Henry Niese is a man of vision. Many visions, in fact, some of which he has translated into canvases of pulsating color in a show that opened last month at the Foundry Gallery, 2121 P St. NW.
The paintings are a result of visionary experiences Niese had while following American Indian spiritual exercises, including the Sioux Nation and Crow Dog Sun Dances, in which he has participated four times.
Having been taught by the revered medicine man Bill Eaglefeather of the Sioux, Niese has been accorded the status of spiritual leader within the Indian community, though he backs away from admitting publicly to having been designated as a medicine man.
Niese, a graduate of Cooper Union and Columbia University in the 1940s, has at the same time been on the University of Maryland art faculty for 10 years.
More surprising than Niese's combination of the academic and the mystical is the fact that he is not a native American Indian. Not only has he been received into religious experiences seldom revealed to white men, but his looks and manner of living seem more in accord with the ways of an American Indian than a university professor.
A small, sinewy figure, Niese lives with his second wife and 9-year-old son atop a hill on a 10-acre farm near Glenelg in Howard County. Standing on the porch of his 150-year-old stone house, he scans the quiet fields and woods below with clear, steel-blue eyes.
"Nature is the great teacher," said Niese. "That's our home. We're a part of it no matter how much city living and our intellectual training may have separated us from it. We have to make a relationship with nature, learn how to respect it."
Neise recalled his own experiences as a child growing up in New Jersey before his move in the 1940s to New York City, where he studied and painted until the mid-1960s.
"There was something in me as a little kid that responded to nature," said Niese. "I can remember going out on my grandfather's farm and walking in the fields, feeling the sun beating down on me and sneaking up on animals, just watching them. There was a feeling of such a fantastic relationship."
These feelings were more or less submerged during the 50s as Niese concentrated on large still lifes in which objects glowed with an energy that Niese now puts into nature. Paintings from that period are part of the permanent collection of the Whitney Museum, the Corcoran Gallery and the Chrysler Art Museum.
In the mid-60s Niese turned to film making and stopped painting until the early 1970s, when he tried large, geometric pictures.
Then Niese read "Black Elk Speaks" and found in the wisdom of the Oglala Sioux medicine man echoes of his own feelings about nature. In the mid-70s he went out to Rosebud Reservation, the Sioux lands in South Dakota, and established what he terms "a spiritual relationship" with the medicine man Bill Eaglefeather. In the teachings and spiritual knowledge Bill Eaglefeather shared with him, Niese found both personal meaning and a renewed artistic stimulus.
Last year he taught a seminar at Yale that explored the relationship between art and the visionary experiences of the American Indian religion, and he will teach the seminar there again next year.
"I've learned more about art and teaching art in the last five years than the first 25," said Niese. "I've found out that people are really blind. They think they see but they're operating mostly on their conception of the world rather than their perception of the world.
"Seeing is a learned skill, just like dancing," added Niese. "In the Sioux culture every part of the world is a lesson, even the smallest bird or animal. Black Elk said, 'Pay attention as you walk the path of life.' That's very important."
Niese's show runs through March 8 at the Foundry Gallery, which is open Tuesday through Saturday from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.