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Former Fairfax mortuary to become community art space

Big Hill ArtSpace aims to put Fairfax ‘Back Together Again’

Osage-lead nonprofit organization Friends of Fairfax has selected a former mortuary connected to the Reign of Terror murders as the location for a new community art space, which they intend to help restore what the board characterizes as a damaged community.

Informally called the “Humpty Dumpty Project,” Friends of Fairfax is renovating the mortuary formerly owned by AC Hunsaker, an undertaker and founder of the Grayhorse Masonic Lodge who was close to those responsible for the Osage murders in the 1920s. Hunsaker was a neighbor to Friends of Fairfax board member Kay Bills, one of three Osages on the majority Native-led board, all of whom felt concerns about the history of the 6,000-square-foot building to be the home of the new Big Hill ArtSpace.

The Friends of Fairfax Board chose a “smudging” to address the building’s former usage, and held a ceremony on Nov. 30, 2023, “before so much as sweeping out the building,” said Bills. A flyer for the ceremony advertised a “smudging,” and specified the purpose of the ceremony was “to lift away sadness, impurities and anxieties about the history of the building stemming from its connections to the Reign of Terror.”  

The usage of the term smudging on the flyer raised some eyebrows on Facebook, as Joe Keene commented on an event post saying, “Smudging ceremony. Hmmm… *we’re acting northern now…” Another community member, Amanda Buffalohead, replied to the comment, writing, “I was confused too.” Terry Mason-Moore responded to the questioning comments and cleared the issue up, saying, “Smudge is not the term we use, I associate that with sage myself. The building was smoked off with cedar by my husband Ted [Moore] and he prayed over it, the way we do. The attendees lined up for cedar as well. It’s all good.”

Bills, who is the board’s secretary and treasurer, said that in addition to the prayers by Ted Moore, drummers were present and the cleansing was effective. “It felt really good when we left,” she said and confirmed the Board did the cleansing specifically to remove negative energy associated with former activities and persons occupying the building. The board asked that community members submit comments about Fairfax activities directly, rather than solely relying on making comments via Facebook.

The newly cleansed building is slated to undergo construction this winter 2024, installing studio spaces for local artists as well as gallery and community spaces set to open in April 2023. Contractor bids open this month, and information about studio space leasing is expected to follow. Fairfax-based Cherokee artist Marie “Rie” Martin said that Bills asked her if she would lease a studio in Big Hills ArtSpace, but she didn’t want to move from her current location in Fairfax. “I don’t need it,” she said, “but I think it’s good. It’s got to be good for the town, for artists who need that space.”

Community spaces in Big Hill ArtSpace will include a pottery studio open to local students, five working studio spaces available for lease by local artists, a beading station where instructors will teach classes, and a beautified back patio for relaxation. “It’s really going to dress up the whole town,” said Bills, noting that with 4,000 square feet on the first floor and 2,000 square feet upstairs, there will be room for large events like fashion shows. 

The initial motivation for this work came with anticipation of increased tourism as a result of the “Killers of the Flower Moon” film by Martin Scorsese, and the desire to improve the town.

“We have all the elements of a community, but they’ve all been kind of shattered,” said Bills. “We lost the Big Hill building to a tornado. It had to be removed. There are several other businesses that are coming forward. A restaurant by Kayla White is going to come in. We are going to put the town back together. … We have a K-12 School, a hospital, a library, a golf course and lake,” said Bills.

Martin, who was one of the artists who made wardrobe pieces for KOTFM, is not convinced that the predicted increase in 2024 tourism will come to pass. “Hopefully they do have a lot of tourists coming in, I don’t really know. We’ll wait and see,” said Martin. “All you can do is try, and we’ll see. I wish them the best.”

Friends of Fairfax hopes not only to engage tourism to boost the local economy, but also to engage the community with seasonal celebrations, including one for New Year’s Eve, a solstice event, and a Christmas parade. “One of the things that has happened is that unless you’re involved in sports, there’s no way to gather for community. We need to start getting together as a community. We had a Christmas Parade and everyone came out,” said Bills.

Community economic depression has been longstanding in Fairfax, but the anticipated impact of the KOTFM film created an impetus for the founding of Friends of Fairfax. The organization came together one day when the late Johnny Williams was visiting with former judge Marvin Stepson, along with fellow Osages Boa Cox, and Bills.

Bills said that Williams was regularly calling each of them individually to talk about the film, so she suggested they all get together for a discussion. She said, “Johnny would say, ‘Well, what are we going to do?’ and I said, ‘Well, let’s just get together.’”

According to the first Friends of Fairfax newsletter, that meeting occurred on August 27, 2022, and Williams, Stepson, Cox and Bills discussed sightings of visitors driving by the Grayhorse Cemetery, how the film industry had impacted other communities, and the fact the state of Oklahoma was providing tax incentives for more filmmaking. As a result of that meeting, they applied for IRS certification and received their 501c3 status in November of 2022. They applied for a USDA Rural Development grant for Fairfax, which came through the following year in June 2023. “That allowed us to purchase the building, which was in September,” Bills said. 

The Friends of Fairfax working board includes Cox, who is a town council member and business owner; Bills, former director of the Office of Native American Business Development, Tourism, and Trade Promotion for the US Department of Commerce; Patsy Stuke, also Osage, who works with federal compliance; Gina Gray, a Creek woman with experience managing funds for tribes; and Jerry Butterbaugh, current president of the Osage County Historical Association and a service industry business owner.

Collectively the FOF board intends Big Hill ArtSpace to harmonize with nearby art venues such as Marie Martin’s Keen by ‘Rie, The Water Bird Gallery owned by Danette Daniels and Wendy Ponca’s Thunderbird Studios. “We are focused on more interactive activities [rather than art sales], but will host studios for artists and craftspeople to operate from within our ArtSpace,” said Bills. “I hope we will complement [existing art venues] as the town comes back to life.”

The board hopes they can follow a path of success for small communities, by utilizing art and culture to tell their stories. “Our story is unique,” said Bills, “but it’s not all just about the murders, it’s about the whole community and the heritage that we’ve had.” Those stories include “cattle, oil, and many more.” Friends of Fairfax’s strategy for narrating the town’s own stories is by rebuilding empty storefronts “into exciting venues … by creating ‘artists in residence.’ … a space for visitors to enjoy our cultural foods and Western swing music,” as their first newsletter recounted in August 2023.

Additional plans and concerns related to tourism include a need for public bathrooms, trash and recycling bins, new flowerpots, a food permit system for local vendors, parking, a cleaner lake area, and the housing shortage. The board has begun addressing these concerns by working with the city council and the Fairfax Chamber of Commerce and has organized a workshop for new housing and landlord opportunities themselves.

Those interested in housing opportunities are directed to contact the Board directly to be scheduled for a training session. Those starting businesses in Fairfax, and all who have comments on Fairfax activities, are advised to contact Kay Bills at (202) 550-9801 or


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Chelsea T. Hicks
Chelsea T. Hicks
Title: Staff Reporter
Languages spoken: English
Chelsea T. Hicks’ past reporting includes work for Indian Country Today, SF Weekly, the DCist, the Alexandria Gazette-Packet, Connection Newspapers, Aviation Today, Runway Girl Network, and elsewhere. She has also written for literary outlets such as the Paris Review, Poetry, and World Literature Today. She is Wahzhazhe, of Pawhuska District, belonging to the Tsizho Washtake, and is a descendant of Ogeese Captain, Cyprian Tayrien, Rosalie Captain Chouteau, Chief Pawhuska I, and her iko Betty Elsey Hicks. Her first book, A Calm & Normal Heart, won the 5 Under 35 Award from the National Book Foundation. She holds an MA from the University of California, Davis, and an MFA from the Institute of American Indian Arts.

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