Rural western Oklahoma artist transforms lifeless bones into artistic treasures
Embodying the spirit of both a painter and a sculptor, Elise Anderson expertly considers her muse, unleashing her boundless creativity onto an unlikely canvas. Each stroke of her brush or etch of her chisel breathes vitality into the lifeless bone of an animal skull, unearthing the whispers of forgotten stories waiting to be told.
But beyond the aesthetic allure lies a deeper, thought-provoking narrative that underscores Anderson’s creations. The finished works echo themes of preservation, cycles of life and death and the interconnectedness of all living beings. Each piece offers a poignant message, urging the viewer to reflect on the relationship between nature and the passage of time.
For Anderson, inspiration began at a young age. The CKenergy Electric Cooperative member grew up outside of Clinton, Oklahoma, where she resides today with her husband, Weston. She fondly recalls always working the field with her dad, running cows and horses. From age 7 to 17, her best friend was her horse, Willie.
“Willie was my rock through my formative years,” Anderson says. “I still tear up when I think about him.”
Anderson has always found solace in creative expression, whether that be on a napkin on the kitchen counter or a doodle in the church pews. After Willie passed, she sought a way to honor the impact the horse had on her life. The idea came to her to clean and paint his skull, and somewhere along the way, it became a “happy process” for her. Willie’s piece now adorns her parents’ barn, a place Willie loved.
“He belongs there, you know?” Anderson says.
As life tends to do, the idea gained momentum, and one project turned into many. She received a few buffalo skulls, cleaned and painted them, then sold them on Facebook Marketplace. After that, she couldn’t seem to shake the pull the medium had on her.
“I just couldn’t get it out of my mind,” Anderson says. “I would get done with my workday and wanted to paint right away.”
From there, Anderson created an Etsy account and made her first sale in 2020. She named her store Tatanka Boutique in honor of the Lakota word for “buffalo.” Anderson, although not a Lakota herself, spoke with her Lakota friends to ensure she showed respect for their culture.
She appreciated how in Lakota culture, the word “thatháŋka” reflects how the buffalo gave completely of itself to the Lakota people. From food to clothing, every part of the animal was used among the tribe. She views this work as a humane way to honor a part of the animal that would otherwise be discarded.
Anderson works with multiple skull types, including longhorns/horned cattle, non-horned cattle, jawbones and buffalo skulls. The work to clean the skulls is not for the faint of heart. From the time she receives the full heads, she spends up to three months cleaning and preparing the skulls for painting. If the head is horned, part of the process also includes removing the keratin cap on the horns. Every piece is unique in structure and pricing, which can range from a few hundred to a few thousand dollars per piece.
All her work is hand painted and inspired by the southwest region of the United States. Due to the time involved, she has since moved her work from Etsy to her own website, where she releases up to seven customs at a time. She has now completed more than 150 custom orders.
“I feel so blessed that I’m able to do that and that people cherish it enough to display it in their home,” Anderson says. “That’s a big deal to me.”
In her studio, a spare bedroom in her home, she keeps a map showing where all her skulls have shipped across the nation. She only knows of a handful of other skull artists in the country.
Although her work has grown in popularity, Robert Travis, CKenergy Electric Cooperative member and board director, says he has never seen two of Anderson’s pieces look alike.
“Elise is a phenomenal artist,” Travis says. “Beyond that, she is a wonderful and inspiring person and role model to those who see her on a daily basis in her small rural community.”
Anderson can’t see herself living anywhere but rural western Oklahoma. She loves how willing people are to lend a hand.
“Knowing everyone around you creates a sense of community and belonging,” Anderson says. “I love that my life and my art are here.”
To learn more about Tatanka Boutique, visit tatankaboutique.squarespace.com or follow @tatanka.boutique on Instagram.