Dreams are tricky things. Ever-changing, they are conceived in the present, rooted in the past, and with any luck, realized in some distant, hazy future. Crystal clear and graspable one moment, dreams become quicksilver apparitions the next, slipping through the fingers and skittering out of sight around the bend, beckoning us to follow. And so, we chase until we catch them, or until the chase itself becomes the important thing, the journey more essential than the destination.
Yatika Starr Fields has been chasing his dream since he was a high school student in Tulsa, Oklahoma, when he picked up a paintbrush and began an adventure that has taken him to cities all over the world, places where he has left his mark in vivid splashes of pigment on canvas and bare walls. He has also left footprints in the mud and dust of mountain trails from Utah to France, or in this past weekend’s case, on the roads of his hometown of Tulsa, where he finished 45th of nearly 5,000 runners in the Tulsa Run 15k, the city’s signature footrace.
“The race is shorter, flatter, and faster than what I’m used to, and on the roads,” says Fields, “So a little out of my comfort zone, but it’s Tulsa’s oldest, biggest race, so if you’re a runner in Tulsa, you just sort of do it.”
Still, he feels most at home, most truly himself in the hills and mountains, on more technical trails, moving over varied terrain, the feel of good dirt beneath his feet. He looks forward to his next trail ultramarathon, celebrating his yearly return to the Ouachita Switchbacks 50k, in mountainous southeast Oklahoma.
“Celebration” is a word Fields uses a lot. To him, running – and making art – is a celebration: of his connection to the land, to other runners, artists and art aficionados, to his Indigenous ancestors, who have walked this land for centuries. Fields is Osage, Mvskoke (Creek) and Cherokee, and in a recent video1 he talked about running as celebration of his upbringing and ancestry.
“To celebrate movement and play (pray) outside, I think about going back to that deeper meaning, of ancestors and their place on this earth, and acknowledging them, celebrating them, and being mindful about the beauty of every day. If you have the ability to do that, to be outside, to move, to run, to walk, then do so, because that’s a way of celebration.”
Running, though, is a more recent development in Fields’ life, though it stems from, and is inseparably linked to the practice of art, which he has been celebrating almost since childhood. His parents are both artists, and in high school teachers recognized his talent and provided opportunities for him to learn and practice a variety of techniques. He traveled to Europe in 2000 to study landscape painting, an event that opened his eyes to what artists were doing on a global scale, and the kinds of dialogues they were having. The experience influenced how he would approach his education at the Art Institute of Boston, (2001-2004) and thereafter, when he moved to New York City and pursued graffiti art, through which he both upended and expanded upon the classical training in which he had been absorbed.
Fields immersed himself completely in the urban culture of the first decade of the century. “We were making it happen, a culture of makers; graffiti culture, punk culture. I was a bike messenger, so also bike culture. I lived on the bike. It was fast-moving, wild. It was great, but eventually I needed to find something different.’ He laughs.
“I didn’t even know you could be a healthy artist until I made it happen,” he says.
Part of that realization was frequent visits home for dances and other cultural events, which slowed him down, kept him grounded in his original culture. Running became another part, the part that opened up an unforeseen future.
Translating his cycling fitness to running wasn’t automatic, but once Fields started running, he progressed quickly. “I started with one mile on a treadmill,” he says. “I worked my way up to a half marathon, then went straight to a 50k.”
Since that 2016 50-kilometer trail race, Fields has completed over two dozen trail ultras, among them the 2022 Western States Endurance Run 100-miler, and in 2023, the 170-kilometer Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc (UTMB) in Chamonix, France. In less than ten years, he had gone from non-runner to finisher of perhaps the two most iconic ultramarathons on Earth.
As he was putting in the miles, racking up ultra finishes, so too was he finishing paintings, staging shows. “I’m always in the middle of something,” he says, referring as much to training for a race as to his painting.
The two have become inseparable, which could also be said for his activism. Fields is wrapping up a six-year stint with the Tulsa Artist’s Residency Program. The residency has allowed him to produce remarkable work, work that has been shown in galleries the world over. It has also allowed him to reconnect even more deeply with the place he was born and raised, with the people he comes from.
From this connection has arisen a new project, a studio art space and café for Indigenous artists. Says Fields, “Indigenous artists can have their own space and own it, a place to meet, converge and grow. It’s distressing to me to know there’s never been a place like this in Tulsa, in a state with more tribal land than any other. There are places like this in Minneapolis, in Portland, in other places, but not Oklahoma. It’s long overdue.”
Fields envisions a place where people come together not only to make and share art, share a meal, but a place that will, he says, “raise visibility, kindle an awareness of indigenous wellness and food sovereignty, give artists agency over their own work.”
This marriage of art and activism is not new for Fields. In fact, it is in his blood. His father was present at the occupation of Alcatraz in 1969 and family members were present at Wounded Knee. And graffiti art is by its very nature an activist form, thus Fields bringing a graffiti aesthetic to his canvasses is a way to give his subject matter an organic form that goes beyond mere “edginess.” This ability to match form and subject is one reason his work from his time at the Standing Rock protest is so powerful.
Projects with running nutrition company GU, for whom he designed packaging, and Western States, for whom he created a commemorative poster, are recent examples of art, running, and activism intersecting. He is happy that companies are showing an increased awareness in the stories of First Peoples and that trail races have begun letting participants know just whose land they are running over. Still, he is understandably wary of who really wants to tell these stories, and who is merely committing an act of marketing.
Videos of Fields running show him to be solidly-built, but lean, with a slightly bowlegged gait. He runs efficiently: no extra bounce to his stride, no wasted motion as he climbs and descends with an easy fluidity. “Relaxed” could be his middle name. He does, however, seem to give off a vibration when he runs, a kind of joyful, kinetic resonance that is equally apparent in his painting. Fields’ art fairly hums with barely contained motion, bursting at the seams with intense color and cross-cultural iconography. His work grabs ahold of a viewer, pulling them into an embrace that involves all five senses and invites total immersion in the experience. His canvases and murals erupt with swirling, vivid colors from which figures and objects frequently emerge as if by magic. There is, too, a narrative at work in these seemingly abstract works, a narrative that emerges more strongly the more time you spend with it.
It's a narrative of struggle, of persistence, of a long relationship to the land, of suffering, and staggering loss, but also of breathtaking joy, a narrative of – yes – celebration. Celebration because the artist, despite centuries of efforts to prevent it, is still drawing breath, still drawing water from the cultural well of the ancestors, still applying the next brush stroke, still taking the next step.
I notice there is an improvisational aspect to his work. He sometimes paints live in front of an audience. I ask if that “paint by the seat of your pants” method translates to working alone in the studio, and if the same approach holds true for his running. I wonder if the dream is to give oneself over to the dreaming, to not be completely sure where the next step will take you. Fields talks as if running and painting are the same thing.
“Running,” he says, “is a spiritual connection to my truest self and my self as an artist. It’s not linear. I’m never sure where its going, just like with a paintbrush.” He pauses for a moment. “The magic is in not trying to understand the process, in having the confidence, the courage to be comfortable when the outcome is unknown.