Head, Heart and Hands
Ohio Craft Museum explores Native American traditions
by Kim Leddy
It's destined to break box office records!
The marketing is incredible!
People just can't get enough of it!
The latest Hollywood blockbuster? Nope, it's the latest exhibition at Columbus' own Ohio Craft Museum. Head, Heart and Hands: Native American Craft Traditions in a Contemporary World has been packing 'em in at the Fifth Avenue space since its opening in late November and promises to continue reeling in folks through January 24.
Head, Heart and Hands is a touring exhibit organized by the Kentucky Art and Craft Gallery and curated by Brion Clinkingbeard. The show bills itself as "one of the most comphrehensive survey exhibitions ever devoted to Native American craft." It had its unveiling last summer in Louisville and now finds itself at home in the Capital City; after Columbus, the show will head to Yakima, Washington, New York and Deland, Florida. Sponsored by Philip Morris Companies Inc., and benefitting from the gigantic corporations' bottomless pit of marketing money, Head, Hearts and Hands is getting such a visibility push it comes as no surprise that the show is receiving a welcoming response from the community.
Luckily for viewers, the show deserves all the accolades it receives. Turn-out at the museum for openings and special events has been high, with a large number of visitors just stopping by during regular hours to get a gander at the exhibition. At the recent Sunday afternoon opening event, local Native Americans were on hand to lend their drumming and singing talents to the atmosphere.
Head, Heart and Hands boasts more than 50 original works in myriad mediums, including clay, glass, textile and metal, from a distinguished group of artists representing more than 10 different tribes. Seeking to build a bridge between Native American traditions and contemporary aspirations, the voice of Head, Heart and Hands is both an echo of the past and a shout to the future. The work gathers the threads of tradition handed down from generation to generation and weaves them in with new experiences, new schools and techniques of art as well as the individual experiences of the artists themselves. This meeting of aesthetic minds produces a tapestry that is rich and varied, stretching archetypical Native American imagery into new forms with all the enthusiasm of an exploring child.
Most of us are familiar to some degree with Native American imagery, from the iconic maize and the chunky outlines of the raven's profile to the intricacy of beadwork. You'll find all this and more in Head, Heart and Hands.
The textile work of Margaret Wood definately speaks to a sensibility that has one foot in Native American culture and one foot in the Anglo world. A Navajo/Seminole, Wood's work embraces the traditions of textile art and then opens them up to new techniques and designs. The daughter of a quiltmaker, Wood not only draws inspiration from her familial background but also from her scholarly immersion in the clothing styles and techniques of many American cultures.
The Indian/Woman quilt that hangs on the gallery wall reflects this cultural overlap and speaks to the variety of women's roles within their lives--mother, working woman. The central female figure is pictured from the back and is wearing a business suit on one side and a Navajo dress on the other. A silver-studded belt encompasses both sides, showing that the overall identity encompasses its many facets. The lack of a face on the figure gives it a universal feel.
In addition to Indian/Woman, Wood is represented in the show by the wall-hanging Charlie Wood's Stoma and the large-scale quilted tipi, Tipi. Worked on for three years during which the artist had to learn new techniques for painting fabric, Tipi is alive with colors--bright yellow and a rich, harmonious blue. The creation features a motif of hand prints in color, with the stitching radiating out from the splayed print, that work their way from a row of triangles on the bottom, up the sides of the tipi and finally reaching bands of sky and a half-moon. Tipi echoes the arc of a journey from land--the triangles are mountain familiars--to the sky. This journey imagery mimics the soul's travels and infers that the tipi goes beyond the service of shelter structure and exists as a sacred place in which magical, transforming things can happen. Beyond metaphors, the structure itself is marvelous, with rapt attention paid to the details--from the smooth sticks used to hold the fabric in place to the polished bone pieces that keep the door shut.
On a smaller scale are the ceramic works of the Ortiz family of the Conchiti Pueblo. Continuing the Southwestern Indian tradition of figurative pottery, the Ortiz family, and the Conchiti Pueblo itself, are known for "storyteller" figures. The Ortiz family here is represented by the mother, Seferina, and her children Inez, Janice, Joyce and Virgil. Seferina learned her pottery skills from her mother and continued the tradition by passing the craft to her children.
The works of the Ortiz family are engaging, with their little "O" mouths and simple red and black coloring. Joyce Ortiz's Hippie Couple sit cross-legged facing each other and, in this instance, the open "O" mouths are reminiscent of exhaling. The figures are complete with tattoos, sunglasses, fringed vests and a peace-sign necklace on the male and a flower in the hair of the female. Inez Ortiz's work is represented by a trio of mermaid figures, two on their stomachs and one laying on her right side. The open mouths here, in context, remind one of sea-going sirens trilling one perfect note. One of the mermaids has her head and tail flipping, communicating an enthusiastic "whoopee!"
The detail on all the Ortiz works is simple but perfect. The family manages to infuse each piece with a sense of personality and life--Janice Ortiz's Jo Mama is full of hand-on-the-hips attitude while Virgil Ortiz's Mer-Maid and Mer-Man seem beatific in the way their hands are lifted to the sky.
Another artist who comes from a long line of artisans is Rosemary Apple Blossom Lonewolf of the Santa Clara Pueblo. Beginning with very traditional Pueblo methods that date back more than 2,000 years--such as hand-mining the clay and making the vessels without the aid of a potter's wheel--Lonewolf then incorporates up-to-the-minute contemporary imagery into the work. The pair of incised native clays exhibited in Head, Heart and Hands beg the viewer to lean in and over for a better look at the intricate etchings. The designs on the surface of Techno-Tewa feature an Indian figure wearing native clothing while sporting a Walkman and holding a phone, standing between a city and a pueblo. The small terra cotta-colored orb is alive with figures--a plane flies over the city while birds flock in the pueblo. The city also features a prominent clock, while the pueblo is filled with animal forms, a subliminal message that urban society lives by the human-imposed minute hand while Native communities move to the rhythm of nature.
Techno-Tewa's companion piece, Spaced Out, is similar in theme. A Native American hovers in space, attatched by a twisting umbilical cord to a lunar module. Stars float around on the polished surface, moving past a satellite dish and Saturn. Both works are astonishing in their details. The viewer can find something new with each examination.
Less obviously endearing but sublimly sensual are the glassworks of Preston Singletary. A member of the Tlingit tribe, the artist has taken traditional forms and imagery and applied them to a non-traditional medium: glass. Having studied with glass mentors all over the globe, Singletary brings a whole world of cultural and technical influences to his creations. Wolf Hat, a form based on an inverted Tlingit cedar bark rain hair, was stenciled and then sandblasted with tribal designs. With its bluish tones, the piece is breathtaking in its serene quality and haunting pattern. Other works in the show produced this way but in different shapes are the fiery black and red Raven Bowl and the meditative amber Bear Totem.
In the same vein of Singletary's tactile glasswork is Nathan Youngblood's clay creations. Carved Egg and Pedestal is polished so finely, its blackness taking on the sheen of obsidian, that the workmanship is all the more stunning when the viewer learns that it was hand-burnished. Also hailing from the Santa Clara Pueblo and a relative of the aforementioned Rosemary Lonewolf, Youngblood also conforms to traditional customs--his work is hand-formed and manure-fired. Carved Egg and Pedestal features a maze-like pattern with rounded shapes that add to the organic archetypical aura of the egg.
Another ceramicist and sculptor represented is Al Qoyawayma of Hopi ancestry, a second generation artist. The artist's 3 Corn Sikyatki is a blond clay vessel with three ears of corn as adornment while Hopi Maiden shows off Qoyawayma's bronze work. Both pieces boast flowing lines that the eye eases over and caresses. There is a physicality expressed here--the weight and definitive earthiness of the clay--that is at the same time transformed into something ethereal through the fluidity of the forms. The viewer walks away from the pieces with a feeling of tranquility.
A third piece in the show, Square Tower, is a blond vessel in which a shard has seemingly broken off, revealing a tiny cliff community complete with minute windows and planks between levels. The viewer can get lost leaning in and peering at the carefully carved buildings.
Head, Heart and Hands also showcases work that falls under the functional banner. The traditional craft of basketweaving is exemplified by the work of Passamaquoddy tribe member Clara Neptune Keezer. Another artist following in the aesthetic footsteps of her family, Keezer is known for intricately woven baskets that go from simple forms to more fancy, elaborate, vessels covered with curlicues, loops and dyed reeds. Viewers will be amazed at the multitude of shapes and patterns that Keezer manages to coax out of the ash splints and wheat grass strands.
Jeweler Harvey A. Begay is represented by a collection of work that, like Qoyawayma's 3 Corn Sikyatki, features maize imagery. Presented in 14-karat gold and silver, the necklaces, bracelets and earrings all feature the same chevron-esque ears of corn. Sharp in shape, the individual ears are connected by the leaves of the husks which reach out in a "V." The necklace is similar to a row of people standing next to each other, their arms raised and holding hands. It is fitting that the corn, which was historically so essential to Native American life, resembles the link of humankind.
In tandem with the Head, Heart and Hands show, the Ohio Craft Museum is displaying a collection of 19th-century baskets from the Johnson-Humrickhouse Museum in Coshocton, Ohio. From a Salish baby carrier to a Paiute pine pitch-covered water bottle, this supplementary exhibition is a wonderful bonus to the show.
In addition to the original artwork on view, Head, Heart and Hands is also showing and selling a quartet of limited-edition, numbered blankets. The blankets each feature strong Native American imagery and were commissioned by the American Indian College Fund. Created by artists Tony Abeyta, Arthur Amiotte, George Hunt Jr. and Wendy Ponca, the blankets sell for $425 with proceeds benefitting Native American college students. For information, stop by the Ohio Craft Museum or call 1-800-987-FUND.
Head, Heart and Hands: Native American Craft Traditions in a Contemporary World will be on display at the Ohio Craft Museum through January 24, 1999. The museum is located at 1665 W. Fifth Ave. For information, call 486-4402. A cyberlook into Native American artforms is available at www.saso-oh.org/odc.
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