Brad Kahlhamer (b. 1956; Tucson, AZ) has told the story a million times before. He continues being asked to share it. He does so without animosity, strangers wanting him to explain the candid, unknowable details.
How he was born to Indigenous parents and adopted by a white family three days later. How Arizona’s adoption system of the era was closed. How parental names were left off his birth certificate; the insurmountable obstacles preventing him from ever learning who his parents were, the tribal heritage from which he descends.
A less gracious person would bristle at the endlessly repeated request, the subsequent attempts at armchair psychology surmising how this influenced his life, his art. Kahlhamer, to his credit, takes it in stride.
Also to his credit, the unsolvable riddle of his ancestry doesn’t tear at him. It doesn’t torment him. Any understandable frustration or anger never led him into bar fights, stolen cars or empty whisky bottles. He has long since accepted what can’t be answered.
Kahlhamer effectively channeled the restlessness he felt through the years as a result of his enigmatic first hours of life.
“I decided to solve that in my work,” Kahlhamer told Forbes.com.
The answers he’s found can be seen at the Tucson Museum of Art during the exhibition Brad Kahlhamer: 11:59 to Tucson. The time and place of his birth. The title format a nod to the 1957 Western movie “3:10 to Yuma.”
On view are selections from Kahlhamer’s astoundingly diverse and prolific output which references and recalls cartoons, Pop art, Katsinas, graphic novels and comics, ledger drawings–which he calls America’s first graphic novels–oil paintings, installations, found object sculpture and chandeliers, tens of thousands of sketches in Moleskine notebooks, imagery inspired by Indigenous people of the Pacific Northwest and Southwest, text. He’s had a separate career as a professional musician. He writes poetry.
“How is it,” he asks back when questioned about the consequences of his upbringing. “You live this unsettled life and (it’s) probably one of the reasons I make so much work, that’s where all that energy goes.”
Over the past 40 years, Kahlhamer has produced enough work to satisfy three careers, three artists, three people. In a sense, he is.
Kahlhamer breaks his life into three realms: the “first place” of his Indigenous heritage, the “second place” of his otherwise ordinary mid-century, middle-class, middle-American upbringing, and the “third place,” the combination of the first two which has resulted in his singular work as an artist and musician. The first two pieces–people–which would seem to be so at odds with each other aren’t reductive or destructive in Kahlhamer’s case, they augment one another creating the third, the authentic and original Brad Kahlhamer.
“Because I was coming out of this ambiguous situation, (I decided to) create this unholy mix of subject matter,” Kahlhamer explains. “I thought I would be my own tribe because I was running into other people like myself, musicians and other Native artists who were also adopted–some of them actually found their parents, but I always thought that was probably not going to be the case for me–so I would take a stand on my own hill and be this beacon for all these people were adopted out.”
If he had to guess, Kahlhamer would place the origins of his ancestors as somewhere between the White Earth Reservation in northwestern Minnesota and Rapid City, S.D. He feels a sense of comfort in that region. The people look like him.
“When I get to Rapid City and I start walking around the streets, that’s a totally different thing, people are high fiving me, telling me, ‘We're so glad you got educated back east and you’ve returned home,’” Kahlhamer said.
As for his birth mother, he suspects she may have been part of the federal government’s urban relocation program of the 50s and 60s which encouraged Native people to leave their reservations and rural life for better job prospects in big cities. San Francisco, Denver, Chicago. Perhaps she left Phoenix, driving down to Tucson to give birth?
The contradiction of his Native birth and white childhood are obvious. Less obvious are the contradictions he’s found even within the Native American community, an occasional tension between those who can definitively trace their ancestry, and those who can’t. His “tribal ambiguity;” a term he coined and a reality he shares with countless other Indigenous people.
Further contradictions shape his work when considering the parched, rocky desert surroundings of his early childhood, the deep greens and blues of the forests and lakes of rural Wisconsin where his family moved at age 13 and where Kahlhamer would attend college and high school, and New York City where he’d find his way soon after.
Kahlhamer arrived in New York in 1982 during a remarkable cultural period. These were the last great days of the punk rock movement. Kahlhamer played the legendary CBGB’s in a punk band. The graffiti and street art generation defined by Jean-Michel Basquiat was at its apex. Hip Hop was ascending.
Kahlhamer lived and socialized around Greenwich Village and the Bowery while working in Brooklyn for Topps–the baseball card company–where one of his projects as an illustrator and art director was the Garbage Pail Kids.
“The grit of downtown New York, fusing that with the wilder American West, throwing in a little swap meet and music a long way, the show is really a summation of all that,” Kahlhamer, who now splits his time between New York and Mesa, AZ, said.
The aesthetic sweep of this hybridity does not result in a cacophonous art practice. Kahlhamer’s work doesn’t flail. It would be easy to assume his art and life are in search of something. A more precise word would be exploration. Search implies focus on destination, outcome; exploration centers the journey.
Ever since he was a child given the freedom by his parents to roam the desert, Kahlhamer has been a wanderer. An explorer. “Yondering” as he calls it. He still fondly remembers receiving a bicycle as a kid, the delight in how those wheels fed his wanderlust which has always been a feature of his personality.
Through exhibitions, personal travels, professional residencies and teaching positions he’s seen almost every inch of the U.S. and much of the world. His life is not a quest for answers, it’s a commitment to looking, learning, experiencing, expanding.
— Chadd Scott