The Yellow-Cheeked Meadow Mouse Explains America

Last fall, students in ART 3663: History of American Art had the opportunity to visit the OSU Museum of Art’s study room in order to get a close look at works from the permanent collection. In small groups, they selected a single object to study together for an hour, and then they wrote individual papers based on the ideas generated in the group. In this post, student Jessica Harper writes about the 1847 hand-colored lithograph, Yellow-Cheeked Meadow Mouse, by John Woodhouse Audubon.

When thinking of the animals in America during the mid-1800s, the name John James Audubon is the first thing to come to mind. Audubon was not the first to attempt to catalog America’s creatures, but he is the most well-known. Audubon was famous during his time for his scientific books like The Birds of America (1827) and Viviparous Quadrupeds of North America (1847). These collections of works done by Audubon were extremely popular at the time and are still treasured today, as the piece in the OSU Museum of Art makes evident. Yellow-Cheeked Meadow Mouse, from the Viviparous Quadrupeds, can be used to tell some very important concepts about American identity, history, culture and value.


John Woodhouse Audubon (American, 1812-1862), printed by John T. Bowen (British, 1801-ca. 1856, active in Philadelphia, PA). “Yellow-Cheeked Meadow Mouse,” Plate 115 from “The Viviparous Quadrupeds of North America,” 1847. Hand-colored lithograph, OSU Museum of Art purchase, 10-0001.

John James Audubon was not originally from America, but his story does demonstrate some common values of American people. As demonstrated in many of the paintings we have seen, immigrants and their descendants colonized the land to make a place for themselves, a home (for example, Fanny Palmer’s Across the Continent). In America, a foundational value is that you can create a life for yourself—all you have to do is work hard. This isn’t the case for everyone in reality, but for Audubon it was. He was born in Haiti, the son of a French sailor who left him to be raised by his stepmother.  He later came to America to avoid being sent to the French army. Once in America, he tried his hand at many things and failed, going bankrupt at one point and being thrown in jail, afterwards having to leave his town. He left his family to try and make a living doing work on the river, collecting and drawing many species of birds. Those drawings became The Birds of America, with which he finally hit his big break. It became extremely popular in London, where he had found someone to print it. He returned to his family, with whom he later moved to New York. Audubon worked diligently and was eventually rewarded; this is the idea behind America for many immigrants. They can come to America and make a better life for their families.

Birds of America was so popular that Audubon succeeded it with his second book, which addressed mammals in America. Audubon was not able to complete the Viviparous Quadrupeds of North America due to illness, but his son continued in his footsteps and finished the large book, which included 150 species. John Woodhouse Audubon was actually the one who completed this illustration of the Yellow-Cheeked Meadow Mouse. Despite this slight change in authorship, the book was still widely popular. Becoming educated in fields like science and art was increasing in popularity during these times. The American Association of Medicine was founded during this time, and the first natural history museum was created only a few years earlier. In Charles Willson Peale’s painting, The Artist in His Museum, he shows the first natural history museum in America with many diverse specimens to see. Audubon’s books were almost like portable versions of a natural history museum for those who could not go to one.


Charles Willson Peale, “The Artist in His Museum,” 1822. Oil on canvas, Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts.

People were beginning to find value in knowledge and scientific exploration of the land they have claimed. However, they were not the only people who were interested in the unknowns of America. Audubon’s books were first printed and became widely popular in London. Now this may have been due to more availability of printmaking in London, but also may have been partially because of the curiosity of British people about America. Prints and books made learning about these organisms and the land much easier. Not only do the books show the different animals that you could actually encounter in America, but you can also see different kinds of environments and landscapes that are possible in America through them.

At the same time, America was viewed as an untamable wilderness by many, especially those who did not live here. Audubon’s descriptions of wild animals only help to enhance this message to outsiders. Not only are the animals depicted in his books often not seen commonly in other areas of the world; but also the images do not show any sign of human interference. Europe was seen as full of people, whereas America was envisioned as almost lacking human inhabitants. During this time people tended to focus on the land and its wild natural beauty. Euro-American artists and poets like William Cullen Bryant admired these natural aspects of America, and completely ignored the existence of any other inhabitants (Native Americans) of this land. They often showed the land as ripe for the taking with no obstacles, enhancing the idea of Manifest Destiny. Audubon does the same thing. He may not be ignoring the inhabitants of the land for the same reasons, but nevertheless, there is no sign that there are any people in his scientific illustrations, other than the creatures he is illustrating. The habitats of the animals do not show any presence of people or manmade structures.  He is illustrating the wild and untamable creatures of America and strengthening the message that America is a vast wilderness. Though many saw the wilderness as a challenge to be conquered, Audubon was concerned about conservation, and did voice his concern about the elimination of bird habitats and the negative effects this had on the creatures.

Love and curiosity toward nature is how Audubon originally started illustrating the many species of birds in North America. He studied birds during his youth and would draw them as a hobby. When hard times befell him, he used this interest and skill to create his first book, Birds of America. When his book became extremely popular, it became clear who Audubon’s audience was. Like many during previous times, his audience was wealthy, educated individuals. Though prints made art more accessible to the general public, the text included in Audubon’s books was not designed for leisure reading for the less educated. These illustrations were made to be commissioned for educational purposes. This fact explains many aspects of Audubon’s paintings.

Audubon made his scientific illustrations very thorough, including many concepts that were important to an animal and its survival. The amount of detail he put in his paintings was not simply to show his skill, but to realistically depict these creatures. The goal of scientific illustrations is to allow for education on a creature without actually needing the creature to be present. This was the goal of Audubon’s illustrations; the audience should feel as if they are actually watching the creature in its original habitat. Many of the illustrations he completed were done in a way to be the actual scale of the creature. The habitats that he placed these creatures in were also supposed to be educational. The background illustrated with the animal was not simply artistically appealing, but was made to be an accurate depiction of the habitat in which the animals lived. Many of the creatures can even be seen with specific types of food that they would consume. All of these aspects are included in the pictures because they were important parts of the organism’s lifestyle. These illustrations were not only made to be appealing to the eyes, but were made to tell a story of an organism and the environment in which it survives.

Audubon did not have the privileged life of some; he worked and failed before finally accomplishing something that was capable of stabilizing his life in America. However, he was still able to make his life into something great through his eventual successes. He demonstrates the values of dedication and strength held by many early Americans—the idea that hard work will lead to success in the future. Though this was not often the case, it was still a common dream held by the people.  At the same time, his art work, and that of his son following in his footsteps, demonstrates the untamable nature of America that has so many, including foreigners, entranced. The Yellow-Cheeked Meadow Mouse shows only the wild, natural side of America and the creatures that one might encounter. Many people during this time were interested in enjoying the world around them and learning about it and Audubon helped make that possible.


Works Cited

Chowder, Ken. “Drawn from Nature.” PBS, 25 July 2007.

John James Audubon.” Audubon. National Audubon Society, 14 Sept. 2015.


Student writing is edited for length and clarity, but the content is not changed.



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Cyrus Baldridge, “Soochow Coolie,” 1937

Last fall, students in ART 3663: History of American Art had the opportunity to visit the OSU Museum of Art’s study room in order to get a close look at works from the permanent collection. In small groups, they selected a single object to study together for an hour, and then they wrote individual papers based on the ideas generated in the group. In this post, student Roxanne Beason writes about the 1937 drypoint, Soochow Coolie, by Cyrus Baldridge.

“…Even our limited attempt at thinking in terms of the outer world was unusual to my college generation. Thinkers were Suspect.” –Cyrus Leroy Balrdridge

As an adventurer, Cyrus Leroy Baldridge never shied away from incorporating his personal perspective and the sights of his travels into his prints and illustrations. As a 10 year-old, his talent in drawing landed him the position of the youngest person to ever ­­be admitted into Frank Holme’s Chicago School of Illustration. Without scholarship, he paid his way through his attendance at University of Chicago by taking any kind of work that came his way. While in college, Baldridge gained political awareness that inspired him to join the cavalry and later set forth across the U.S. to document by illustration the diversity of America’s geographical sociology. Baldridge was most famous for the documentary illustrations he created in the throes of World War I for newspapers such as The Stars and Stripes, Leslie’s Weekly, and Scribner’s. In 1920, Baldridge joined up with politically like-minded Californian writer, Caroline Singer, and together they traveled to China, Japan, through the Middle East and Africa. Baldridge and Singer later retired to Santa Fe, NM, where Singer died from Alzheimer’s and Baldridge shot himself with a World War I pistol a decade later.

Cyrus Baldridge (American, 1889-1977), "Soochow Coolie," 1937. Drypoint, Gardiner Permanent Art Collection, 80-0008.

Cyrus Baldridge (American, 1889-1977), “Soochow Coolie,” 1937. Drypoint, Gardiner Permanent Art Collection, 80-0008.

Soochow Coolie, a drypoint etching, is a work based on Baldridge’s travels with Singer. It depicts a local man from the city of Suzhou (Soochow), in the province of Jiangsu, China. In this essay, I suggest that Baldridge’s Soochow Coolie uses a derogatory title to reveal a worldview that negates the weary expression of the Chinese local. Through this contrast, Baldridge’s print offers a moment of perspective and documentation of the turmoil endured by China leading to World War II.

At the heart of China’s central east coast, the city of Suzhou (the more recent accepted Romanization of “Soochow”) was a destination documented in many of Baldridge’s illustrations. Before World War II, Suzhou’s foreign trade suffered because it had very little modernized industry, even within their main export—silk. Disparity between wealthy landowners and the poor working class was apparent in the everyday bustle of the heavily populated city. Referring to many of these hardworking people, Baldridge often uses the term “coolie” to describe them in his writing as well as in the title of his piece, Soochow Coolie.

The word “coolie” is a dated and derogatory slur that the occupying British used to describe indentured laborers in Eastern Asia. Throughout Baldridge’s 1947 book, Time and Chance, he utilizes language that was common for this time period such as “coolie” and “negro” in casual reference to racial identities. Although this sort of racial rhetoric was common, Baldridge was aware of its derogatory effect and used it to elicit sympathy for the man’s weathered appearance.

Baldridge’s Soochow Coolie print shows the weary downward gaze of a Chinese man cast in shadow. With his hair pulled back with a cloth, viewers can see his whole face and the way in which Baldridge uses softened charcoal-like contrast within the crosshatching detail to reveal not only the man’s exhausted expression but also the contours of his weathered skin and sunken cheeks, alluding to his low economic status as a laborer.

Economic disparity, overpopulation and the fight for day-to-day survival were not the only problems occurring in China at this delicate time. In 1937, the same year Baldridge printed Soochow Coolie, the war between the Republic of China and Imperialist Japan had erupted to full-scale proportions. Japanese troops occupied the province of Suzhou, making Baldridge’s association between the melancholic laborer’s portrait and the seizure of the city seem like a blatant political statement about the Second Sino-Japanese War.

December 13th, 1937 marks the day that began the worst part of the Japan’s invasion on China; in the capital of Nanjing (about 134 miles from Suzhou), Japan’s war crime known as The Nanjing Massacre, or “The Raping of Nanking”, was the event where approximately 300,000 non-combatant citizens were slaughtered, and raped, including women and children. Despite such atrocities happening in the world, the U.S. had very little involvement in the events of World War II at this point in time; in addition, many Americans still harbored racist animosity and Sinophobia toward Chinese people. I think there is no coincidence in Baldridge’s artistic decisions in Soochow Coolie. I believe the ambition of this work was to convey the fragile state of Chinese citizens by depicting a weary, war-torn citizen as well as the apathy from the rest of the world by labeling him the racial slur “coolie.”

In Baldridge’s monograph, Time and Chance, he writes about his recollections and experiences in China with a great fondness. In his accounts he explains how Chinese people live together with very little friction and reasonableness because of their teachings from Confucius and their Buddhist principles. In one passage, he explained the fascination that led to the creation of Soochow Coolie, “My models, the coolies, in spite of their hard struggle for survival, were a hilarious, grinning lot, wisecracks… There prevailed among them a live-and-let-live attitude so mystifying to westerners… they tell the story of men surviving by their wits in a land where four hundred million struggle for bare subsistence.” The man in Soochow Coolie shows that, in a moment of confusion and turmoil, empty expressions would reflect the loss and hopelessness of the circumstances at hand. Baldridge’s description in Time and Chance differs greatly from the pain and depletion he captured in Soochow Coolie, which suggests Baldridge’s deeply-felt empathy for his subject in the print.

Throughout Baldridge’s illustrations, he captures beautiful portraiture of the people he met in his global expeditions. During these travels, he managed to see a lot of war and chaos, which turned him towards the non-interventionist liberal ideals of American democracy in the wake of World War II. Recognizing the privilege and opportunities that he was given, he believed the importance was to keep peace between all nations without the use of war. His drypoint etching, Soochow Coolie, was his way of addressing an unseen side of a global issue at the time—reminding viewers to stay aware and remember the effects of war.


Works Cited

Baldridge, Cyrus Leroy. Time and Chance. New York: J. Day, 1947.

Cyrus LeRoy Baldridge.” Smithsonian American Art Museum.

Gandhi, Lakshmi. “A History Of Indentured Labor Gives ‘Coolie’ Its Sting.” NPR, 25 Nov.            2013.

HSA – Heritage Signature Auction Catalog #6050. Cyrus LeRoy Baldridge Original Artwork for “I Was There”: With the Yanks in France, Sketches Made on the Western Fron 1917-1919. Dallas: HSA – Heritage Signature Auction Catalog #6050, 2010.


Student writing is edited for length and clarity, but the content is not changed.

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John Ames Mitchell: Humor and American Identity

This fall, students in ART 3663: History of American Art had the opportunity to visit the OSU Museum of Art’s study room in order to get a close look at works from the permanent collection. In small groups, they selected a single object to study together for an hour, and then they wrote individual papers based on the ideas generated in the group. In this post, student Audrey Gleason writes about the 1881 etching, A Young Republican, by the artist and entrepreneur John Ames Mitchell.

The 1881 etching by John Ames Mitchell, titled A Young Republican, reflects a more humorous depiction of America than traditional idealistic images. It satirizes the Victorian values of contemporary America while incorporating popular medievalism of the nineteenth century.

John Ames Mitchell (American, 1845-1918), "A Young Republican," 1881. Etching, gift of Oklahoma City Art Museum/Fairgrounds, 98-0004.

John Ames Mitchell (American, 1845-1918), “A Young Republican,” 1881. Etching, gift of Oklahoma City Art Museum/Fairgrounds, 98-0004.

There are two characters in the etching who represent America and Europe respectively. The boy in the etching, who represents America, is positioned with body language such that he is read as lazy. His legs are casually crossed and he is seated on the armrest of the chair. The expression on his face is very neutral, even apathetic. The king figure, who represents Europe, is rather fat and dressed very fancily. He has a plate in front of him with meat, suggesting that he just ate a very rich meal. Of course, the largely monarchical Europe is symbolized by the king’s crown, not to mention the elaborate castle setting. But the symbolism goes deeper than this. The boy’s lazy and apathetic body language contradicts the American dream that hard work can make any person successful. Victorian values at the time “taught people to work hard, to postpone gratification, to repress themselves sexually, to ‘improve’ themselves, to be sober, conscientious, even compulsive” (Howe 521). Clearly, the boy in the etching is rejecting those teachings. Mitchell relies on this contradiction as the heart of his humor. According to his obituary, he was known to like other people and enjoy their company, so we know this image is supposed to be read as funny rather than bitter. He is not necessarily upset that Americans can be really lazy, but instead finds it humorous.

Further symbolism can be discussed in the purposeful selection of a child to represent America. For one thing, America was literally much younger than the rest of Europe, which is one explanation for why the former was depicted as a boy and the latter as a man. For another, this was an era when scientific knowledge was just starting to emphasize “children’s biological and psychological vulnerability” (Perera 1862). Children were therefore finally being treated differently than adults, both in real life and in artwork. More specifically to Mitchell, “life was like a child to him” (Miller 88). If America is represented by the child and the child is like life, that would suggest America also represents life. Similar to a child, America has often been portrayed as a land of opportunity, if not vulnerable then impressionable, or a place to start new. However, the boy in this etching is shown as lazy, without much vitality. Again, in this contradiction lies the humor of the piece.

Life magazine, which Mitchell founded in 1883, was a “sophisticated and humorous response to the Victorian values of the late nineteenth century” (“About John Ames Mitchell”). America was at that time very interested in the medieval, especially in romanticizing it. In fact medieval literature as we think of it today came from the nineteenth century, when “medieval writings were systematically collected, mapped, and edited” (Scanlon 716). This rediscovery of information about the medieval period is reflected in the subject of the etching and the location. The medieval aspects relate to American Victorianism in that “nineteenth-century America’s ideas about the Middle Ages…were so flexible that the period functioned as a mirror” (Fleming 1084). In other words, America found identity in medieval culture through combining it with contemporary Victorian culture. This mirror effect is also seen in the etching in the relationship between the boy and the king. In theory they are very different, but in fact the way they are depicted as just lounging about a decadent castle very lazily, causes them to end up being more similar than you would think.

Etchings themselves were considered important methods of communication. Nineteenth-century libraries became dedicated to collecting “every imaginable pictorial medium ranging from paintings to lithographs, engravings, etchings, photographs, and larger runs of photomechanical reproductions…in new professional periodicals” (Brodherson 3). This tells us that good etchings were successful in communicating messages to the public, and were in fact so successful that others felt it was necessary to document them for the long term. A humorous etching like Mitchell’s could be compared to a comic in The New Yorker magazine today. A Young Republican was published in American Art Review by editor Sylvester Rosa Koehler, who “encouraged an American etching revival in the 1880s” (“Sylvester Rosa Koehler papers”). Even this aspect ties in with contemporary Victorian values, as “literature and the other arts were expected to benefit society by elevating or instructing their audience” (Howe 527). Indeed, Mitchell’s etching satirized American culture in order humorously to point out its flaws.

Contradictions such as the American dream versus laziness, shown in both the subject matter and symbolism of A Young Republican, make the etching a humorous depiction of the country. Romanticized medievalism and Victorian values also contribute to the satirical nature of the piece. Altogether, the image represents a less idealistic America than traditional American artwork; instead, Mitchell’s etching adds to those existing traditional images to expand the way people think about America, and provide a more complete picture of the country.


Works Cited

About John Ames Mitchell.” SFPL. San Francisco Public Library, n.d.

Brodherson, David. “Public Library Picture Collecting In Late Nineteenth-Century America.” Library & Information History 28.1 (2012): 3-25.

Fleming, Robin. “Picturesque History and the Medieval in Nineteenth-Century America.” The American Historical Review 100.4 (1995): 1061-094.

Howe, Daniel Walker. “American Victorianism as a Culture.” American Quarterly 27.5 (1975): 507-32.

Miller, A. “John Ames Mitchell.” Life 72.1864 (1918): 88.

Perera, Frederica. “SCIENCE As An Early Driver Of Policy: Child Labor Reform In The Early Progressive Era, 1870–1900.” American Journal Of Public Health 104.10 (2014): 1862-1871.

Scanlon, Larry. “Introduction.” American Literary History 22.4 (2010): 715-723.

Sylvester Rosa Koehler Papers, 1833-1904, Bulk, 1870-1890.” Archives of American Art. Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC.


Student writing is edited for length and clarity, but the content is not changed.

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Interpreting “Gwine to Heaven” by Blanche McVeigh, 1945

This fall, students in ART 3663: History of American Art had the opportunity to visit the OSU Museum of Art’s study room in order to get a close look at works from the permanent collection. In small groups, they selected a single object to study together for an hour, and then they wrote individual papers based on the ideas generated in the group. In this post, art history major Viktorea Levasheff writes about the 1945 etching and aquatint, Gwine to Heaven, by the well-known Texas printmaker, Blanche McVeigh.

Blanche McVeigh was born in Missouri in 1895, but she grew up in Fort Worth, Texas. She worked a lot with etching and aquatint on paper. Her subjects included New Mexico themes, Fort Worth area landscapes, western themes, and her impression of African American spirituals. Gwine to Heaven, created in 1945, focuses on her interest of African American spirituals. This essay examines attitudes on race in the American South during 1945 and religious beliefs in the South at the time in order to interpret Gwine to Heaven. Background information on McVeigh’s other works, as well as the symbolism she uses, are also helpful in coming to conclusions about what she was trying to communicate in Gwine to Heaven.

Blanche McVeigh (AMerican, 1895-1970),

Blanche McVeigh (AMerican, 1895-1970), “Gwine to Heaven,” 1945. Etching and aquatint, Gardiner Permanent Art Collection, 80-0078.

At the bottom of the composition is a young male figure, who looks to be one of the younger figures. This character has a facial expression of confusion, being intimidated or confronted, and of fear. The figure above him looks slightly older, about twenty years old, and is making a gesture of indignation, unsatisfied acceptance, or surrender. He holds up his hands, (and his wings), as if to signify that he’s given up on something, or has had to accept something without a choice. The third figure is another resembling that of a child; his facial expression is also child-like. This figure peeks from behind the uppermost figure, looking down possibly in fear or confusion. The uppermost male figure is middle-aged. He stands up straight, facing away from the viewer, with an expression of resentment. Seen together, the age differences, facial expressions and postures create a pattern of child-like versus adult emotions.

The reverberating expressions of resentment on the older figures cause us to question: what is being resented? The figures are represented as floating angels, with white robes, and remnants of light placed across the chest and around the head. This gives off the impression of strong religious association, leading us to the history of African Americans during times of slavery, when Christianity was the established religion everywhere in the country. Slaves were brought up around Christian beliefs. Everyone, including African Americans, was made to believe in striving for Christian righteousness. For African Americans, reaching full spiritual enlightenment, or reaching anything, was purposefully made difficult.

We might wonder if the feelings of resentment expressed in the print are geared towards rejecting a set of Christian beliefs. During times of slavery, African Americans weren’t given a choice with anything, this included what religion they associated with. They were made to believe that by being slaves, they were following biblical teachings. Slave masters justified slave ownership by acknowledging the bible’s discussion about slaves and masters. It was believed that God created black people to be slaves, and that being slaves was their highest God-given capability. White supremacists believed that African Americans had little to no potential beyond being slaves. This history makes the facial expressions a lot more understandable.

In a more modern context, in 1945, the feelings of resentment would likely not have been geared towards religion as much as they would have been geared towards racism. In 1945, racial disputes were still a major problem in American society. Racial tensions in the South were especially high. McVeigh was from Fort Worth, which is part of the Southern-most part of the country. The composition and the title of the piece suggests a struggle with Christianity and a struggle toward reaching spiritual enlightenment. In 1945, the person/people represented in Gwine to Heaven would have been struggling to reach acceptance in American society. The real struggle would have been to overcome the challenges of racism. Emotions that would have typically come with this struggle would have been intimidation, fear, resentment—precisely the emotions expressed on the faces of the figures.

McVeigh was white, and her intended audience would have been mostly southern white Americans. This lets one know that the artist could not have been able to relate to the figures, but she could express sympathy for them. Sympathy is expressed by how McVeigh places light around the figures’ heads, to give the effect of halos. All of the figures are in the guise of flying angels, which are heavenly figures, which were not figures to be ridiculed. McVeigh wanted her audience to be sympathetic toward her figures and toward African Americans of the time.

The title of the piece, written in dialect, suggests that the intended audience was particularly the southern population. For centuries, the ancestors of the southerners dwelled on the biblical concept that anything associated with darkness was evil and worthy of death. For too long, this concept was used as an excuse to harm black (“dark-skinned”) people, and to forbid them from even entering a church. A lot of the books of the Bible emphasize the prohibition of anything associated with darkness. McVeigh objects to this convention by dressing the figures in her print in white robes and angel wings, which clearly distinguish them from the black background. McVeigh has communicated to the viewers that the figures are not part of the darkness, but far from it. The lit halos contribute to this as well.

Blanche McVeigh (American, 1895-1970),

Blanche McVeigh (American, 1895-1970), “Triflin’ Woman,” n.d. Aquatint, Smithsonian Museum of American Art, 1941.6.23.

McVeigh’s composition attests to the fact that African Americans are just as worthy as anyone else of striving toward spiritual enlightenment and social equality. In other pieces, such as Triflin’ Woman, McVeigh depicts a black family in a moment of normal, regular life. The trifling woman wears a fancy dress and heals, while engaging in a conversation with two men. Next to them, another woman holds a bag atop her head, and a baby in her arm. Another small child stands by her side. With this piece, McVeigh has shown a black group engaged in normal activity. Typically, most other artists in the area would have shown a white group engaged in this activity, believing that black people would not have been worthy of the subject matter. This piece would have communicated to southerners that black people are normal human beings and they have normal lives.


Sonstegard, V. (2015, April 24). Blanche McVeigh: Printmaker, Gallery Owner, Educator.

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The Racial Issues Faced by Native American Artists of Today

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. Last week, Project director Julie Pearson-Little Thunder and I presented papers about the use of oral history in art advocacy and pedagogy at the Oklahoma Arts Conference. As these students’ essays make clear, oral history is a vital tool in understanding contemporary art and experience. In this post, Zakery Frick returns with a discussion of racism in the contemporary art world, examining how it has impacted Native artists and how it continues to affect us today.

Ever since Europeans landed on the shores of the continent, Native American people have faced persecution, devastating wars, and cultural deterioration. Many tribes were completely wiped out, either violently or domestically, such as being absorbed into European culture. Today, many Native tribes do still exist, and despite what has been done in the past, they are proud and independent people. However, racism is still strong across the world against people of all cultures and ethnicities, and Native American tribes are no exception.

Several of the artists I will be using in my discussion have had some form of racial issue in their life, and not just from people who aren’t from a tribal background. How has art been affected by these racial issues? Opinions are mixed, with some artists thinking that traditional styles of work may be dying out because they aren’t respected outside the tribes, while others see it as an opportunity to make work that is really impactful and important. And some have even been victim to reverse-profiling, meaning that their work isn’t seen as traditional enough to be considered Native American art. In this essay, I will discuss these issues person by person, and will come to my own conclusion based on their evidence.

First, I would like to address the issue of schools and institutions not even considering Native American art and crafting to be real forms of artistic representation. They aren’t respected by the artistic world most of the time. Shan Goshorn had firsthand experience with this. When she went to college, she went to the Cleveland Art Institute to learn skills in silversmithing. However, when she started to make jewelry in the Native American style she was told to stop. “[I]t was very difficult because you absolutely had to do things their way,” she said, “In the silversmithing department, it was even more amplified. They just had no appreciation of Native American art. None.” Goshorn was the only Native American to be attending those classes, and it wasn’t just the silversmithing department. Her other interest, photography, also didn’t have an open attitude to Native American art. Despite these issues though, Goshorn graduated with a bachelor’s degree and is now a renowned political Native American artist, doing pieces of all kinds ranging from weaving to photography.

Norma Howard, untitled, watercolor on paper, 2016.

Norma Howard, untitled, watercolor on paper, 2016.

Another example of persecution against Native Art in schools is a recollection from Norma Howard, a well-known landscape painter, from when she was in grade school. She was in third grade and was drawing Indian figures on the chalkboard. “[The teacher] got mad at me. She told me, ‘Norma, what are you doing?’ You know, being a little Indian girl in the sixties, we were taught not to look at people in the eye.” Norma recounted what the teacher told her when she didn’t answer: “‘You aren’t supposed to be drawing what you’re drawing! You’re supposed to be drawing Presidents, and stuff like that.’” This confused her greatly because at home she was allowed to draw whatever she felt like. “And that really had an impact on me, when your teachers tell you not to do something. . . it has an impact on your life.” That interaction caused her to stop drawing for about 3 years, at least as consistently as she used to. However, she eventually went back to doing what she loved. Still, the fact that an educator actively discouraged her from drawing Native subjects, and the reaction to it afterwards, exemplifies the impact and issues of race in the educational setting.

Patricia Deadman, "A Day in the Park," 1996. Black and white negative printed on color paper.

Patricia Deadman, “A Day in the Park,” 1996. Black and white negative printed on color paper.

Some artists notice this kind of racial segregation when they move, as was the experience of Patricia Deadman, from Ontario. She was adopted at a young age by a non-Native couple, and lived in Woodstock. She then moved to London, Ontario, and was met with a very different atmosphere than when she lived in Woodstock. “There are not a lot of Native people in the city, but more than in Woodstock [Ontario], so you notice different tensions. You’re sitting on the bus and nobody sits beside you, that sort of thing. It’s like, ‘wait a minute . . .’ Why is this happening?” Because she was raised outside of tribal culture, Deadman didn’t really understand the reason for the tension around her. She recounts how in Woodstock, “you just go about your business. I was not really consciously aware or raised believing I was different.” In fact, she almost felt forced to be involved with Native matters because of the many Native issues that were being brought up during the 1980s. An artist who originally never identified as a Native American, just as a human, felt like she had to start getting involved because of the social and political issues around her. To me, that seems like a bad thing, because she felt she had to change her art style and basically her life outlook because of social pressure, even though she was having no issues personally.

Anita Fields, "Considering the Earth and Above," 2008. Installation at the Eitejorg Museum .

Anita Fields, “Considering the Earth and Above,” 2008. Installation at the Eitejorg Museum.

Some artists, such as Anita Fields, see the divide of cultures in the US and the racial history of the Native people as an opportunity for Native artists. “I think that for a Native American artist the role that we play is similar to any other culture. We have the opportunity to document events that are going on in the times that we know.” It could be an opportunity for artists to branch out; to be seen not strictly as a Native American artist, but as a unique artist in themselves. Fields feels that art is a conduit for cultures to come together, and share ideas. “Art is a powerful communicator. It carries the message of who we are. Again, the role of the artist has always been to document the times, document what is going on in the here and now.” She thinks right now Native American artists are growing in popularity, and as a result have a strong opportunity to show the messages of their people through their art to a world that is more open to learning and understanding new culture than it ever has been in the past. I think with the way social media works today, and how quickly things can be sent to people, Native artists have a major chance to educate others on what Native American art and culture really is, and abolish the stereotypical ideals that other cultures have of them.

Bill Rabbit, "Our Land," undated. Acrylic on canvas.

Bill Rabbit, “Our Land,” undated. Acrylic on canvas.

However, stereotyping isn’t just the fault of other cultures. Sometimes Native American tribes aren’t sure what they can define as Native American art, as was Bill Rabbit’s experience. Bill is an experienced and now very successful painter, but when he started out he was not part of tribal life or schooling. He lived in Wyoming and learned to paint there. However, the way he had learned to paint wasn’t the way that the Five Tribes Museum expected, so he was rejected. “The Five Tribes [Museum show] wouldn’t let me enter because I didn’t paint the traditional, flat-lined type of work. So, right in the beginning I had great advice from Randy Woods… Randy said, ‘Paint what you like and share with people, and if they like it, they’ll buy it and if they don’t, they won’t.’ So that was kind of how it started.” This was an issue because Bill was part of a generation who was starting to change the norm of what was considered Native American art at the time, even to Native Americans. Now he is a respected artist in his own right, and helped to make the idea of what constitutes Native American art a little more open.

Many Native American artists have varying feelings about the situation of racial influence on their culture. Some view it as opportunity to educate, and others view it as issues they simply had to overcome growing up or when trying to succeed. I do feel that racial restrictions such as those evident in the school system are horrible, and things definitely still need to change. Honestly I feel that a true artist doesn’t identify with a race or culture, but considering the history of the Native American people, I can understand the strong desire to represent your culture through your work, whatever that may be. With the widespread recent change of “Columbus Day” to “Indigenous People’s Day”, though, I think that is a sign that we are progressing in the right direction in regards to cultural acceptance.

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 Jenn Johnson, Bridget DixonZak Frick, and Roxanne Beason!

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Indigeneity and Contemporary Native Photographers

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. Last week, Project director Julie Pearson-Little Thunder and I presented papers about the use of oral history in art advocacy and pedagogy at the Oklahoma Arts Conference. As these students’ essays make clear, oral history is a vital tool in understanding contemporary art and experience. In this post, Jennifer Johnson explores the concept of indigeneity, pointing to some of the ways in which artists subvert the colonial origins and implications of the term while celebrating their own contemporary indigenous identities.

The term “indigeneity,” according to the Oxford Dictionary, is defined as “originating or occurring naturally in a particular place; native.” The term “Native American” grew out of this definition. To rely on the past as a means of defining contemporary Native American existence and visual culture is problematic, however, and many Native artists for decades have been challenging this “time-locking” effect.

One way that Native artists challenge the perception of indigeneity is by utilizing media that is non-stereotypical. Two Native artists who use photography to challenge perceptions of Indigeneity are Richard Whitman (Yuchi) and Joi Arcand (Plains Cree). Richard Whitman’s Street Chiefs series of the 1970s juxtaposes imagery and language in order to draw attention to Native homelessness in Oklahoma; the irony of being “homeless” in one’s “homeland.” Joi Arcand’s 2009 Here on Future Earth series, the photography also juxtaposes language with city imagery, but instead replaces the English text on business signage with the Plains Cree language. For both of these artists, juxtaposing language and contemporary Native imagery challenges the false perception that Native culture is of the past and reinforces their personal experience of their own indigeneity.

Richard Ray Whitman, from the

Richard Ray Whitman, from the “Street Chiefs” series, photograph.

In an interview with Julie Pearson-Little Thunder for the Oklahoma Oral History Research Program at OSU Stillwater, Whitman discusses his inspiration for the series. Whitman explains he was looking for his mother’s residence in Oklahoma City, and during the searching an individual called out to him in the Yuchi language. It shocked and perplexed Whitman how an individual from his community, and many others from other Native communities, could be homeless. “I think I was drawn to them because it was something I didn’t understand….How could you be homeless?…they came from a rural community. It was supportive, even though families – it was supportive. I didn’t understand it for the most part.” Whitman’s image of a homeless Kiowa man standing in front of a billboard that reads “Buy Oklahoma,” drove home the concept of the Street Chiefs series. This series challenges the perception that all Natives live in very tight, isolated communities that consistently support and nourish each other, presumably like the tribal culture of their pasts. Whitman’s Chiefs tell a very different narrative of indigeneity and the contemporary Native experience, one that highlights the struggle, loneliness, and poverty that many Natives, both on and off the reservations, live with.

Joi Arcand,

Joi Arcand, “Northern Pawn, South Vietnam,” from “Here on Future Earth,” 2010.

Arcand also juxtaposes language and imagery, but she does so in order to highlight her experience working at the Saskatchewan Indian Cultural Centre, where individuals working in Native language revival influenced her. Arcand was distressed by her own (and her family’s) inability to speak their tribe’s language. “Language is culture,” Arcand states, “[t]here are far too many indigenous languages that are either extinct or endangered…. I realized that my own inability to speak the language means that in my family, the language is extinct.” By altering the landscape of the city with Plains Cree language, Arcand not only emphasizes the importance of having language function in society, but also, like Whitman, comments on a kind of irony; the irony of Native people’s tribal languages often being foreign languages. For artists like Whitman and Arcand, the concept of indigeneity cannot be one of the past, since these perceptions and stereotypes of the “time-locked” Native are clearly not the reality of many Natives.

Two other Native artists working in photography who are challenging the perception of indigeneity are Tom Fields (Cherokee/Creek) and Da-Ka-Xeen Mehner (Tlingit/N’ishga). Tom Fields’ photography of Native communities from the 1980s onward emphasizes images of everyday Native life that non-Natives might not be aware of. Da-Ka-Xeen Mehner’s Reinterpretation series explores the history of photography of Native subjects and reconstructs those images by presenting a mirror image of himself with his everyday objects and attire presented next to the original, “outsider perspective” image. These artists also incorporate their own personal experience and perspective as a means to illustrate what indigenous means to them and to challenge the stereotypes of Native existence, both past and present.

Tom Fields,

Tom Fields, “Bus Rider,” photograph.

In his interview with Julie Pearson-Little Thunder for the Oklahoma Oral History Research Program, Fields discusses his photography process and his intent as an artist. “[T]he Indian world, I grew up in it…it’s so vast, so big and complex…you can’t just generalize everything. I think as a photographer there is just one job I have….to show people a whole new perspective of whatever it is I am shooting….something they’ve never seen before.” This “new perspective” challenges what kinds of images are appropriate or interesting to capture about native communities. Fields states that for him the everyday moments in Native communities are “powerful” and “precious,” and its these images, not the conventional powwow and dance imagery, that truly represent the contemporary Native experience.

Da-ka-xeen Mehner, Da-ka-xeen Mehner, "Da-ka-xeen the Thlinget Artist," from the Reinterpretation series, 2007.

Da-ka-xeen Mehner,
Da-ka-xeen Mehner, “Da-ka-xeen the Thlinget Artist,” from the Reinterpretation series, 2007.

Artist Da-Ka-Xeen Mehner’s Reinterpretation series explores the history of Native photography, particularly that of the Case and Draper images taken in 1906 Alaska by non-Natives. “As I studied our visual history…I realized that it is an outsider view of my culture that I am left with. The….images are a perfect example of the constructed identity of Native-ness through the lens of the “other.” Mehner was inspired to reconstruct the images by taking a “contemporary image” of a Native individual (himself) in the same position and environment, then mirroring it next to the original, “other” image. This has the effect of the viewer, at first, not registering one Native as “modern,” and then being startled once the reality of the work sinks in. This series directly challenges the false perceptions that surround the “time-locked” Native and helps separate the stereotypes of the past and the contemporary reality of indigeneity.

The term “indigeneity,” functioning as a term meaning “native,” or “originating in a particular place,” both embodies and conflicts with the imagery of these artists, as the concept of contemporary indigeneity both accurately portrays history and contemporary life, while challenging those false “time-locked” perceptions. Often what determined the understanding of Native experience and culture came not from Native peoples themselves, but from non-Natives who often, instead of relying on Native peoples themselves, logged generalizations, speculations, and misinterpretations as facts. Many Native artists for a good part of the 20th and 21st centuries have been trying to correct this historical error. Artists like Whitman, Fields, Mehner, and Arcand are just a few examples of artists attempting to aid in this process, and their work effectively redefines what qualifies as indigeneity in the contemporary Native American 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 DixonZak Frick, and Roxanne Beason!

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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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