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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