Identity is a tricky thing. It’s hard to know anymore if we are supposed to proudly declare our differences or attempt to blend them seamlessly into the larger tapestry; be aware of color, gender, ethnicity, or blind to it. The task is made more difficult for the hyphenated among us, those whose self is a mix of disparate enough elements — especially in contrast to the majority — to require a punctuated identity. Labels can mislead as much as reveal. Take Fidalis Buehler, professor of art at BYU. His mother is Micronesian, and he spent his teenage years in Hawaii and other islands in the Pacific, so he frequently is identified in exhibition literature as a “Pacific Island artist.” Artistically, though, he was trained in Utah as much as in Honolulu, and his professional career has been spent almost entirely in the Intermountain West. And he was born in Wisconsin, his father a fourth-generation American from the Midwest, with a family that traces its roots to Bern, Switzerland (hence the surname; the given name — a version of the Latin word for “faithful” — came from a maternal aunt). So, he could equally be considered an American artist. Where does one draw the line? Or insert the hyphen?
“I don’t pretend to say I’m this person of Micronesian culture,” Buehler says. “I just say I’m an American. I come from this American background and I’m definitely entrenched in the culture. But at the same time, I recognize traits and peculiarities that are quite foreign to an American experience.”
This story begins when Buehler’s father, a Wisconsin boy of Swiss-Catholic background, joins the Peace Corps shortly after college, asks to be sent somewhere with an ocean, and gets his wish. In spades. Stationed in the Solomon Islands, east of Papua New Guinea, Buehler Sr. worked with a co-op, teaching locals how to run their own businesses. It was here he met Fidalis’ mother, a native of the tiny Phoenix Island Group in the Gilbert Islands, married her, and began a family. The family returned to Wisconsin after the Peace Corps stint, where they remained for half a dozen years before going back to the Pacific. Hawaii became their base, but a job with the Bank of Hawaii also took the family to American Samoa, Saipan and Guam, before returning to Hawaii. Buehler describes these teenage years, spent in exotic locales, as an adventure, highlighted by expeditions to empty beaches and remote peaks looking for World War II paraphernalia with his father.
The first time Buehler became conscious of identity — of ethnicity or religion as a marker of who one is — was when he was 6. “Someone asked me if I was Native American,” he remembers (likely the default assumption about a “brown” person in 1980s Wisconsin). Those sorts of questions, benign as they may seem from the point of view of the interlocutor, are what begin to instill in an individual a sense of being “other” in their world — a sense of belonging to one tribe or another, of being inside or outside a culture. Especially for a 6-year-old, the age of elementary school, when one leaves the circumscribed confines of the nuclear home for daily engagement in a broader world (even if that broader world is only Wisconsin). When Buehler’s family moved to Hawaii, he wasn’t quite brown enough to fit in there either: his accent — or from his viewpoint, lack thereof — set him apart from the Islander population. He had the look but couldn’t talk the talk. Like many people of blended backgrounds, he had that uncanny sense of never being fully part of either culture. “I’ve always felt in-between, of watching on the periphery of how cultures interact with one another,” he says.
Buehler’s mother grew up on a tiny atoll in the middle of the Pacific, a place too small to appear on any but a specialized map. Her family lived off the land, spoke the local language, engaged in native healing practices. But none of that was Buehler’s own lived experience. All he really knows of that culture are the stories she tells; and the occasional flashes that surface in the otherwise traditional American culture of his upbringing — like when his father would announce that a pair of friends was coming to dinner, and his mother would prepare food for 50, lest the family be shamed for not providing enough; or the elements of native folklore that would crop up in his mother’s conversation, things like: “Don’t sweep at night because you might sweep one of your ancestors out of the house.”
These glimpses of his mother’s background suggested to Buehler a magical place between myth, legend and folklore. It was the sort of experience his father would generally blow off. Buehler Sr.’s Catholicism was a conservative, rational, Midwestern sort, hardly mystical or metaphysical, a fact highlighted for Buehler one Christmas in Saipan, where the Catholicism is a Spanish variety and he saw worshipers kissing the feet of a sculpture of Jesus. That is where his father drew the line. “We don’t do that kind of thing,” he said.
But those lines intrigued the son. “‘How far do we go with this?’ I used to think. And then, ‘Let’s go that far. Let’s see what happens,’” Buehler remembers. “I became curious to play out some of these things to their fullest extent.”
That curiosity and play may be what propels his art. His paintings are full of folkloric and mythic elements: masked figures, anthropomorphized animals, autonomous heads propped up in vague landscapes. Titles like “Fable Gathering” and “Spell Caster” set the works in a pre-modern realm, as does Buehler’s “naive” style, reminiscent of religious and folk traditions. “Pacific Island artist” seems to contextualize this style, give it a sense of authenticity. But it’s a style he worked out in the Rocky Mountains, not some Palm-treed atoll.
Buehler earned his BFA at the University of Hawaii, in Honolulu, where one of his professors was Yida Wang, an artist trained in mainland China. Her style was very refined and precise, something he was trying hard to emulate. So he was surprised when one day she came up to him and said, “When are you going to draw like you?” “It caught me off guard,” Buehler says. “It was then I realized I needed to find my own voice.”
After graduation, Buehler and his wife, an Arizona girl who adds some Scots-Irish to the family mix, moved near her family and began one of their own. He worked multiple jobs to get by, she encouraged him to apply to graduate school. Of the half-dozen programs that accepted him, BYU was the cheapest, and the family moved north in 2005.
He credits his time at BYU with helping him to find his artistic voice. Both professors and fellow students were encouraging, he recalls. And it was while in Provo that he began to look to “naïve” artists like Bill Traylor, Henry Darger and Milton Avery for inspiration. Mostly, though, he found his voice by working. “After you do enough work you can always look back and see patterns, what comes to the surface,” he says. He noticed the same frontal figures appearing repeatedly, the same awkward hands and incorrect anatomy. The question, “Why do I keep doing this thing?” drove his search until he began to relax and accept what was coming.
He earned his MFA in two years (debt-free, he’s happy to report). The family stuck around Provo another year, long enough to get a position teaching at his alma-mater. A year later they bought the house in Mapleton, where the garage of the original owner, a farmer who used it for his equipment, has served nicely as a studio. Buehler recently put up some walls, to contain some of the chaos of the space. It also allows him to fit in a car, and family toys like a WaveRunner.
Picasso famously said it took him four years to paint like Raphael and a lifetime to paint like a child. Buehler’s following that path with some help from his children — he has four between the ages of 4 months and 12 years. He says the youngsters have been crucial to his development as an artist. He keeps folders of their drawings, using them as source material or inspiration. He also finds that their language, as well as the colors and patterns in their clothing, find their way into his work.
In addition to being multiethnic, Buehler’s background is multi-religious as well. He was raised in his father’s Catholicism, and he describes his mother as a deeply spiritual person. The daughter of a Methodist preacher, she was active in their religious community, and is considered a healer — she incorporates healing massage with Native rituals. At 21, Buehler threw his own contribution into the religio-cultural mix when he joined The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. When his sister called him up, “out of the blue” to say she had been baptized a Mormon, Buehler was surprised. “It never occurred to me to just go anywhere you want [religiously].” But he joined as well and a year later served an LDS mission (ironically enough, to his father’s ancestral home, Wisconsin, rather than his mother’s). “It’s become a part of every aspect of my life,” he says of his conversion.
As a result of his Mormonism, Buehler can incorporate a whole new bag of stories into his narrative mix, as we see in “Good Boy Visions,” where a supine figure bathed in light looking up at two floating figures calls to mind the story of Joseph Smith’s “First Vision.” Buehler’s version of the story is sprinkled with the sort of odd details that frequently appear in his work. Trees suggest the “sacred grove” setting of the “First Vision,” but light is provided by theatrical spotlights rather than by the celestial beings themselves, and a showerhead sprinkles water on the figure, whose torso and head are one and the same — like a giant marshmallow man.
Though his works pull from larger cultural trappings and motifs, all of them refer back to Buehler’s own experience. “I use the word, “me-myths” to reference all these things as part of my story,” he says. “I own them. These are things that are part of the broader culture but I appropriate them, I’m controlling them, using them to explain my own situation. Or strange situations that I think are part of my own upbringing.”
Owning them doesn’t necessarily mean understanding them. To explain his process, Buehler references an episode from Bill Watterson’s comic series, Calvin & Hobbes. Calvin sets about to become a famous archaeologist and begins digging up “bones” from the backyard — Coke bottles, plastic silverware — and puts them together to form a skeleton which Hobbes guarantees will make him famous. “I kind of feel like that. I’m putting things together and hoping something sticks,” Buehler says. “It doesn’t always happen.”
He digs up most of his material from his own experience. “What I’m best at, I think, is mining memory, pulling out what’s available.” The masks that appear frequently in his work are a carry over from watching how costumes were presented in the various places he lived. “But I also start asking the question about the power the masks carry. Some of them are filled with magic and others are meant to obscure.” The hoodie is a contemporary version of that, and also appear frequently in his work. “You put it on and suddenly you’ve become something else. It transitions between warmth and protection but also obstruction.“
The football players who pop up in his paintings are ignited by memories of his time in American Samoa, watching his brother play the game — equipment was so sparse players traded helmets or mouth guards between plays and stuffed socks down their uniforms for padding. “There were parts of the field where you didn’t run because pieces of lava rock stood out.” Yet playing American football was a major part of the identity of Pacific Islanders.
Overall, he describes his process as, “streams of consciousness flowing in and out of experience and then adding something contemporary.” His paintings are about working out an understanding of his background and working out personal issues and ideas. He points to one piece, in process in the studio. A grid is drawn across a rudimentary landscape in the center of which a naked black figure is seen only partially obscured by a tent. “I’m really obsessed with the idea of surveillance and people knowing everything about you,” he says of the piece, called “Camp Grid.” “It’s such a scary place that we live in, that you can allow people to access everything about you. This was sort of a psychological response of wanting to hide but never fully being able to pull yourself off from the grid.”
Buehler’s paintings are not all equal. Some are meant for sale, others as gifts. Some are too important to let go, others too personal to show. They are like totems and he has to decide what kind of power they hold, or what kind of power to imbue them with. So his work generally goes through an incubation process. “[A piece] might be physically done and I won’t touch it anymore. But I also have to resolve in my mind that they have meaning, or purpose and honesty in what I’m doing. So I’ll shelve it for a while and come back six months later and say, ‘Does this still mean something?”
For Buehler, meaning can come from the subtlest of sources. Not just the figures in one of his paintings and what they are doing, of which he’s not always sure — “I’m still trying to figure out why I connect a lot of things” — but even the simple technical aspects of painting, the way a background is painted, how textures shift, the way a hand is turned. “The poetics of painting really intrigue me . . . mark making is a narrative in and of itself.”
He works by instinct rather than analysis. He is reluctant to put his work in boxes, to give his paintings a fixed meaning, or to fill them too consciously with meaning. “The older I’ve gotten I feel it’s become about the less I know,” he says. “I’ve come to this idea that trying to put every ounce of understanding into what I’m doing is actually more defeating to the experience of making the piece.”
He’s found that helpful in life as well. Shortly after he joined the LDS church he says he created a box; shut himself off. “So I could work within this thing that I didn’t quite understand.” As he’s gotten older, he’s opened up the box more. “There was always this question, ‘What about everything else in my life? What about the 20 years before I joined the church.” Conversion, he’s learned, is not about erasure, but learning to integrate, accepting, if you will, all the hyphens of his experience.
“The place I’m being in-between now is very comfortable for me. But I also recognize that at a certain point in time it became a challenge to decide where I’m going to draw the line . . . which one I’m going to choose.” He’s learned to accept, to absorb the multiple stories and identities of his life, to embrace the “totality of where I’m at . . . learning to become a whole human being.”
One suspects what he says about his search for a personal style in his art is true about life as well: “I’ve come to relax a lot more and find the narrative can come about naturally.”
The founder of Artists of Utah and editor of its online magazine, 15 Bytes, Shawn Rossiter has undergraduate degrees in English, French and Italian Literature and studied Comparative Literature in graduate school before pursuing a career in art.