22 April 2011

In Praise of Annual, Competitive Art Shows: The Trail of Tears Art Show

Resurgence, Daniel Horsechief, at the CHC
While new Indian art markets seem to pop up like mushrooms – despite the horrible economy – annual, intertribal competitive art shows have decreased, not increased, in number. With the loss of the Lawrence Indian Art Show in Kansas, which operated independently of the Haskell Indian Art Market, the number of annual shows open to all tribes is down to two. As far as I know, there is only the Red Cloud Indian Art Show and the Trail of Tears Art Show.

A few more annual shows are limited to certain tribes. Founded in 1997, “Here Forever” is an August show at the Tamástslikt Cultural Institute in Pendleton, Oregon. It’s open to enrolled members of the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation, that is Umatilla, Cayuse, and Walla Walla tribes. The Five Civilized Tribes Museum in Muskogee, Oklahoma sponsors a competitive show each June and July that is open to members of all federally and state recognized Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Muscogee Creek, and Seminole tribes. Each August/September, the Cherokee Heritage Center in Park Hill, Oklahoma hosts the Cherokee Homecoming show open to enrolled members of the three federally recognized Cherokee tribes. For the last three years, the Cherokee Nation hosts the Cherokee National Holiday Art Show in Tahlequah, Oklahoma.

Both markets and art shows serve worthy purposes. While art markets are exciting events for socializing and networking, they can also prove expensive and exhausting for artists. Many emerging and elder artists might not have the inventory to fill a booth, and familial, academic, or job commitments or health issues prevent many artists from traveling to markets. Art shows, as opposed to markets, allow these artists to participate and share their work and ideas. And unlike markets, the art, not the artist, is showcased. One can quietly spend as long as one wants examining and reflecting on the work, allowing for a deeper understanding of content and underlying crosscurrents between works.

Both the two annual intertribal art shows are in Indian County: Pine Ridge, South Dakota and Park Hill, Oklahoma, which allows the local Native communities to see what’s going on in the contemporary indigenous art world. And both are free to enter, which in the art world in extraordinary. Usually art spaces will host a competitive art show as a fund-raiser, since it’s common to charge $5 to $50 just to enter.

The Trail of Tears show is near to my heart because it the first place I ever exhibited my art. Since 1995, I’ve shown in it every year. Now in its 40th year, the Trail of Tears art show (TOTAS) was founded in 1971 by the Cherokee National Historical Society at the Cherokee Heritage Center. All entries to first shows were limited to the Trail of Tears theme, which proved too narrow a focus. My mother says that at the shows’ low point less than half a dozen people showed up at the reception to see the four or five entries for the entire show. The following year, the show opened up to new categories.

Categories now include painting, graphics, pottery, basketry, miniatures, and Trail of Tears theme. This year was exciting because, thanks to sponsorship by the Chickasaw Nation, a jewelry category was added. The show now allows photography and digital art, but these compete with hand pulled prints, drawings, and even scrimshaw. Every year I crack up when I read the rules explicitly prohibiting painting on saw blades.

This year had an excellent turnout, and visitors at the opening reception said it was too crowded to even see the art (which is why you have to visit more than once). The show had 155 pieces from 95 different artists, but representing only 13 tribes. It seems that is has been more tribally diverse in the past, and I hope it will be in the future. I didn’t see any non-Cherokee baskets. Attention indigenous basket makers of America, please enter next year! Both sales and prize money are good, and it’s a great opportunity to share your work with a largely Native audience.

The grand prizewinner was Putting the Pieces Together, a gorgeous and haunting ceramic sculpture by Troy Jackson (Cherokee). The foot tall figurative work has an elegant Mississippian-esque man composed of black and white jigsaw puzzle pieces, holding black and white pieces in his hands. The figure sits on a blanket on top of a container bearing the word, ᏣᎳᎩ (Cherokee). The lip of the bowl has a lug of copper wire holding a white cross. Small coiled, copper earrings also provide a touch of color. Representing a mixed blood individual’s identity struggles and that of the entire tribe, the piece is ultimate serene, suggesting a resolution and acceptance of a mixed identity.

Shan Goshorn’s High Stakes; Tribes Choice won best of graphics category. Her photograph of a traditionally dressed Eastern Cherokee man is accented with an array of glitter, suggesting the glitz of casino lights more than the spiritual sparkle of mica or other sacred minerals. Sharon Irla’s very classically painted Corn Mother is a beautiful, naturalistic, oil painting of Selu as a tattooed woman with closed eyes, clad in a fur robe, and wearing wampum and shell necklace and pearl bracelets. She holds a white swan feather fan, symbol of a Beloved Woman’s authority. Before her sits a shallow tray of ripe corn. Irla delicately implies erotic energy in manner that doesn’t cross local sensibilities.

David Pruitt's Fire Carrier, a raku clay sculpture of the southeastern Mississippian water spider who brought fire to humanity, won best of the ceramics category. The large number of ceramics entries is a testimony to the work of Anna Sixkiller Mitchell and recently Jane Osti, who offers pottery classes from her studio in Tahlequah.

Lisa Forrest won best of the basket category with her ambitiously large Traditional Storage Basket, woven from vegetal dyed honeysuckle runners. This basket is a foot in diameter, with a delicately woven lid, embellished with seedpods and hazelnuts. Gathering one’s own materials and dyeing with natural dyes is greatly prized in Oklahoma basket weaving; however, I saw some nice doubleweave baskets in commercial reeds. At least the lesser materials allow new weavers to master the art of doubleweaving.

Best of sculpture category was a naturalistic wooden carving, Redtail Hawk by Darrell Smith (Cherokee Nation). The attention to detail was extraordinary with every single feather carved out.

Navajo jeweler and teacher Fritz Casuse won first place in the new jewelry category, with his impressive towering Cala ring with abstract floral designs. His wife Wanesia Misquadace (Fond du Lac Ojibwe) won second and third places. Misquadace is one of possibly a dozen birchbark biters active today, and she travels to northern Minnesota each year to harvest the bark. She incorporated birchbark bitings of turtles in her second place winner, A Song and Prayer for Mother Earth, a canister of birch embellished with silver. Personally I also greatly enjoyed Charley Johnson’s Man from Etowah.

The Trail of Tears category, open to work about any forced removal such as The Long Walk, was won by James Wing with his oil painting, Trail of Tears Water Crossing, a realistic narrative piece portraying two men and a woman trudging through the snowy forest.

Because of the nature of the show, many emerging artists participate, and the quality is uneven. Due to the uncurated nature of the show, one get a more direct feel for trends in styles and subject matter, where genre and figurative art well represented. Many works reflect agrarian culture, such as Choctaw artist Norma Howard’s painting of working cotton fields or Amy Smith’s still life of eggs. Relationships between artists are evident everywhere with relatives and teachers and students showing together. Rose Drake entered a tribute, Quiver for Gunter, in memory of the Cherokee basketweaver, Gunter Anderson, who recently passed on.

The Trail of Tears art show runs through May 8.

If you are interested in entering the Red Cloud Indian Art Show, the information is online here. You have until May 1st to let them know what you want to enter.

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