June 16, 2017

Makers + Mentors: Hands-on with leaders of Native fashion

Makers + Mentors
Native artists sharing experiences and their thoughts on design and inspiration. From left: Fashion and textile historian Regan Loggans, fashion designer Patricia Michaels, fashion designer Niio Perkins, fashion designer and multimedia artist Loren Aragon, artist and apparel designer Jared Yazzie, fashion model Jade Willoughby, and editorial hair stylist Amy Farid.

As an intern at the National Museum of the American Indian in New York this summer, I had the pleasure of attending last week’s Makers + Mentors event, a series of workshops and conversations with Native designers, artists, and business owners who make their mark on the world of fashion. The day-long program, inspired by the exhibition Native Fashion Now, on view in New York through September 4, centered around providing guidance and support to young—ages 14 through 24—aspiring designers and artists interested in careers in fashion or design.

At the museum’s welcome and introduction of some of the makers and mentors, I spoke with a few of the young people taking part in the event, asking them what they were most excited to do that day and what inspired them as artists. Two high school students, who told me they are inspired the most by the show Project Runway and the street-wear they see on the sidewalks of the Bronx, are both planning to go to medical school. They emphasized, however, that they want to keep designing, either through a minor in fashion or by dedicating free time to art, even as they pursue careers in medicine. One college student who dreams of one day designing costumes for movies like Beauty and the Beast said that she is constantly assessing the historical accuracy of clothing she sees in films, and that historical fashion is one of her biggest inspirations. I even had a chance to speak quickly with one of the mentors, fashion model Jade Willoughby (Ojibwe). Gesturing to the two younger girls sitting with her at the table, she told me that she is inspired by “the passion of other people in this industry—the passion that drives designers’ dreams into reality.”

Courtney Leonard  Makers + Mentors
Courtney M. Leonard speaking during her Place + Identity materials lab.

Next, I attended Place + Identity, a materials lab led by Courtney M. Leonard (Shinnecock). The lab was located in the Coat Room, or “Camel Room,” of the Alexander Hamilton U.S. Customs house, and the room's ornate air (its ceiling is painted with camels) provided a dynamic contrast to Courtney’s down-to-earth approach to success.

Courtney, a multidisciplinary artist and filmmaker, gave us a peek into her creative process, showing us photos of the subway, skyscrapers, and sea creatures—all inspirations to her. I admire her apparent ability to find patterns and structures in nearly anything, and I wish I could be as creatively unafraid as she is with her work. She showed us how she used landscape and location to begin creating a piece of clothing or jewelry, saying that “the landscape that is around us is the culture, the being, and the essence.” She also spoke about her attachment to Long Island’s Shinnecock Nation, and how she used images like the thunderbird from Algonquin mythology to find fresh, unique patterns for her work.

We all then began designing and creating mock-ups of structural jewelry. Courtney encouraged us to start with simple shapes we see around us and find a pattern from there. Here is the set of earrings I created, inspired by the pointed toes of the businesswomen’s shoes I see on the subway every morning, as well as by ballet shoes, and suggesting the shape of a fish. 

Earrings design project
Designing from the shapes around us: A pair of earrings based, in part, on the shoes New York businesswomen wear.

During the lunch break, I spoke with a few girls who are students at a fashion high school in New York. Their style inspirations range from their parents to the clothes of the ‘70s, Ariana Grande, and flower gardens. When asked why she is passionate about design, one student replied that “from a piece of fabric you can create anything—it’s extremely expressive.” Another gave me her perspective on the importance of supporting Native artists, saying that non-Native designers can study Native cultures, but they do not have the same first-hand experience with those cultures that gives Native designers such a unique and powerful artistic perspective, and the authority and knowledge to use aspects of their cultures in a way that does not take advantage of Native communities.

At my next lab, textile designer and performance artist Maria Hupfield (Wasauksing First Nation) taught our group how to sketch and carve out our own rubber stamps, which could be transferred onto fabric to create an ink pattern. I was amazed by the creativity of the people around me—no one in the group had made stamps before, yet most of the students seemed right at home, experimenting with blank space and different materials to stamp on. Maria had a very calm approach to her work and spent most of her time visiting people who seemed to be struggling and reminding them that perfection was not the goal.

I think the lab was so exciting because we were able to create something completely our own that we could transfer onto almost any surface. One girl carved out her name in the rubber and begged her friends to let her stamp it onto their backs. Here’s the moon-shaped stamp I created, and a few patterns I did on leather. I tried to create the effect of a shadow over part of the moon, but I didn’t really achieve this. (Maria very kindly told me it was great.)

Stamps
My stamps, including the moon. Perfection, Maria reminded us, was not the goal.
Patricia Michaels
Patricia Michaels conducting a tour of the exhibition Native Fashion Now.

I was lucky to attend the tour of Native Fashion Now guided by fashion designer Patricia Michaels (Taos Pueblo). It’s hard to write briefly about the fascinating collection of pieces she spoke about, but I will say that I was amazed that she knew more than half of the featured designers personally. Patricia stressed that the Native design community is a tight one, and that many of the artists are in constant communication, creating a vital web of support and collaboration that drives their success.

To wrap up the day, fashion and textile historian Regan Loggans moderated a conversational panel discussion. Patricia Michaels, Niio Perkins (Haudenosaunee), Loren Aragon (Acoma Pueblo), Jared Yazzie (Diné [Navajo]), Jade Willoughby (Whitesand First Nation), and editorial hair stylist Amy Farid (Osage) shared their thoughts on Native design, inspiration, and personal responses to struggle. I know it’s a cliché to say that their stories were inspiring, but they truly were. As an English student who sees fashion simply as a side hobby, I found myself considering what impact I might be able to make on the fashion world in the future, and how I could help support the compelling work of Native designers and artists. The panelists especially emphasized that they had to fight to find a place for themselves in an industry that is not kind to newcomers, or outsiders. I wrote down a few of my favorite quotes, and I’ll share them here to wind up this post:

“I think my authentic self is still trying to figure out where I sit in the world.” —Jared Yazzie (Diné [Navajo]), on his personal relationship with the struggle to self-define his work

“Don’t tell me how to be Native. I am Native American. That’s what makes it Native.” —Patricia Michaels (Taos Pueblo), in response to people who say that her designs are not truly Native

“Everything is at our fingertips. We have no excuses that we shouldn’t be where we want to be.” —Patricia Michaels, on the responsibility and empowerment that modern technology gives to contemporary artists

“There’s a story behind what we present. There’s meaning behind what we have in our work.” —Loren Aragon (Acoma Pueblo), on the authenticity of Native design

“I have to stand my ground most days, but this is the work I want to do.” —Jared Yazzie, explaining how he deals with constant criticism

“We’re all human beings. At the end of the day, we fit in everywhere.” —Amy Farid (Osage), in response to the question, Where do Native designers belong in the world of fashion?

“No matter how far you go in life, you will always come back to your people. In this life or the next.” —Jade Willoughby (Whitesand First Nation), on the importance of remembering the place you came from

Thanks for reading! I strongly recommend you check out these designers. Exploring their work really gave me a new perspective on the ever-expanding and changing role of Native fashion in the chaos of today.

—Althea Meer

Althea Meer is an intern with the Office of Public Affairs at the museum in New York. In the fall she'll begin her junior year at New York University, where she's studying English, Spanish, and web programming.

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May 23, 2017

Native Fashion Now: Designer Sho Sho Esquiro

Through September 4, 2017, the National Museum of the American Indian’s George Gustav Heye Center in New York celebrates indigenous designers from across the United States and Canada, from the 1950s to today. Native Fashion Now—a traveling exhibition organized by the Peabody Essex Museum and now making its final stop—explores the exciting and complex realms where fashion meets art, cultural identity, politics, and commerce. In a series of interviews, writer and cultural specialist Dennis Zotigh (Kiowa, Santee Dakota, and San Juan Pueblo tribes) speaks with the artists taking part in the exhibitionhere, designer Sho Sho Esquiro.—Dennis Zotigh

 

Sho Sho Esquiro by Matika Wilbur
Sho Sho Esquiro. Photo by Matika Wilbur (Swinomish and Tulalip)

Please introduce yourself.

Hello! My name is Sho Sho Esquiro. I am Kaska Dene from the Yukon Territory Canada and also Cree.

Can you give us your Native name and its English translation?

My Indian name is Belelige, meaning Butterfly. I use my name Sho Sho for most things and use my Indian name when introducing myself to my people or at a ceremony.

Where did you grow up and where do you call home now?

I am proud to say I grew up in the Yukon, where it snows eight months out of the year. Being able to cross country ski to school and eat what my dad shot was a luxury. I now reside in Vancouver, British Columbia.

How old were you when you became interested in your art form?

I have always been interested in sewing and learning our traditional ways. From as far back as I can remember I watched my mama, aunties and grandma sew, bead, and work with furs. I think my first sewing project was when I was five.

Sho Sho Esquiro %22Moma yeh%22 jacket Matika Wilbur
Sho Sho Esquiro (Kaska Dene and Cree, b. 1980), Moma yeh estsu yeh Giyets'edih (Remembering Our Mothers and Grandmothers) jacket, 2016. Sealskin, silk, lynx fur, beads, gold. The jacket is dedicated to Sho Sho's late grandmother Grace McCallum and modeled by her aunt Louise Profeit-LeBlanc (Nacho Nyak Dun First Nation). Photo by Matika Wilbur

Who are the individuals who inspired you?

I am inspired by the women in my family. Hearing stories of my grandma going out and shooting her own moose, cutting it up, and tanning her own hides—those are the type of things that inspire me. In the harsh conditions in the north, 50 below zero was not uncommon. So my aunties were always sewing up hides and furs to make mitts, gloves, jackets, and hats.

Have you competed and won any awards for your work

I have had the honor of winning various awards from museums. At Santa Fe Indian Market (SWAIA), in 2016, I received Best of Show Contemporary Fashion, Best of Division, and First Place. At the Heard Museum in 2016, Judges' Choice and Conrad House Award. At the Heard in 2015, First Place and Honorable Mention. At Santa Fe Indian Market (SWAIA) in 2015, Honorable Mention. At the Autry Museum in 2015, First Place. At Cherokee Art Market in 2014, Second Place. At the Elteljorg Museum, Best of Division and First Place two times. At Santa Fe Indian Market (SWAIA) in 2013, Best of Show Contemporary Clothing, First Place Clothing. At the Autry in 2013, Second Place.

What does the title Native Fashion Now mean to you?

I love the title Native Fashion Now. I had to chuckle once when a lady told me she was the first Native fashion designer. There has always been Native fashion, so to me this title is very suiting. It is the current work of some of our time's visionaries.

Where do you envision the future of Native fashion to be headed on the world’s stage?

I love that we as artists are getting a platform and attracting more of a general interest. I was very proud two years ago I was the first Native to take part in the world's first-ever fashion show presented on the Eiffel Tower in Paris. Experiences and opportunities like these are what inspires me to keep pushing the boundaries.

How do you describe the relationship between your work and traditional Native art forms?

My work coincides with traditional Native art forms because I am a Native woman doing my art form. Our art form is not stagnant, it grows and develops while we honor the ways. There aren't a lot of historical photos or even old pieces from my tribe's history. Does that make what I do less authentic? I think not, because I am a Kaska woman doing my art. There isn't anyone who can tell me I'm doing it right or wrong because it's from my heart, and thus my spirit.

Sho Sho Esquiro  Wile WIle Wile by Thosh Collins
Sho Sho Esquiro (Kaska Dene and Cree, b. 1980), Wile Wile Wile (the sound of wings in flight), Day of the Dead Collection, 2013. Dress: seal fur, beaver tail, carp, beads, silk, and rooster feathers; fascinator: tulle and skull by Dominique Hanke for Sho Sho Esquiro. Peabody Essex Museum Museum 2016.41.1-.2. Photo by Thosh Collins (Salt River Pima Maricopa)

When you are asked by the media to explain your work, how do you answer?

I would explain my work as contemporary art using traditional techniques.

On average, how much time does it take you to complete one of your creations?

One of my pieces can take months, my longest piece took four months. While I was preparing to show in Paris, I worked about four months, 18 hours a day. I don't usually like to keep track. It's a labor of love.

What is one of the biggest challenges you have faced in creating your art form?

I wouldn't say I've had too many challenges so far in my career. My grandpa always taught me challenges are the times to rise and learn. But I would say any time I've tried to get a grant, I always get declined because they view my work more as fashion and less textile. It's a double-edged sword when you want to be relevant in the fashion sense, but still get the respect and attention of museums and serious collectors.

What do you do to get inspired to be creative?

I love to go home and be on the land. I find that inspiring. But I get inspired by all sorts of things. Elders, family, life, death, hip hop, the environment. When you are an artist you see life a little differently, and so through those eyes many things can inspire.

Are there any unique signature styles that you are known for?

I would like to think I have defined a style in my art forms. I love bright colors and bold patterns, textures and hides and furs. I never like to get too comfortable in what I'm doing, so you will often see me switch it up to challenge my abilities and continue to learn new techniques.

How do your earlier art forms differ from what you produce today?

In my earlier work I used a lot of Pendleton. I don't so much use it anymore.

In your opinion, is it significant that this exhibition opened in New York during Fashion Week?

I love that the exhibition opening coincided with Fashion Week. I think it is significant because in the past couple of years we've seen a lot of non-Native designers being inspired by our culture. I think this exhibition will make people think and will helpfully leave with a better insight into Native Fashion Now.

In the exhibition, are you presented as a Pathbreaker, Revisitor, Activator, or Provocateur?

My work is billed as Provocateur. Let me add that I love Karen Kramer and her vision. Before this show she supported my work. She even came to my first big fashion show during New York Couture Fashion Week 2013. I would like to think my work surprises people when they find out what it is made of. My gown in this exhibit is made of sealskin, beaver tail, carp skin, beads, and rooster feathers.

Where can people go to learn more about you and your art?

You can reach me at shoshoesquirocouture@gmail.com

Is there anything else you'd like to add?

I would just like to add it has actually been a life goal to have a piece showing at the Smithsonian. I thank you for this opportunity.

Thank you for doing this interview, and congratulations on having your work chosen for Native Fashion Now.

Native Fashion Now is on view at the National Museum of the American Indian in New York through September 4, 2017. Sho Sho Esquiro's work is represented in the exhibition by her Wile Wile Wile dress.

Native Fashion Now is organized by the Peabody Essex Museum, Salem, Massachusetts. The Coby Foundation Ltd. provided generous support. The New York presentation of this exhibition and related programming is made possible through the generous support of Ameriprise Financial and the members of the New York Board of Directors of the National Museum of the American Indian. Additional funding provided by Macy’s.

Photographs are © the photographers and are used courtesy of Sho Sho Esquiro. 

#NativeFashionNow 

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April 30, 2017

National Poetry Month 2017: An interview with Autumn White Eyes

For National Poetry Month 2017, Dennis Zotigh, cultural specialist at the National Museum of the American Indian, interviews the young Native poet and spoken word artist Autumn White Eyes.

Spoken word artist Autumn White Eyes
Poet and spoken word artist Autumn White Eyes.

Please introduce yourself.

Han mitakuyepi! Autumn White Eyes emačiyapi ye. Hello relatives. My name is Autumn White Eyes.

Can you give us your Native name and its English translation?

My Lakota name is Wanbli Ohitika Win, which means Brave Eagle Woman.

What tribe, nation, or Native community are you affiliated with?

I am an enrolled member of the Oglala Lakota Tribe. I am Turtle Mountain Anishinaabe on my mother’s side, and I am Oglala Lakota, Northern Cheyenne, and Pawnee on my father’s side.

Where did you grow up, and where do you call home now?

I grew up on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in western South Dakota, in the village of Pine Ridge. This is where I call home. I currently live in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and attend the Harvard Graduate School of Education, studying Arts in Education.

How old were you when you became interested in poetry?

I was 14 years old. One of my closest friends in high school was writing poetry and shared it with me. I was fascinated by her ability to paint pictures with words. The following year I was able to take Creative Writing as an elective at my high school, Red Cloud Indian School. This was when I first delved deep into writing, and I have been writing ever since.

Who were the individuals who inspired you?

The first poet I started reading was Nikki Giovanni. I was inspired by her work focused on issues that are particularly relevant to women of color. I also watched performances by John Trudell and was inspired to see a Native leader use poetry to speak out against injustice. His writing inspires me to take the same direction of action through my work. As a young spoken word artist, I was very inspired by Mayda Del Valle’s performance style and hope to captivate audiences in the same way that she does.

Currently, popular Native artists such as Mic Jordan, Frank Waln, Tanaya Winder, and SupaMan inspire me. Their drive and courage to speak freely inspires me to take the same direction with my work.

Have you competed and won any awards for your work?

I’ve competed in numerous poetry slams throughout the years. Most notably, I led a team from Pine Ridge to the Brave New Voices International Youth Poetry Slam in 2011. I’ve also had my work published in the Yellow Medicine Review (2016), Last Stand Mixtape (2015), and Last Real Indians (2012), and a video of my work was featured on Indian Country Today Media Network (2012). In college, I was awarded an honorable mention in the William C. Spengemann Award in Writing for my piece Dear Pe’Sla, which you can also read at Last Real Indians.

Do you consider your art form Indigenous popular culture?

Yes, I do. I think writing poetry is a common practice among Indigenous peoples because often our cultures are rooted in oral history.

How does your work coincide with traditional Native art forms?

Poetry and spoken word are forms of oral tradition and storytelling. Our elders have always passed down stories of our tribes. I was lucky to grow up with my great grandmothers, and I loved hearing them tell stories, which always sounded like poetry to me. I also incorporate Lakota language throughout my work.

Where do you envision the future of your art form headed on the world’s stage?

I hope that someday wider society will know and read my work. I believe spoken word generally has reached the world’s stage through artists such as John Trudell and Joy Harjo who have paved the way for artists like me.

Autumn White Eyes
Autumn White Eyes.

When you're asked to explain your work, how do you answer?

When I begin writing a new piece, I do it with the intention of my personal needs—I use writing as cathartic practice. As I continue to create a piece, I do it with the intention for audience. I hope that my work inspires Native youth to share their stories, too. As Native people, we are virtually invisible to wider society, so I use my artwork to reach others and speak out against injustices I have faced and my people face.

On average, how much time does it take you to write one of your complete lyrics?

This is hard to say. I revise my work a lot before I feel ready to share it with others. On average it takes about a month of work before I feel that something is ready to share. But I wouldn’t call any of my pieces complete, because I often return to them and will change things based on how I’ve grown as an individual.

What is one of the biggest challenges you have faced in creating your art?

The biggest challenge I am currently facing is finding the time to dedicate to writing because of my work as a full-time graduate student. Lately I have been working on revising past work, submitting these works for publication, and performing spoken word whenever I can.

What do you do to get inspired to be creative?

I often will read poetry and watch performances from poets who inspire me. I also listen to music from artists such as Tupac and Blue Scholars, which often inspires me to begin to write. Any time something inspires me, I write it down and will return to it to create.

Are there any unique signature pieces you are known for?

When I run into people who know my work, they usually mention my piece A Letter to Urban Outfitters. This piece explores cultural appropriation as an injustice. I wrote it after the Navajo Nation sued Urban Outfitters for using the nation's name in their clothing.

How do your earlier pieces differ from what you produce today?

My earlier pieces were created in the tradition of slam poetry. They were very political and have angrier connotations embedded within them. My more current work is more reflective and speaks more on the ways injustices personally impact me. I’ve also been creating work that uplifts Native youth, which was my intention behind the piece Power, published in the Yellow Medicine Review.

Where are some notable places you have performed?

Brave New Voices Bay Area; Dartmouth College; Harvard Graduate School of Education Cultural Celebration; Dahl Arts Center with Wichoiye Washaka (Strong Words), Rapid City, South Dakota; Oglala Lakota Nation Powwow, Pine Ridge, South Dakota, where I opened for the band Scatter Their Own.

As you're a spoken word artist, where can we find more of your work in video?

You can find A Letter To Urban Outfitters and I survived Catholic School on YouTube. Indigene  is one of the tracks on Last Stand Mixtape, Vol. 1.

Thank you.

Thank you.

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March 09, 2017

Shan Goshorn, in her own words: "Pieced Treaty: Spider’s Web Treaty Basket"

Shan Goshorn WHM2017
Shan Goshorn (Eastern Band of Cherokee, b. 1957), Pieced Treaty: Spider’s Web Treaty Basket, 2007. Tulsa, Oklahoma. Paper, paint; 50.8 x 50.8 x 71.1 cm. 26/6080. National Museum of the American Indian, Smithsonian

"As a teenager, I illustrated 20 Cherokee basket designs in pen and ink for a book by the Indian Arts and Crafts Board. After that, I felt like I could probably weave a basket.

"I didn’t ever try until recently when I had this idea to illustrate the tangled rewriting of the Oklahoma and Cherokee Nation tobacco compact. Non-Indian businesses felt that sovereignty gave Indians an unfair advantage when it comes to the sale of tobacco products and are lobbying to do away with Native sovereignty completely. The original compact was from 1993 to 2003—during that decade much in the tobacco world changed. The new compact was very complicated and the compromises unsatisfying; both the state of Oklahoma and the Cherokee Nation felt the compact was being interpreted incorrectly by each other. Immediately after the rewriting they were (and still are) in arbitration trying to sort it out.

"I had the agreements printed on watercolor paper; I then painted the sheets, cut them into splints, and the woven result became Pieced Treaty: Spider’s Web Treaty Basket. Spider’s Web is a traditional Cherokee basket design; 'Pieced Treaty' refers to the continual breaking of agreements. This basket has been deliberately left unfinished as these 'negotiations' appear to be ongoing."

—Shan Goshorn
Shan Goshorn Studio
"Statements about Work," October 22, 2010

Pieced Treaty: Spider’s Web Treaty Basket is on view at the museum in Washington, D.C., in the exhibition Nation to Nation: Treaties Between the United States and American Indian Nations.

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May 24, 2016

Artist Kay WalkingStick to the Class of '16 at Pratt: "Take some risks. Become resilient. Treasure curiosity and affection."

Kay WalkingStick, a citizen of the Cherokee Nation and one of the most celebrated artists of Native American ancestry in the world, graciously shares the commencement address she gave last week to graduates of the Pratt Institute in New York. WalkingStick earned her Master's of Fine Art from Pratt in 1975. 

Kay WalkingStick: An American Artist, the first major retrospective of her artistic career, is on view at the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C., through September 18, 2016.

Kay WalkingStick
Kay WalkingStick in her studio. Easton, Pennsylvania, 2014. Photo by Julia Verderosa

Thank you. It’s an honor to be here speaking to you all. It is great to be back at Pratt.

I have a young friend named Yael Tsorin from Arcadia University, from whence came my undergraduate degree. She is now attending Pratt in the Master's program in Art Therapy and was my studio assistant a few years ago. I’ve had many former students from Cornell come to Pratt for grad school, but this young woman from Arcadia, my alma matter, particularly pleases me. It feels like the circle is complete.

WalkingStick 1974
Kay WalkingStick (Cherokee, b. 1935), A Sensual Suggestion, 1974. Acrylic on canvas, 42 x 48 in. Collection of the artist. Photo by Lee Stalsworth, Fine Art through Photography, LLC

It has been a very long time since I attended Pratt. Forty-one years to be exact. The art world has changed enormously over those years. In 1975 the rage was conceptual art, performance art was still big, and Joseph Kosuth was hot. Nobody gave a damn about French philosophers, and deconstruction had to do with demolishing buildings.

I came here to quickly be a better painter and to be able to teach at the college level. I mean to learn and teach painting—as in putting paint on a prepared canvas and believing that people could convey deep and meaningful ideas that way. My painting did improve. I learned how to think about paintings, conceptualize paintings, and how to talk about art. I spent a lot of time in the New York galleries, uptown and in Soho.—None of them were in Chelsea then.—And I was a woman in a seemingly men’s-only art world. But that was changing, or so I hoped!

Walkingstick 1981
Kay WalkingStick (Cherokee, b. 1935), Montauk II (Dusk), 1983. Acrylic, wax, and ink on canvas, 56 x 56 x 4.25 in. Collection of the artist. Photo by Lee Stalsworth, Fine Art through Photography, LLC

There was no such thing as a digital world—no web, no cell phones, no iPhones. How did we ever get through the day?

The only computers were huge and klunky. “Algorithms” was a word used only by mathematicians.

Nevertheless, It was a pretty cool world—groovy, we might have said.

So what has remained the same? Anything?

Well, I still believe that paintings—colored mud and oil on a gessoed surface—can carry profound meaning. I believe that people can share ideas through visual means and that we who make visual art in all of its many manifestations are the carriers of our human visual history. We are the inheritors of Lascaux and Hovenweep.

I have high hopes that you all still believe these things, too, although I suspect many of you are not making paintings at all, since painting died some years ago I am told, killed by Arthur Danto and his philosophical buddies. You are no doubt finding other methods to make art in this digital age.

So it goes.

My Cornell colleague Carl Sagan (I actually never met the fellow) said that “science is not so much a body of knowledge as a way of thinking,” and that could be said of art as well. We learn how to think about a visual problem and all of the myriad ways to solve it—deconstruct it, if you will—then proceed to do so. We need the skills—the craft—and the various approaches we could take to accomplish that. All of this we learned at Pratt, and a lot more besides. Education is, after all, about intellectually enriching our lives and finding interesting ways to lead the rest of our lives. And it’s the rest of your life I really want to talk about.

WalkingStick 1991
Kay WalkingStick (Cherokee, b. 1935), Night/ƠRT (Usvi), 1991. Oil, acrylic, wax, and copper on canvas, 36.25 x 72.25 x 2 in. Montclair Art Museum, purchased with funds provided by Alberta Stout 2000.10

With a little luck you folks will probably live for another 70 or so years. Enjoy them, for God's sake! Don’t bore yourself to death with a dull job or a dull partner. Take some risks—I don’t mean speeding at 90 or doing heavy drugs—but take risks to find an interesting, challenging, perhaps difficult profession. Don’t let money be the primary goal, but rather let your goal be interesting, enlivening activity. (Oh, money is important, but not more than the avoidance of boredom.) Take risks to find an interesting life partner—someone who can talk about your profession, whether that is art or not, with curiosity and affection. Take plenty of time with both roles. They last a lifetime, so treasure them.

WalkingStick 2001
Kay WalkingStick (Cherokee, b. 1935), Gioioso, Variation II, 2001. Oil and gold leaf on wood panel, 32 x 64 in. Courtesy of the Eiteljorg Museum of American Indians and Western Art, Indianapolis

I found that people had to be good at rejection to exist in the New York art world. Learn to take a hit now and then and brush it off. You’ll meet some very interesting people along the way who can say the darnedest things. Somehow my being part Indian with a funny name brought out a lot of remarks. For instance, Ivan Karp, a prominent art dealer in Soho who was always friendly to artists and a witty man, said when he met me, “You’re an Indian? I always thought you were a Jewish girl from Queens who had changed her name!”

Apparently, it’s always a surprise to people that there are Indians in New York.

Another dealer—a not very nice one—told me to take all of the paintings I had shown him, put them in a pile, and put a match to them. Make a painting bonfire.

And the best, I think, was another who, when she heard my name, immediately started laughing uncontrollably.

She may have been stoned.

So learn to take occasional rejection and keep on working. It’s the work that will preserve and inspire you. And eventually I did find a great and gracious dealer named June Kelly whom I have been with for over 20 years.

WalkingStick 2011
Kay WalkingStick (Cherokee, b. 1935), New Mexico Desert, 2011. Oil on wood panel, 40 x 80 x 2 in. Purchased through a special gift from the Louise Ann Williams Endowment, 2013. National Museum of the American Indian 26/9250

By the way, all those paintings that I did not set on fire are now hanging in the Smithsonian at the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C.

Revenge is sweet. Very sweet.

I have not had a boring life, and in fact I’ve had a hell of a run with a lot of fun along the way—a couple of rough spots, too. I’ve taken a lot of risks—usually, not always, thought-out ones. (I did wear a helmet on that motorcycle.)

So challenge yourself, and enjoy every single day.

You are ready for it.

—Kay WalkingStick
Commencement, Pratt Institute
Brooklyn, New York, May 17, 2016


Kay WalkingStick (Cherokee, b. 1935) received her Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in 1959 and completed her Master of Fine Arts in 1975 at Pratt Institute, supported by a Danforth Foundation Graduate Fellowship for Women. WalkingStick’s work is represented in the collections of several museums, including the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian, the National Gallery of Canada, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. She is a professor emeritus at Cornell University.

Photographs © the artist. All rights reserved.

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