June 18, 2014

Life Lessons Learned from True Icon Robert Davidson

By Paul Niemi 

True icons transcend time, history, and their contemporaries to achieve a mystique that is inexplicable. Their stature is also made stronger if they've been positive role models for others. Nelson Mandela, John F. Kennedy, and Mother Theresa come to mind. When I was 14, my idol was Jimmy Stewart, the quintessential nice guy actor of It's a Wonderful Life fame. The role of George Bailey was iconic, and people still enjoy the film today as if 1946 were just yesterday.

At age 24, while most of my peers were spending their money partying and going to rock concerts, I was contemplating buying art. Of course, I couldn't afford his work, but my idol, became (and remains) Haida master carver, painter, metalsmith, printmaker, and cultural leader Robert Davidson.

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Tlii.aa #1, 2008, Robert Davidson (Haida, Masset, Eagle Clan), b. 1946. Acrylic on red cedar, 48 (diam.) x 3 in. Private Collection. © Robert Davidson. Photo by Kenji Nagai.

Davidson is well known among those in the art world, but he is still not a household name. I suspect more people will view him as an icon after they have had the chance to see Robert Davidson: Abstract Impulse, on view at the National Museum of the American Indian in New York. Organized by the Seattle Art Museum in collaboration with the National Museum of the American Indian, the exhibition in Lower Manhattan is the first major showing of Davidson's work since 2004. Curated by Barbara Brotherton of the Seattle Art Museum, Abstract Impulse demonstrates what Davidson would call his "understanding of the Haida vocabulary to date." With work steeped in both Haida formline and his own distinct symbolism, the exhibition also features older works that lend context and reveal Davidson's love for and gradual move towards the more abstract side of Modernism. Undoubtedly, the show will undermine any remaining perception that Native art is "primitive" and will further cement the place of Haida art among the great traditions of the world.

How did Robert Davidson become my idol? It was the early 1990s, and I had just arrived in the Pacific Northwest. Galleries in Seattle, Portland, and Vancouver prominently displayed the work of Northwest Coast artists such as brothers Robert and Reg Davidson (Haida, b. 1954); Richard Hunt (Kwakwaka'wakw, b. 1951); George Hunt Jr. (Kwakwaka'wakw, b. 1958), Jr.; Beau Dick (Kwakwaka'wakw, b. 1955); and Dempsey Bob (Tahltan–Tlingit, b. 1948). There was an obvious grandeur and depth to the art, and I had never seen anything like it before. I began amassing catalogues, reference books, and postcards with historical and contemporary Northwest Coast art images. Their illustrations hung on my walls like posters of rock bands above a dormitory bed. Hours would pass as I regularly lost myself thumbing through pages of the books. 

In 1994, my father surprised me at Christmas with an inscribed signed copy of Davidson's newly released book Eagle Transforming. Its vivid photography by Ulli Steltzer gave me my first glimpse into what Davidson's masks looked like on actual human beings. I was amazed by their size, and the images helped me make a mental connection between the works and the ceremonial context in which they belonged. The drama and life lessons cleverly embedded in his subject matter ignited my love for indigenous art. And while my life led elsewhere for more than a decade, my appreciation for Davidson's style, and Haida art in general, has never wavered. 

It was thrilling to fulfill my dream of meeting Davidson at a Vancouver art opening last spring. Serendipitously, a year later I'm volunteering at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian, helping to promote the show via social media. It was wonderful to have the opportunity to interview Davidson via telephone from his studio in White Rock, British Columbia, and to connect with him again at the New York opening of Abstract Impulse. While the opening was perhaps quite more subdued than a sold-out rock concert, in my head there were rotating stage lights, the collective roar of the crowd, and mental cigarette lighters swaying in the spirit of shared love for the work of a man who had a hand in reclaiming Haida art and culture and moving it forward. 

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Robert Davidson (left) and Paul Niemi during the opening of Abstract Impulse at the National Museum of the American Indian in New York. 


My experiences with the museum come on the heels of a three-year detour in New Mexico that revived my passion for indigenous art. At a time that was economically difficult for artists, I had the opportunity to use my experience in public relations to help to find new means to promote Native art. In a short time I managed to absorb large quantities of historical and cultural knowledge and, most important, build scores of precious new relationships with Native artists. It's a beautiful life lesson in how things often come full circle and place people at the right moment in the time continuum.

When I was asked to write about Robert Davidson, however, I was skeptical that I could reveal anything new about the man who, in his own words is "pretty much an open book." In fact, when I posed the question, "What is something that most people don't know about you that you would want them to know?" it garnered a quiet, entertained chuckle as Davidson searched for something compelling to say. Nothing came to mind, which made my job even more difficult. But it was an education in Davidson's extreme humility. And while humble, Davidson has a clear sense of his achievements and place in the world.

The forward movement the Haida have made since the 1960s is an inspiring reminder to all of us just how quickly things can change, especially if we are fortunate and courageous enough, like Robert Davidson, to recognize the need for advancement.

That kind of courage is a transformation, a concept about which Davidson and I spoke at length.  It happens as if a string is being pulled taut to open us to our conscience. Davidson describes it as "becoming who you were born to be."

Recalling a pre-missionary rite of passage for Haida boys, Davidson explained that the young men would venture off into the forest where "knowledgeable persons" would look after them and help them find their spirit. Afterwards, they would return to the village and be presented through song and dance. "The spirit that he is defined with will be his guide throughout his life," he told me. Davidson's spirit guide has been very good to him. "It seems like all the experiences that I've had and all the desires or dreams that I've had . . . they've all been part of the continuum of reconnecting with our history, our ceremonies." That reconnection was necessary to save traditions, to move his culture to a new place and position it for the future.

Davidson says that early Haida art was very sophisticated. Its vocabulary demonstrated a natural, fluid progression over time. Haida formline—a unique and purposeful system of ovoids, U forms, and S forms found in Northwest Coast art and carving—flourished until the mid-1880s. In our conversation, the term vocabulary came up a lot. It is integral to understanding Davidson’s work, the history of Haida art, and the exhibition Abstract Impulse. Davidson contends that his generation "came into being in the nick of time," to recognize its vocabulary and discover the means to propel its movement ahead.

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There is Light in Darkness, 2010, Robert Davidson (Haida, Masset, Eagle Clan), b. 1946. Acrylic on canvas, 60 x 30 in. Kim and Tony Allard. © Robert Davidson. Photo by Kenji Nagai.

Haida history is difficult, but it is what brings the culture and Davidson to where they are today. In 1884, the Canadian government revised the Indian Act, discouraging First Nations arts and forbidding the practice of ceremonies, particularly the potlatch, a feast in which wealth in the form of dances, masks, and other privileges and objects was transferred between peoples to mark alliances or show prestige. On Haida Gwaii, an archipelago of islands 60 miles off the northern coast of British Columbia, traditions went dark for nearly a century. Children were sent to boarding schools, villages were ransacked, and precious cultural objects were destroyed or taken and sold to museums and collectors. Between 1884 and 1951, when the Indian Act was loosened, this disruption of families and communities and suppression of Haida culture made the creation of ceremonial items a largely futile task.

Robert Davidson was born in Hydaburg, Alaska, in 1946 (incidentally, the year It's a Wonderful Life arrived in movie theaters). As a child growing up in the village of Old Masset on Haida Gwaii, he remembers a few weavers and a handful of carvers who made argillite curios for tourists. It was a time when very little information about Haida and First Nations culture existed in school textbooks. So while Davidson knew he was Haida, he lacked the historical context within which to place himself. In a recent ArtTalk at the museum in New York, Davidson recounted playing cowboys and Indians as a child. He mused over the fact that he always wanted to be the cowboy for fear of being on the losing side. His uncle Reggie would remind him, "Robert, you know you're an Indian, right?" 

Luckily for Davidson, he and his peers found themselves on the historical timeline living among grandparents, like Florence Davidson and Robert Davidson, Sr., who still knew the Haida language and some of the songs. The laws of Canada had so muted things that people were reticent to speak of the past. There existed repressed pain and sentiments about openly acknowledging the old ways. Traces of the past were found in weddings, memorials, and other events. Davidson recalled a family story about the time a totem fell in the village in 1905. The other clan made fun of it. In order to not lose face, the chief—Davidson's grandmother's uncle—invited the other clan to a “picnic.” It was actually a potlatch in disguise.  

His grandfather, Robert Sr., and father, Claude, taught Davidson carving skills. After leaving home for the first time in 1965 to finish school in Vancouver, he spent time at the Vancouver City Museum, where he saw numerous pieces created by his ancestors and worked with Bill Reid (1920–1998), an artist of Haida background. It was the first time Davidson discovered what "quality" was in Haida art, and it became obvious to him just how much more he had to learn about his people's ceremonies.

Up to then, he and the carvers of the day had learned by studying pictures of totems they saw in the three books on Haida ethnology by Marius Barbeau (1883–1969). After experiencing boxes and totems from the past, Davidson wanted to learn about the meaning and traditions behind them. "I was absolutely blown away," he says. "That prompted me to knock on every door in the village of Masset to see if they had anything of the old pieces." Disappointingly, he found only one storage box.

As if in response, in 1969 Davidson carved the now legendary Bear Mother totem with his brother Reg (interestingly, the year of Barbeau's death). He initiated a ceremony to raise the pole at Masset, because he finally understood the knowledge his grandparents' generations had carried with them. He wanted to give the elders the chance to celebrate openly, as he says, "in the only way they knew how." It was the first pole-raising on Haida Gwaii in 90 years and would mark the beginning of the end of the community’s generations-long cultural dislocation. The pole-raising taught the self-described "smart aleck" kid, who thought he knew what art was, to connect with his people in a new and meaningful way, though he had no idea of its future ramifications. While it was initially scary for the elders to celebrate, Davidson says the response was very positive afterwards. It laid the foundation for him to learn to sing the songs that survived in Masset.

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Fast Bird, 2011, Robert Davidson (Haida, Masset, Eagle Clan), b. 1946. Silkscreen print, 39 x 30 in. Private Collection. © Robert Davidson. Photo by Kenji Nagai.

Nineteen sixty-nine was a year of cultural awakenings and tremendous change. In preparing for my interview with Davidson, I decided to ask him if he felt the pole-raising was as groundbreaking for humanity as the moon landing that same year. I was unsure where the question would take the conversation, but Davidson replied, "When the eagle lands, the Natives will rise again." Those words are from an ancient eastern Canadian tribal prophecy that Davidson said he was "amazed" to hear a few years after raising Bear Mother. "I feel that we’re in tune with each other, and there are certain events that transpire, and those events make their mark in incredible change." It was an affirmation that, perhaps, he had fallen exactly where he needed to be in the historical timeline. As I held the phone to my ear, goose bumps filled my arms, and I was grateful I had chosen that question.

For the next 12 years Davidson would go back and forth between Haida Gwaii and Vancouver, where he was living. Historically, Haida names had always been given publicly to children and grandchildren. On a regular basis Davidson says he would hear the elders complain that no one was being given their Haida names anymore. In 1981 he decided to host a potlatch and naming ceremony, to celebrate Haida traditions openly once again.

Davidson also opened up to me about his artistic process. In spite of the fact that he has taken traditional Haida art and redacted it into his own recognizable style, there appears to be no ego in its creation. When he works, he is not expressing his Haida nature, nor is he "expanding" Haida art. His work is about "expanding on his knowledge" of the vocabulary that he has learned up to this point. Being confident and comfortable with who he is and where he comes from makes ego no longer "part of my vocabulary," he explains.

From young man, to cultural leader, to contemporary fine artist who is always growing, Davidson says he'll die the moment he is satisfied with what he has done—and he notes that he wishes to live considerably longer. There has been a fluidity to his life. It comes as a result of hard work, open eyes, and courage. We live now in a time of great shifts with many uncertainties. While some of us might only dream of falling perfectly into history, Davidson's path can inspire each of us to build on a new vocabulary in order to bring meaning to our lives. He sets the standard for trusting our instincts, removing ego from the creative process, and positioning ourselves in the world as bridge-builders.

Davidson asserts there is still so much more "homework" to be done to bring the Haida vocabulary to the place it was prior to the mid-1800s. His words serve to teach all, especially younger generations, about the pitfalls of "leapfrogging"—of circumventing the building blocks required to achieve crucial aesthetics. He says, "It's important to understand the standard that was established and that is the foundation for growth."

Robert Davidson is proud that his work with the fundamentals has allowed him to pass the torch to his son Ben, a successful artist and gallery owner, and his daughter Sara, a teacher pursuing a Masters degree in literacy. We can only speculate what Davidson will come up with next in his continuing quest to express his understanding of the Haida vocabulary.

For visitors to Abstract Impulse, knowledge of the historical background that shaped the work offers a more meaningful experience, though it's not necessary. Davidson's work has a universal appeal that speaks to everyone in a different way.

In her essay in the exhibition catalogue, curator Barbara Brotherton asserts that early Haida art pieces possessed formline abstractions and reductions that could be seen as ambiguous and open to interpretation to suit appropriation amongst various clans. The ambiguities in Davidson's work will, no doubt, serve to connect people of all clans. And while his work is contemporary, he is emphatic that he will never stop using certain traditional elements, such as the ovoid, which took him 30 years to learn.  He focuses on Haida art because he continues to see its potential, but he refuses to "imitate an old vocabulary."

Twenty minutes into a hike, Robert Davidson’s father once told his young son “You have to look back once in a while to see where we came from, so we can always find our way back." “Relearning” their history is essential for the Haida, Davidson insists. The symbolism of looking back at times "will mark our trail forward." Wise words from a man who is an undisputed icon. 

Robert Davidson: Abstract Impulse is on view at the National Museum of the American Indian in New York through September 14, 2014.

Paul Niemi is an arts and culture writer and blogger as well as a Museum Ambassador for NMAI–NY. The quotations in this article are from a phone interview Paul conducted with Robert Davidson in early April 2014. 

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March 31, 2014

Anishinaabe Artist Maria Hupfield Takes a Crack at the Fabergé Big Egg Hunt in New York

 

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It's difficult to believe that 260-something, two-and-a-half-foot-tall eggs created by artists could be hard to find in New York City, but they will. And they'll be fun to find, too. Photo courtesy of the artist.


Forget oysters. For Brooklyn-based performance artist Maria Hupfield (Wasauksing First Nation) right now, the world is her egg. And she’s hopeful New Yorkers will have fun finding it.

A little confused? Don't be. The mystery surrounding what is likely to become one of the most popular Big Apple springtime events will be revealed when the Fabergé Big Egg Hunt kicks off tomorrow, April 1. Earlier hunts garnered much attention in the U.K. and Ireland. This year marks the event’s New York City debut.

Here’s how it will work: The organizers of the Fabergé Big Egg Hunt challenged more than 260 globally renowned artists, designers, and creatives—including Hupfield—to transform two-and-a-half-foot egg forms into compelling three-dimensional artistic masterpieces. The eggs are placed in secret locations “high and low” throughout the five boroughs. From April 1 through 17, the public is invited to take part in the hunt via a special smart-phone app, with incredible gemstone prizes from Fabergé serving as an incentive. From April 18 through 25, all the eggs will be on view in a free public exhibition at Rockefeller Center. 

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Left: Performance artist Maria Hupfield at the National Museum of the American Indian in New York. Right: Bandolier bag with Woodland decoration (detail), made by Hupfield of industrial felt. Photos by Paul Niemi, NMAI.


Hupfield’s personal work explores universal conditions, locating the body in relationship to self, objects, and place. She was a logical choice to participate, not only because she has made a name for herself internationally with work featured at New York's Museum of Arts and Design and the Vancouver Art Gallery in the last couple of years, but also because of her lifelong immersion in craft. Craft was a big part of her upbringing as a member of the Wasauksing First Nation in Ontario, Canada. She is descended from a line of “makers,'” as she calls them—Hupfield’s father is a boat-builder, and many of her aunts make traditional quill boxes.

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Hupfield creates beauty out of practical materials. Photos courtesy of the artist.

Accustomed to replicating everyday objects (a camera, for instance) in gray industrial felt for her art practice, Hupfield explains that she likes to think with her hands—to create things that show practicality as well as real aesthetic appreciation. “I work across different disciplines,” she says. Some of her pieces stand alone, sculpturally; others are used in performance to “activate them.”

When it came to cracking the design of her big egg, Hupfield admits, “I have never created something of that scale.” Hupfield’s traditional Anishinaabe culture, though, outweighed her lack of large-scale project experience. “My artwork is about ideas that are greatly informed by my upbringing and where I come from.” She recently used traditional Eastern Woodland floral patterns to adorn objects used in performance pieces that celebrate the exhibition Before and after the Horizon: Anishinaabe Artists of the Great Lakes, on view at the National Museum of the American Indian in New York through June 13. Hupfield found great inspiration in the innate shape of the egg and went to work translating the her relief designs. 

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Hupfield's sculpture dons its gray flannel suit—a clever disguise for an artwork that hopes to pass as just another businessegg in the city. Photo courtesy of the artist.

Hupfield contends that while she was given the same form as other artists, her egg offers something a little bit different. “It’s soft, huggable, and beautiful. You won’t necessarily be able to touch it, but there’s definitely a sense of tactileness,” she explains. “I'm excited to see how people respond to it.”

She’ll have to wait. Once ten people have found her egg, its location will be revealed. For now, not even Hupfield has an inkling where that may be. Event organizers expect the locations of all the eggs to go public by the end of the first week. 

One important thing you can know now is that the Fabergé Big Egg Hunt in New York is a charity event. Each egg will be auctioned off to the public online, with bidding beginning April 1 on the Fabergé Big Egg Hunt website. Funds raised this year will go to support Elephant Family and Studio in a School. 

Starting April 1, the event website is also the easiest place to go to download the egg hunt app.

So, where would you hide a two-and-a-half foot egg? 

For more information on the Fabergé Big Egg Hunt, please visit thebigegghunt.org/

Twitter & Instagram @thebiggegghuntNY & #thebigegghuntNY

Facebook.com/thebigegghunt

—Paul Niemi

Paul Niemi is an arts and culture writer and a Museum Ambassador at the National Museum of the American Indian in New York. The quotations in this piece are from Paul’s recent interview with Maria Hupfield at the museum.

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March 14, 2014

Weaving and Protecting a History: A Conversation with Basket-Maker Kelly Church

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Baskets made by Kelly Church (Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Ojibwe). Photo courtesy of the artist.


So many Native American artists are generational, learning long-held artistic techniques from family elders and passing them on. This Saturday, March 15, will be an all-in-the-family event in part, when Kelly Church (Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Ojibwe) showcases her basketweaving skills during a day of demonstrations by Anishinaabe women artists at the National Museum of the American Indian in New York. Church will be joined by her daughter, Cherish Parrish (Match-E-B-Nash-She-Wish Band of Pottawatomi), and by Jamie Brown (Pokagon Band of Potawatomi), Church's second cousin—both accomplished basket-makers in their own right.

Also featured at Saturday's event are painter Dawn Jackson (Saginaw Chippewa Indian Tribe of Michigan), bead- and quillworker Naomi Smith (Chippewas of Nawash Unceded First Nation), and basket-maker Whitney VanderWal (Pokagon Band of Potawatomi). The demonstrations are part of a series of programs happening throughout the day to complement the exhibition Before and after the Horizon: Anishinaabe Artists of the Great Lakeson view at the museum in New York through June 15.

Kelly Church's family has long been involved in weaving, using black ash wood to make cultural objects since the 1850s. Collectors' records confirm this lineal history, although photographic evidence came much later. "We made baskets before we made cameras"—these are the words that Church remembers passing from her "gramma's" lips to her ears. "We have a picture of my family working with a log and weaving as a group from 1919."

Church is extremely proud of her heritage. And why not? She was born into the largest black-ash basketmaking family in Michigan, so black ash has surrounded her since childhood. She learned to harvest it from her father and her cousin John Pigeon. Church later attended the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, the University of Michigan, and Western Michigan University. At college and in graduate school, she focused on painting, sculpture, and other forms. But it's nearly impossible to deny one's place in tradition. She returned to full-time basketmaking about 15 years ago.

The people of the Great Lakes region have made black ash a staple fiber in their weaving for centuries, says Church. "As Natives, we use what is available to us in our surroundings." Michigan's abundance of swamps and wetlands allow black ash trees to grow well there, she explains. Church works predominantly with black ash, basswood, birch bark, white and red cedar bark, sweet grass, cattails, and copper. She says her family owns a huge copper kettle once used for feasts and making maple syrup. "The purest copper in the world comes from the Great Lakes." Church began weaving copper into her baskets in 2008, and has recently begun to weave in silver, aluminum, brass, and gold embellishments on top of plaited black ash underlay. 

Church is mainly known for her woven strawberries and her black ash bracelets, but she also weaves frogs with lily pads, checkers games played by strawberry versus pinecone pieces, or ash wood frogs against cedar frogs. Most recently she began weaving baskets in the style of Fabergé eggs that open and contain other items within. While there are many new, intriguing ideas she wants to explore, Church also remains faithful to tradition, creating recognizable forms such as traditional baby baskets, black ash bark baskets, and market baskets. She carves Anishinaabe cradleboards and creates birch bark bitings, a form at which few people in North America are skilled. The technique involves using the eye teeth to bite traditional designs into thin layers of birch bark that are then woven into a variety of decorative objects. Church will demonstrate this process as well at the National Museum of the American Indian in New York this weekend.

What is it like to work with black ash? "Black ash is so pliable," says Church. "You can do just about anything you set your mind to with it." Church is amazed by the work of her daughter, Cherish Parrish. One of Parrish's sculptural baskets that takes the shape of a pregnant human figure—part of her Next Generation series—is on view in Before and after the Horizon. Parrish is able to create her tightly woven baskets because of the ease with which the material can be manipulated.

Beyond the Horizon: Anishinaabe Artists of the Great Lakes is all about the history of the varied art forms found in the area from the past to the present. It makes one ponder the kind of relationship the Anishinaabe people share with the black ash. "Black Ash baskets have always been woven according to the needs of the basket-makers at that time," Church explains. "So, in the past they were needed for gathering, carrying items from the market. . . . [People made] fishing creels, baby baskets, and sewing baskets. Later, they made fancier baskets to sell to tourists, as money was needed for staples—food, homes, and cloth for clothes." 

She says modern-day indigenous people of the Great Lakes make baskets for their own utilitarian purposes. Today's needs are somewhat different, but all in all, tradition finds its place with necessity. Fancy baskets are meant to be eye-catching and pleasing. As in days of old, they are made to sell on the collectors' market to help support the maker's family. "We are influenced and live in a much different world than our ancestors, but we honor them in all ways still," Church says. That includes harvesting trees by family, processing the materials together, and weaving baskets for use and shoonya (money). "We still lay down our saama (tobacco) and give our thanks. Our basket styles and shapes are influenced by our everyday lives."

While black ash basketmaking has endured for generations, it is now an endangered by the arrival of the emerald ash borer (EAB), an invasive species of beetle that came to the Great Lakes region in the 1990s. Church is on a crusade to help preserve basketmaking for future generations by documenting the process, as well as how to identify and properly harvest and prepare black ash for weaving. Over the last deacde, she has been speaking at conferences to spread the word about the growing infestation and its impact on black ash basketweaving.

It is a tough battle with a long road ahead. "The EAB will kill 99 percent of the ash trees in the US, and collecting seeds now is the only way this tradition will continue in the future. We will end up skipping a generation in this process while we wait for EAB to die out or move on." Church says it will be necessary to replant the seeds in about 20 years, after which the new generations will have to wait another 30 to 50 years for the trees to grow to basketmaking size. A large part of her education effort involves kids who will have to reestablish the art form when they are 50 or 60 years old. Church will hold her fourth national conference to educate people about the EAB this fall.

At the same time, Church and other artsts have helped to keep basketweaving a living and ever-evolving art form. Basketweaving is gaining popularity in the Native American art world, and fine examples are highly sought by collectors. While adhering to tradition, Church says there is room for improvisation. She advises beginners who are interested in learning to look around to find materials with properties that can be used for weaving. "I weave baskets with vinyl blinds and ribbon, metals, paper . . . whatever is available and can be used!" She adds that the nature of weaving lends itself to relaxation. 

Church says she is excited about returning to the National Museum of the American Indian in New York this weekend. "We enjoy working with people and sharing our culture." The opportunity to show work and demonstrate skills at museums ". . . broadens people's knowledge about Natives and helps them to see the different styles of basketry, paintings, and art that we have." Beautiful as they are, basketmaking and other artforms tell a great deal about a people, their geography and past.  Humbly she expresses that demonstrations educate people on the nuances between different Native American cultures and serve to celebrate each unique culture and its arts.

Before and after the Horizon organizes objects using six curatorial concepts that frame entry points into Anishinaabe culture, including the idea of religion. When asked about the derivation of her surname, Church said "My last name is a mystery, but I did have a grandfather who was our Native preacher for all of his life . . . [His name was] Reverend Lewis White Eagle Church."

The artist demonstrations will take place at the National Museum of the American Indian in New York in the second floor Rotunda from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m Saturday. In addition, at 11 a.m. in the museum's West Gallery, Brooklyn-based Canadian artist Maria Hupfield (Wasuaksing First Nation) will present a site-specific 30-minute performance art realization as a "Living Tour Guide." At 2 p.m. in the Diker Pavilion, David Penney, curator of Before and after the Horizon, will moderate "A Dialogue on Anishinaabe Art," a panel discussion with artist and cultural theorist Robert Houle (Salteaux), author Gerald Vizenor (White Earth Nation), and curator Gerald McMaster (Plains Cree and member of the Siksika nation). Finally, from 5:30 to 7 p.m., visitors will be treated to the New York premiere of Robert's Paintings, a documentary by Shelley Niro (Mohawk) examining Robert Houle's life and work. A discussion with Houle will follow. Both the film and the discussion will take place in the Diker Pavilion. For more information about these and other programs celebrating Anishinaabe art, see the museum's calendar of events.

—Paul Niemi

Paul Niemi is an arts and culture writer and a Museum Ambassador at the National Museum of the American Indian in New York. The quotations in this piece are from Paul's recent email interview with Kelly Church.  

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February 14, 2014

"The Return of the Native Son: George Morrison's Artistic Journey": An evening with curator W. Jackson Rushing III, Thursday, February 20

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George Morrison (Chippewa, 1919–2000), Cumulated Landscape, 1976. Wood, 48 x 120 x 3 in. Minnesota Museum of American Art, gift of Honeywell Inc. 2000.01 

 

Modern Spirit: The Art of George Morrison closes at the National Museum of the American Indian in New York on Sunday, February 23. The exhibition pays homage to the renowned modernist (Chippewa, 1919–2000) with key works—78 paintings, drawings, prints, collages and sculptures, to be exact—from all of his periods in every medium he employed over a nearly six-decade career. In conjunction with the show, curator W. Jackson Rushing III will give a lecture entitled "The Return of the Native Son: George Morrison's Artistic Journey" Thursday, February 20, from 6 to 8 p.m. at the museum.

Rushing, Adkins Presidential Professor of Art History and Mary Lou Milner Carver Chair in Native American Art at the University of Oklahoma, will provide an overview of the exhibition, emphasizing Morrison's personal and artistic journey, beginning in the woodlands of Minnesota and continuing through his time in New York and Paris, among other places. Rushing will also explore the major themes and styles of Morrison's career and how Morrison's abstract expressionist paintings and abstract collages embody indigenous content. Rushing contends that Morrison's understanding of who and what he was shifted, as it does for many people, throughout his life. 

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George Morrison (Chippewa, 1919–2000), Whalebone, 1948. Oil on canvas, 25 x 24.75 in. Collection of Kevin and Kathy Kirvida.

According to Rushing, Morrison experienced a gradual change in his thinking about his Chippewa (the word Morrison always used) heritage. "When he returned to Minnesota to teach in 1970, after being based on the East Coast for nearly 30 years, the American Indian Movement was underway, and he became active in urban Indian life more than he had been before." His background became increasingly important in his life and art. "Similarly, the art world's perception of him as 'Native' artist (or not) also changed over time." says Rushing. "That he 'made it' is clear, and my sense is that many younger Native artists hold him in high esteem."

While Morrison was committed to modernist expression in his art, Rushing won't commit to saying that he was the first Native American artist to embrace it. "Figuring out who was 'first adopter' in the art world is a tricky business and may suggest, wrongly, that some sort of game is being played, with the winner being the one who 'got there' first. 'Likely' allows for the possibility that someday we will discover that some other artist as yet unknown to us was the first Native American artist to use modernist principles. Frankly, I think that's unlikely. All my research indicates Morrison was first in that regard, but was followed, not long after, by a distinguished group that includes Joe Herrera, Allan Houser, Pablita Velarde (briefly), Dick West, Terry Saul, and certainly Oscar Howe." 

Before this curatorial opportunity came his way, Rushing had written about Morrison. He also knew him briefly and says that he was multi-faceted and complex: "[He was] plain-spoken, perhaps, but not simple at all. He was very well read and so knowledgeable about many subjects, the history of modernism being chief among them. His journals reveal his passion for poetry, philosophy, and science. He had a sly sense of humor and was a gourmet cook!"  

So, what does one need to know to put a show like this together? Rushing has had an illustrious career. He trained in art history at the University of Texas at Austin, focusing his Ph.D. research on the history of ideas in modern art. That and his interest in 20th- and 21st-century Native American art made Rushing a natural fit to curate Modern Spirit: The Art of George Morrison.

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George Morrison (Chippewa, 1919–2000), Red Painting (Franz Kline Painting), ca. 1960. Oil on canvas, 47 x 79 in. Loan courtesy of Dorit and Gerald Paul. 

"In my teaching and scholarship I have been interested in two interrelated subjects. When, how, and why did Native American artists adopt modernist strategies and principles in order to best express contemporary indigenous content? In other words, why did George Morrison, for example, think of modernism as a tool for expressing his own complex experience as a Chippewa Indian from the north shore of Lake Superior?" Rushing has also "sought to understand when, how, and under what circumstances did Euro-American artists derive nourishment (formal, intellectual) from Indian art, myth, and ritual."

Kristin Makholm, executive director of the Minnesota Museum of American Art (MMMA), is a long-standing friend of Rushing and knew of his interest in the subject matter. She approached him about putting together a Morrison exhibition based on her museum's collection. "I was very keen on the project from the beginning,” Rushing says. “Once I had an opportunity to review the MMAA collection, I understood immediately the incredible potential for an in-depth retrospective survey of his remarkable career. My role was to develop a curatorial vision, develop a checklist, and write and edit the catalog." 

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George Morrison (Chippewa, 1919–2000), Red Totem I, 1977. Stained redwood panels on plywood form, 144 1/4 x 15 1/4 x 15 1/4 in. Minneapolis Institute of Arts, the Robert J. Ulrich Works of Art Purchase Fund. 2012.5

Rushing's interest in Native American art began when he was just five years old. He found himself captivated by a picture of a Plateau Indian parfleche, and the rest is history. In his 20s, he became an expert on Native American art while working as an art dealer, marketing primarily Southwestern traditional and contemporary works. In the mid-to-late 1970s, Rushing developed an interest in the work of Joe Herrera, Allan Houser, George Morrison, Dan Namingha, Jaune Quick-to-See Smith, and early modern Pueblo painters, such as Awa Tsireh. At the same time, he began to learn about 20th-century Native painters from Oklahoma, including the Kiowa Five, Dick West, and others. 

Although Rushing says he could never pick a favorite piece in the show—because that's like asking a parent, Which of your children do you love most?—he does point out that spectators frequently identify closely with the large wood collages Morrison began making on the Atlantic shore in the summer of 1965. "The natural materials and the nature—pardon the pun—of his creative process are revealed directly in these objects, and people seem to fall in love with them." Rushing also highlights as must-sees for museum visitors Morrison's Horizon Series of paintings and his Surrealist works on paper.

New Yorkers, in particular, will find common ground with George Morrison. "Manhattan was one of George Morrison's home places," says Rushing. "He attended the Art Students League and had a dozen solo shows in the city, beginning in 1948. He was included in numerous group shows in New York City and was friends with many important artists, including Franz Kline and Willem de Kooning." 

Morrison was also a key figure in the history of the New York School, according to Rushing, something he would like to see more widely known and understood. “He matured as a modern artist in the city, and his work reflects that fact in an intimate way." 

While there's a lot to learn about Morrison, no previous exposure to his art is required to attend the free event. Rushing insists, however, that his lecture "is guaranteed to make people want to see the show!" 

 —Paul Niemi

Paul Niemi is an arts and culture writer and a volunteer at the National Museum of the American Indian in New York. The quotations in this article are from Paul's recent email interview with Dr. Rushing. 

All photographs courtesy of the lenders and the Minnesota Museum of American Art. Used with permission.

Prof. Rushing's presentation, "Return of the Native Son: George Morrison's Artistic Journey," is free and open to the public. Click here for a listing of this program and other upcoming artists' talks at the museum. 

 

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November 08, 2013

Exploring the Education Learning Center at the Museum in New York

By Cody Harjo

The National Museum of the American Indian in New York presents weekly family-friendly programs and annual events such as the Children’s Day Festival in May and the Day of the Dead Celebration in October. Yet, we understand the timing of your visit might not coincide with scheduled programs. There are still plenty of opportunities for visitors with children to enjoy unique, self-guided learning experiences.  

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Object cases in the Education Learning Center at the National Museum of the American Indian George Gustav Heye Center in New York.

The Education Learning Center, commonly referred to as the Tipi Room, is located on the first floor of the National Museum of the American Indian’s George Gustav Heye Center in lower Manhattan. Indeed there is a tipi in the room, along with animal hides, and objects for study in the glass cases. It is a hands-on learning environment that recreates elements of 19th-century American Indian material culture from the Plains and Plateau regions.

EdBlogTipi“Is this real,” is one the questions we hear most often. The answer is, “Yes! Everything in the room is real.” Many times when people ask, “Is this real?” they are really wondering if an object is a historical item. Regarding the tipi, a more accurate response is, “Yes, it is a modern tipi with a canvas cover. The historical tipi covers were made from buffalo hides.” The tipi liner is also made of canvas and painted by award-winning ledger artist Tom Haukaas (Lakota). The tipi is an excellent example of cultures’ adapting modern materials for the continuation of traditional practices. All items are recent acquisitions, proof that many people still practice their traditional arts!

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EdBlog Deer Hide
Above, from top to bottom: Hands-on objects in the Education Learning Center at the museum in New York include a modern tipi with tipi liner painted by Tom Haukaas (Lakota); buffalo hide; deer hide in rawhide form.

The Education Learning Center also contains a buffalo hide and a stretched deer hide in rawhide form. Both hides are part of the museum’s handling collection. Feel free to touch them! A looped video explains the hide tanning process.

After you watch the video, compare and contrast the thickness of the buffalo hide to that of the deer hide. Buffalo hides are thicker and harder to cut, and thus were not typically used to make clothing. Hides such as deer and elk are more suitable for clothing. Uses for buffalo hides include ornamental robes, bedding, and tipi covers. As demonstrated in the video, rawhide is the form in which the hide exists before it is softened. Rawhide is used to produce many items, such as drums and parfleches.

The Tipi Room is also an excellent place to introduce the concept of culture associated with regions, as tipis are very specific to certain Great Plains cultures, such as the Cheyenne, Kiowa, and Sioux. The idea of organizing the study of cultures by region is illustrated by the permanent exhibition Infinity of Nations, located off the Rotunda on the second floor. Continue to this gallery to study historical objects made from the two types of hides examined in the Education Learning Center.

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Ed BlogComanchemocsAbove: Lakota box-and-border robe. Probably South Dakota, ca. 1865. Deer hide, glass beads; National Museum of the American Indian, Smithsonian Institution (11/1739). Right: Comanche leggings & moccasins. Oklahoma, ca. 1890. Deer hide, ochre, glass beads, horsehair, feathers, silk, beads, metal cones, pigment. National Museum of the American Indian, Smithsonian Institution (2/1506 & 2/1833). On view at the museum in New York in the permanent exhibition Infinity of Nations: Art and History in the Collections of the National Museum of the American Indian.

These are just two examples of museum objects made from buffalo and deer hide. Study the gallery labels to discover the many uses of buffalo, deer, and other types of hides. It is amazing to see how craftsmanship and artistry can transform hide into objects of beauty and function.

Depending on which museum entrance you use, you might immediately find the Tipi Room. It is easily visible from first-floor entrance. The monumental staircase and portico lead to the second-floor entrance. From there you can  proceed to the first floor via elevator or stairs. Enjoy your visit! 

All photos by Cody Harjo, NMAI.

Cody Harjo (Seminole Nation of Oklahoma, Otoe, and Creek) served as a cultural interpreter at the National Museum of the American in New York from 2008 to 2013. She is a fall 2013 graduate of the New School’s M.A. program in Media Studies.

 

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I'm yet to visit this museum but definitely intend to do so.

I have friends who have - they say its a fantastic experience for kids.