The Artist Leadership Program (ALP) of the National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) aims to rebuild cultural self-confidence, challenge personal boundaries, and foster cultural continuity while reflecting artistic diversity. ALP's goal is to recognize and promote indigenous artistic leadership. At the same time, the program seeks to enhance the artistic growth, development, and leadership of emerging student artists and scholars through community art workshops in the artists' communities. Selection for the program is based on the artists’ proposed research, proposed workshops or public art projects, digital portfolios, resumes, artist statements, and letters of community support.
During December 2014, the museum hosted artist Lisa Rutherford while she conducted research in the museum’s collections. Here Lisa shares her aspirations and values, and her thoughts about what museums and Native artists can offer each other.
Lisa Rutherford, an Artist Leadership Program grantee for 2014-2015, studies the design and technique used to make a deerskin coat in the collections of the National Museum of the American Indian. NMAI Cultural Resources Center, Maryland; December 2014.
My name is Lisa Rutherford, and I am Cherokee. I live on a ranch near Tahlequah, Oklahoma, where I get a lot of inspiration for my work. My primary art form is hand-coiled pottery, but I also create twined textiles and feather capes based on historic descriptions. The 1700s is my favorite century.
Part of my work is demonstrating cultural arts and living history, so I want to maintain cultural and historical integrity, even though I also want to try new things and move in new directions. I don’t want my art to become stagnant or just to copy artifacts, I want to create new things with old influences while maintaining that cultural integrity.
The reason I applied to the National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) Artist Leadership Program was to study feather capes and early textiles, to learn the different methods of textile-making and to help with historic accuracy in my work. I also want to study what Cherokees were wearing at specific points in more modern time periods to help with my impressions when I demonstrate living history.
The NMAI Artist Leadership Program was so much more than I expected! I almost gave up on submitting my application, because I had applied a few times before and not been chosen, and I was really frustrated with my project proposal and research proposal. But Keevin Lewis, NMAI outreach program coordinator, gave me some guidance, and I got the application in just before the deadline, despite the Wi-Fi in my studio going down.
To other artists, my advice is don’t give up! Keep applying! The museum staff is there to help us, and they are good at their jobs. I’ve already suggested to several artist friends that they apply to this program. In addition to offering opportunities to see cultural items in the collections, the NMAI staff is also knowledgeable in film and photo archives, documents, and books, and they'll try to make other resources available.
My fellow program participants and I also had training from the First Peoples Fund and assistance developing our staff and public presentations, which we gave three times. Speaking to diverse audiences was a good experience. But the exposure to so much wonderful art in all the museums on the National Mall, by other ALP participants, and in the NMAI collections will provide so much inspiration for new projects.
One of the most exciting times was when I first walked into the collections section of the museum's Cultural Resources Center (CRC) in Suitland, Maryland, and saw two rolling shelves with my name on them, filled with deerskin coats, twined textiles, and beadwork for me to study. I saw cultural objects I had studied only in photos. I was so excited that I couldn’t wait to get to the next group of materials! I got to see a couple of twined skirts found in Tennessee that have been attributed to the Cherokees. Although one is incomplete, they are in unbelievably good condition, and I could clearly see how they were made. Studying the textiles inspired me to try a different, complicated technique for my community project. Most of my community workshop participants are skilled artists with some experience with twining, so I think they will like the challenge. I hope others are encouraged to do their own research and perhaps apply to ALP themselves.
Many of the things I studied were made to be utilitarian items or for everyday use, not for artistic expression. But I noticed the quality of the artifacts in the collection. Many items were well made and had stood the test of time. Stitches were tiny, even, and strong. Repairs were imperceptible. Beadwork was flawless, no thread or stitches showing. There were extra decorative touches that had no purpose other than to make the items more aesthetically pleasing. Sometimes today we rush to make deadlines and don’t take the time to add extra little touches. Although these things were meant to be used, they were still made attractively and with obvious pride in workmanship.
I’m pretty much an introvert, so spending a week basically on my own in the city was an exciting experience that I enjoyed a lot. I was out of my comfort zone at times, but I loved every minute of it.
I feel that I now have validation of some of my theories, and new information to help me move ahead on new projects. I also have new questions to research. One thing I gained from the program that I didn’t anticipate was confidence in myself. When I was in the collections, I realized I already have a lot of knowledge and am even able to share information about some of the objects with the museum staff. I gained knowledge that I will share when I teach and when I do living history. I learned that I can gain a lot of information from the resources at the CRC and the Smithsonian Museum Support Center to share with others and help them with their art.
I posted a lot of my experiences on social media during my trip and am surprised by how many people have mentioned they were following me. My community workshop will be limited in size, and the subject probably won’t appeal to a large audience. In addition, though, I am doing a presentation and slideshow to share my newfound experiences with whoever wishes to attend.
Lisa Rutherford is giving a public presentation about her research experience Friday, January 16, 2015, at 6 p.m. Central time, at the Cherokee Arts Center's Spider Gallery in Talequah, Oklahoma.
All photos are by Keevin Lewis (Navajo), NMAI