I took the afternoon off to attend, via webcast, the Seizing the Sky: Redefining American Art symposium at the National Museum of the American Indian. The symposium honored the work of Kay Walkingstick, an American painter of Cherokee descent, who is the subject of a monumental retrospective at the museum. Hopefully, the entire symposium will soon be available on the museum’s you-tube channel.
The conversation during the symposium was wide-ranging, serious, and playful, as it circumambulated the questions: what did it mean to be a Native artist in the Twentieth Century, and what does it mean to be a Native artist now? The answers were, inevitably, diverse and complex, as speakers spoke of Walkingstick’s efforts to decolonize art history, the larger art world, and the North American landscape.
As I watched and listened, I was reminded of my own struggles with questions of identity, ownership, and appropriation. Beginning in about fifth grade I became fascinated by Native American culture. This was reflected in my insistence on Native themes at thanksgiving, trips to Native archaeological sites, and weekend searches across the Illinois landscape, accompanied by my father, for burial and ceremonial mounds.
By the time I got to college as an art student, my personal iconography was filled with petroglyphs and thick, impasto surfaces. I was given to cutting into the paint, layering, and scraping, mimicking the structure of rock faces. My work was decidedly abstract and “primitive” in a well schooled sort of way. In my senior year I largely stopped painting, turning instead to intaglio, a deeply embossed form of printmaking. I would hand ink each plate, my fingers deeply enthralled by the physicality of it, and often bleeding from cuts generated by the sharp metal. In graduate school my work turned towards intense color, then large, sculptural weaving. I had been admitted to grad school as a printmaker, but living in the high country of New Mexico demanded something more tactile of me.
In graduate school I had several Native friends who encouraged my use of themes and motifs from southwestern cultures. It was the mid-seventies, and in the Southwest, everyone was borrowing from everyone else. I felt particularly blessed when one of my friends, another graduate student who was from the Taos pueblo, brought bread baked at the pueblo to share with all who came to my Native themed thesis show’s opening.
After graduate school I moved to northwestern California, where no one seemed to like, let alone understand, my work, then to the East coast, where the rawness of it appeared totally alien to a cadre of artists devoted to high craft. Worse, I was struggling with questions of appropriation. Over the course of a few years I stopped painting, then ceased weaving. In the subsequent years, whenever I attempted to paint, that same Native themed iconography quickly reasserted itself. Finally, although I kept teaching it, I simply stopped making visual art, instead, turning to storytelling and theatre for creative expression.
Then, almost ten years ago, as he lay dying, my father told us we are Native on both sides. Sadly, we were too stunned to ask about tribal identities, and he and his siblings passed on still holding that secret. My mother’s family was even more tight-lipped. Much later I realized that my father’s mother and father were openly recognized by his family as Native, even as their Native identity was denied. I also slowly became aware that my nearly lifelong obsession with Native imagery had somehow arisen from that immediate family history, that it was, in psychological parlance, the return of the repressed.
All this went through my mind and heart as I looked at Kay Walkingstick’s imagery, and listened to stories of her insistence on remaining a Western trained, woman, Indigenous, artist. She refused to take only one identity, even as her graduate school mentors encouraged her to, in that all too familiar refrain, “let go of the Indian” so she could become successful. She was, swimming upstream, both as a woman artist and a Native artist. Yet, she persisted, making modernist art that is beautiful, and that challenges the dominant narratives about us, and U.S. history. I stand in awe of her humanity and courage.