Native American Artists on Contemporary Arts Education

Students in my ART 4763: Native American Art and Material Culture course regularly make use of interviews in the Oklahoma Oral History Research Program’s Oklahoma Native Artists Project. Last fall, I asked students to bring together interviews from the Project with interviews or artists’ statements published elsewhere, in thematic discussions that explore the range and diversity of Native artists’ experiences. Over the next few weeks, in conjunction with the Oklahoma Arts Conference, where Project director Julie Pearson-Little Thunder and I will be presenting about uses of Project interviews, I’ll be sharing some of the students’ papers on the blog. In this post, Roxanne Beason explores contemporary Native American artists’ education, investigating how it has shaped their work and expanded their audiences.

Arts education has provided opportunities for many indigenous Americans to bring their traditional arts into contemporary spaces and media. Many schools like Haskell, CalArts, and the Institute of American Indian Arts have been working to provide Natives an opportunity to learn their tribal traditions and hone their talents while endeavoring to create a space for their work in the modern art realm. Many Native artists that attended these schools credit their success to their experiences in higher education. In the following interviews, contemporary Native artists describe their own experiences of attending Native American art schools and other universities as being invaluable to their success in the competitive contemporary art world.

Gina Grey states that her art education began when she attended open programs at the Denver Indian community center where she discovered her early interest and in art and a desire to create it.  It was there she met her art instructor, Mr. Pool, who helped her cultivate that interest and propelled her into attending IAIA in Santa Fe to continue her education in the arts. Grey praises her experience at IAIA as the thing that led her to CalArts and being an artist. She states, “I was like a dry sponge when I was there. I couldn’t believe a school was just dedicated to art. You had to take your academic classes, but there was really no pressure for it. They were interested in teaching you some art.”  After moving to CalArts, she was confronted with instructors who opposed her “Indian” approach to her work and she was also faced with the male-dominated art world. Despite that fact, she pushed forward through her education and kept making art that reflected her identity as a Native artist.

Benjamin Harjo, Jr., "Honoring the Spirit of All Things," 2001. Opaque watercolor on paper, anonymous gift, 2012.009.004.

Benjamin Harjo, Jr., “Honoring the Spirit of All Things,” 2001. Opaque watercolor on paper, anonymous gift, 2012.009.004.

Benjamin Harjo Jr. speaks fondly of his experiences in art school at IAIA and Oklahoma State University. He recalls discovering a bulletin at a Shawnee Indian Hospital for the then newly-formed school, IAIA, an art school for Natives to take specific art classes—cartooning classes peaked his interest most of all. When he arrived at IAIA, they no longer offered cartooning, but Harjo explored many other media, including jewelry making, print making and pottery. Interviewer Julie Pearson-Little Thunder asked Harjo why he thinks the IAIA program is successful, and he replied, “When I first started there, we had around three hundred students, and the students came from everywhere in the United States. Alaska and all of the other tribal entities came there, and I had not realized how many there were until I went to school there…I think it was very enjoyable because we lived on campus. We were like a clique of creative energy. It kind of emanated from there.” Many students, like Harjo, who had attended IAIA after it was founded, were provided the experience and platform to become prolific artists in the contemporary art community.

In another interview, Julie Pearson-Little Thunder talks with another Oklahoma Native artist, Tony Tiger, about his life and education in the arts. After only dabbling in art a little bit in high school, it was 7-8 years later, after some time being young and rambunctious, that Tiger would decide that going to art school was the best decision for his life. Studying art at Seminole State, Tiger worked under the instruction of Kelly Kirk, who advised him to continue his arts education at Oklahoma State University. After his time at OSU, Tiger began attending University of Oklahoma to finish his BFA and receive his Masters in Arts. Under the tutelage of painting instructor, George Hughes, Tiger began to realize, “…it’s not always the most gifted artist who is successful. It’s the artist who has the most drive and is in the right place at the right time. He really inspired me to work hard and to study and to learn all I could, and to start exhibiting a little bit, and not being afraid to push things a little further than most people would like.”

In an interview with Theresa Barbaro from Luxe Immo Art, Jeffery Gibson talks about how his experience with the art world and his higher education have led him to produce art that acts as commentary on contemporary Native issues. Gibson explains that he had been drawing since he was a small child and he started painting regularly throughout high school. In his first year of college, he pursued his interests and studied subjects like psychology, anthropology and painting—which led him to continue studying painting at the Arts Institute of Chicago and then later at The Royal College of Art in London for his Master’s degree. Gibson explain how his education shaped his artistic concepts by stating, “[During school, I] worked as a NAGPRA research intern at the Field Museum in Chicago. That experience greatly influenced my thinking about translation, in particular, cultural translation in a museum. . . Some audiences are able to see the influence of Native American objects and design, and other audiences understand it as formal abstraction…I play with the varying perceptions.” Gibson took his experiences from his higher education to understand the way Native American culture is perceived and provide a new interpretive representation for contemporary audiences.

Natalie M. Ball, "The Savages," 2009. Image courtesy of Katie Zerzan and the Contemporary North American Indigenous Artists blog.

Natalie M. Ball, “The Savages,” 2009. Image courtesy of Katie Zerzan and the Contemporary North American Indigenous Artists blog.

Natalie M. Ball tells interviewer Katie Zerzen about how her Modoc and Klamath tribal identity, along with her time working on a degree in Ethnic Studies, left a significant imprint on her art work. As a child, Ball enjoyed art and making crafts, but she was never formally trained in any particular medium nor did she have the inclination that she would eventually become the artist she is today. While attending the University of Oregon and majoring in Ethnic Studies, she took painting as an elective and then quickly decided to double major in fine arts, and eventually, in Indigenous Visual Arts. She correlates her education with the direction of her art work by explaining, “…my work is always in discussion with racial narratives critical to understanding of both the self and the nation and necessarily, our shared experiences and histories…it goes beyond the language of memory to allow for witnessing that does not diminish the past or the present.” Her art engages audiences with necessary ethnographic conversations about her own indigenous identity.

Contemporary artists hold the power to convey a critical reflection of the culture we inhabit. Knowledge and education are key elements necessary to generate a powerful visual message. It is important that Native artists are given the opportunity to gain that knowledge and hone their talent so that they are able to express their identity and culture in a contemporary art setting. Doing so reaches a broader audience and educates them about the Native experience.

Student essays posted on the blog are edited only for length and clarity. Did you enjoy this post? Check out earlier posts in this series by Bridget Dixon and Zak Frick!

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About osucurator

Louise Siddons is Associate Professor of Art History at Oklahoma State University and founding curator of the Oklahoma State University Museum of Art. She maintains this blog as a record of her students' work with the Museum's permanent collection as well as more generally with topics related to museum studies.
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