Commissioned by the Oklahoma State Legislature
Dedicated on November 17, 1991
In 1991, artist Mike Larsen reached a milestone in his career when he was commissioned to paint a permanent mural for the Oklahoma State Capitol. Named Flight of Spirit, the painting is a tribute to five world-renowned Native American ballet dancers from the state of Oklahoma. Larsen states, "This painting is about our heritage. It is a symbolic representation not only of the accomplishments of these ladies, but also of the essence of our lives conveyed through the arts." The dedication of the mural on November 17, 1991 brought together the five ballerinas for their first public appearance together.
Flight of Spirit merges the tragic history of Native Americans with the hope and renewal of modern accomplishments. Behind the illuminated ballerinas is Larson's depiction of the Trail of Tears. Five geese soar over the displaced Native Americans. The geese symbolize the grace and spirit of the five ballerinas. Larson reserves his customary enlargement of hands and feet for the traditionally dressed Native Americans who stand tall behind the ballerinas. His depiction of the ballerinas is strictly representations in that the painted figures have analogous facial features and proportions. The commission was managed by the Oklahoma Arts Council.
Born in Dallas, artist Mike Larsen divided his childhood between Texas and Oklahoma. His schooling was accomplished primarily in Texas where he attended both junior high and high school, and it was during high school that Larsen had his first pivotal art moment. He describes his art teacher as "[knowing] less about art than bingo". The classroom atmosphere was thus extremely relaxed; an attitude that only increased Larsen's love of art and strongly stimulated his sense of self-motivation. He further pursued art at Amarillo Junior College where his technique was practiced and polished. Forced to paint only in black and white for the duration of his freshman year, Larsen gained an invaluable experience that he describes as "great training in drawing and form."
Larsen continued his art education at the University of Houston where he enrolled almost entirely in art classes to the exclusion of other required classes. He dropped out of college when he was notified that his senior year would consist entirely of mandatory academic requirements.
From this point on, Larsen attempted to make a career for himself but was initially unsuccessful. He took odd jobs mainly in restaurants so that he could afford to paint each day. During this time, Larsen showed his work at street venues and various galleries although he felt as though something was missing in his work. At the age of 36, Larsen decided to return to school and set his sights on the prestigious Art Students League of New York.
There he studied primarily under famed David Leffel who he described as a "really fine, old master-style painter." While in New York, Larsen encountered three major influences on his career. First of all, was the talent of the instructors he was learned from as a student. Secondly, he was influenced by the retrospective exhibit of the work of Vincent Van Gogh at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Lastly, the experience of New York City alone influenced Larsen a great deal and propelled his career into a new realm of artistic exploration. Larsen's new style integrated more of his Native American heritage into his work, as he began to experiment with Indian figures.