Identity and Art Making

Autumn_SunsetI took the afternoon off to attend, via webcast, the Seizing the Sky: Redefining American Art symposium at the National Museum of the American Indian. The symposium honored the work of Kay Walkingstick, an American painter of Cherokee descent, who is the subject of a monumental retrospective at the museum. Hopefully, the entire symposium will soon be available on the museum’s you-tube channel

The conversation during the symposium was wide-ranging, serious, and playful, as it circumambulated the questions: what did it mean to be a Native artist in the Twentieth Century, and what does it mean to be a Native artist now? The answers were, inevitably, diverse and complex, as speakers spoke of Walkingstick’s efforts to decolonize art history, the larger art world, and the North American landscape.

As I watched and listened, I was reminded of my own struggles with questions of identity, ownership, and appropriation. Beginning in about fifth grade I became fascinated by Native American culture. This was reflected in my insistence on Native themes at thanksgiving, trips to Native archaeological sites, and weekend searches across the Illinois landscape, accompanied by my father, for burial and ceremonial mounds.

By the time I got to college as an art student, my personal iconography was filled with petroglyphs and thick, impasto surfaces. I was given to cutting into the paint, layering, and scraping, mimicking the structure of rock faces. My work was decidedly abstract and “primitive” in a well schooled sort of way. In my senior year I largely stopped painting, turning instead to intaglio, a deeply embossed form of printmaking. I would hand ink each plate, my fingers deeply enthralled by the physicality of it, and often bleeding from cuts generated by the sharp metal. In graduate school my work turned towards intense color, then large, sculptural weaving. I had been admitted to grad school as a printmaker, but living in the high country of New Mexico demanded something more tactile of me.

In graduate school I had several Native friends who encouraged my use of themes and motifs from southwestern cultures. It was the mid-seventies, and in the Southwest, everyone was borrowing from everyone else. I felt particularly blessed when one of my friends, another graduate student who was from the Taos pueblo, brought bread baked at the pueblo to share with all who came to my Native themed thesis show’s opening.

After graduate school I moved to northwestern California, where no one seemed to like, let alone understand, my work, then to the East coast, where the rawness of it appeared totally alien to a cadre of artists devoted to high craft. Worse, I was struggling with questions of appropriation. Over the course of a few years I stopped painting, then ceased weaving. In the subsequent years, whenever I attempted to paint, that same Native themed iconography quickly reasserted itself. Finally, although I kept teaching it, I simply stopped making visual art, instead, turning to storytelling and theatre for creative expression.

Then, almost ten years ago, as he lay dying, my father told us we are Native on both sides. Sadly, we were too stunned to ask about tribal identities, and he and his siblings passed on still holding that secret. My mother’s family was even more tight-lipped. Much later I realized that my father’s mother and father were openly recognized by his family as Native, even as their Native identity was denied. I also slowly became aware that my nearly lifelong obsession with Native imagery had somehow arisen from that immediate family history, that it was, in psychological parlance, the return of the repressed.

All this went through my mind and heart as I looked at Kay Walkingstick’s imagery, and listened to stories of her insistence on remaining a Western trained, woman, Indigenous, artist. She refused to take only one identity, even as her graduate school mentors encouraged her to, in that all too familiar refrain, “let go of the Indian” so she could become successful. She was, swimming upstream, both as a woman artist and a Native artist. Yet, she persisted, making modernist art that is beautiful, and that challenges the dominant narratives about us, and U.S. history. I stand in awe of her humanity and courage.




10 thoughts on “Identity and Art Making

  1. ‘Remaining both a western trained, and indigenous artist’. I guess we are the sum of our parts, the parts being culture, influence, blood.And should celebrate that fact.

    1. Yup, guess so. It is a bit odd, though, being on the edge of things, finding oneself outsider the usual categories. Of course, one has so many companions here. Still, the ancestors walk with us, reminding us that we are meant to be here, and welcoming us through the ages.

  2. Michael, I would love to see some of your art. Would you be willing to take photos and do a post on it?
    My latest mantra is “It is what it is.” This is not a passive acceptance of all the bad that happens, but just an acknowledgement and acceptance of what is, that allows me to move ahead into some new form of what is – leaving the what was behind, I would guess that you understand this from you experience of living with the bodily damage from polio while your body is aging. Maybe our identities are what they are – while at the same time changing as our experiences within ourselves and our environments change. But still our identities are what they are and we can’t produce anything outside of this reality without losing our integrity.

    1. Ah, Pat, you have named a large challenge for so many of us who fall between the usual binaries. We are indeed all that we are, all that we have experienced and longed for.
      As to art, I have a few slides but they are not easily digitized. I do have a vague plan to make art, if my Polio hands will allow me. Should that happen, I will post it. Actually, I have a plan to make some small scale pieces and to include them in future blog posts. We shall see.Thank you for asking!

  3. Yes, Michael, what an odd and interesting and sad trail we all take, those of us born with Indigenous blood. Although I was definitely recognized as an Indigenous child, most of my childhood was spent in being trained on how not to be one by the majority of my adult influences. One of my grandmothers was so distraught as she saw me losing my language, but there was little that could have been done about that while I was in the foster child system.

    When I did come home to my own roots, like you I struggled to determine which world was really my own, and even today I can question it depending on what issue is in front of me. I try to bring whatever is my greatest strengths from either, but even then I know I will never fully satisfy one side or the other. I just do my best to be my best, because in the end, the only one I really need approval from is my honest and genuine self. I think you know what I mean.

    Thanks for this piece, I really appreciated seeing this struggle acknowledged.

    1. Robyn, This struggle to make sense of not fitting into the usual binary structures continues to be a conundrum. I make a serious attempt to just be present to my life and the spirits. I’m notoriously inconsistent with both, as I find myself retreating into shame and confusion way too often. Still, it is good to be reminded that in many ways the colonial project of assimilation has created a third, and probably more, ways to be in the world. I sometimes wonder whether we are here to challenge all those ideas about who is human, who belongs, and who is legitimate. My experience has always been that the true elders understood this, and welcomed me home. Now I practice doing the same. Anyway, there are so many of us! We might be a force for great change if we can let ourselves do so. I’m so glad you are in the world with your stories of your life, and the wisdom life has brought you!

  4. You have been through very interesting education Michael. I would also love to see some of your art. Isn’t it possible to photograph some of it and show it here at the blog? Of course also your coming art, if you are able to do so.
    I find it important to be able to express myself by art of many kinds. I don’t have talent for all, what I could wish for, but I do create more than jewelry and there are so many kind of arts, as could be interesting to try in this lifetime.
    Thank you for sharing your story Michael, as always very enlightening 😀

    1. Irene, One of the odd side effects of Post Polio is that holding pencils and brushes often becomes much more of a challenge. I love that I can still use a camera! And a keyboard! I still enjoy making physically driven art, it’s just more difficult to do. I’m glad to hear you make art in many forms. Certainly your jewelry is splendid!

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