on the wall. She was so proud of herself, so I told her to remember that every time she comes in, her leaves are right here on the wall. She left with the biggest smile on her face that I’ve ever seen. As an artist, that gives me inspiration to keep the passion for art.”
Coates is currently working on a project using a Potawatomi archival item. The piece is a journal of her great great-grandmother, Mary Anne Bourbonnais. Coates explained that she plans on scanning pages from the journal and illustrating over them through a traditional Plains Indian art process called ledger art.
Coates also teaches art classes at the Cultural Heritage Center once a week. The classes range from bead working, pencil art, and regalia making.
For more information about classes and places to see Coates’ artwork, visit FireLake Gift Shop’s website at giftshop.potawatomi.org or call 405-878-5830.