Head, Heart, and Hands

The following is excerpted from a catalog accompanying Head, Heart, and Hands, an exhibit of contemporary Native American crafts organized by the Kentucky Art and Craft Gallery in Louisville, which is on view at the Ohio Craft Museum in Columbus through January 21. It then travels to the Yakama Nation Cultural Heritage Center and Museum in Yakama, WA, May 15-July 17, and to the DeLand Museum in DeLand, FL, from October 29-January 2, 2000.

C.S. Tarpley, Water Vessel (Cibola Series) [1997], 12 x 12 x 12 3/4, craft, southwest art.
C.S. Tarpley, Water Vessel (Cibola Series) [1997], 12 x 12 x 12 3/4

In many Native American cultures, myths exist about the origins of basket-making, weaving, pottery, and other Native craft traditions. According to many of these myths, the idea, use, and form for the craft came to an individual in a vision. The vision stipulated everything about the craft, including where the material could be found, for example, or even which particular grove of saplings should be used. The seer then shared this knowledge with the rest of the tribe, and the particular craft tradition he or she envisioned was thus consolidated.

Today anthropologists and art historians tell us that, far from being monolithic and unchanging, tradition implies adaptation, transfor-mation, and change. What is important, though, is that the ideas and the forms embodied in the various craft traditions are deeply rooted in the cultural history of Native Americans.

The long, venerable his-tory of such Native Amer-ican arts and crafts as bas-ketry, weaving, beadwork, and leatherwork is well known to most of us. Less known is the fact that in Native American communities across the country, the production of art and craft items continues to play an important role, particularly in economic terms. Where once craft items were made in response to utilitarian or ceremonial needs, today they are made out of equally immediate but largely economic needs.

Rick Bartow, Dog V [1993], carved wood and mixed media, 16 x 7 x 6, craft, southwest art.
Rick Bartow, Dog V [1993], carved wood and mixed media, 16 x 7 x 6

For more than 150 years, indigen-ous arts have undergone increasingly intensive commercialization, both in terms of the number of people involved and the amount of art produced and sold. As Edwin L. Wade wrote in 1981, “few realize that what began as a simple curio and knickknack trade has evolved into the main economic industry for many small-scale societies.” Wade rightly noted that the ethnic art market offers a source of income to communities that very often have less than substantial alternative sources of income. And, if the demand for ethnic “tourist” art in and around popular tribal-sponsored casinos is any indication, the production of art and craft objects will continue to be a viable source of income to Native American commun-ities for some time.

It is important to under-score that most of the artists included in Head, Heart, and Hands grew up surrounded by this kind of production of Native American handicrafts. Sculptor Truman Lowe re-calls, for example, that every-one in his family and in the Ho-chunk/Winnebago community in Black River Falls, WI, made crafts. They practiced all the traditional crafts such as basketry, beadwork, weaving, and leatherwork. In the community, families had specialties. For example, the Whitewaters made the best picnic baskets with covers. The Redbirds made excellent market baskets. In Lowe’s own family, his mother made baskets and was particularly noted as a colorist, while his father made some of the best bentwood handles.

Preston Singletary, Bear [1997], blown and sandblasted glass, 16 3/4 x 5 1/4, craft, southwest art.
Preston Singletary, Bear [1997], blown and sandblasted glass, 16 3/4 x 5 1/4

At regular intervals, Lowe’s mother would load up the station wagon with newly made baskets and drive to the state’s popular tourist destination, Wisconsin Dells, where she would sell her wares. (At the time, her return was of far greater importance to Lowe, who remembers the staples and the goodies she would bring home bought with money from her sales. “It was like Christmas!” he muses.)

Although the ethnic art market poses a series of artistic and economic dilemmas for ethnic artists and their Native com-munities, as Wade points out, it also holds within it some indirect positive results, for in their production knowledge of trad-itional art and craft forms and techniques is passed to younger generations. Thus, traditional Native American crafts were and continue to be a vital and significant component of Native life, even as they carry histories and associat-ions that resonate over great expanses of time and place.

The artists included in Head, Heart, and Hands combine the multi-layered history of Native craft traditions with new ideas. Just as traditional Native American arts generally have been influenced over the years by trade, exchange, and contact with non-Native cultures, individual artisans have likewise brought their unique personal vision to bear upon their creations. They borrow from or work within the craft traditions, even as they reinterpret them. Their experiences of contemporary culture are woven into time-honored forms and materials. To varying degrees, they play with prescribed techniques and materials, with inherited forms and functions, and with established symbols and meanings. Similarly, they are able to move away from the constraints of the ethnic art market—or they are able to “re-vision” their relationship to it.

Among the 20-plus artists whose works are included in Head, Heart, and Hands are Rick Bartow, C.S. Tarpley, and Preston Single-tary. Bartow (Yurok) was born and raised on the Oregon coast and still lives on land that belonged to his Yurok father. Bartow’s sculptures are made from pieces of alder or cedar, and his inspiration comes not only from his personal life and Yurok heritage but also from his travels abroad and interaction with other native peoples. He uses a traditional crooked knife and many kinds of adzes of indigenous peoples to give his works texture and shadow. “Working in ‰  this contemporary manner allows me to honor that portion of me that is Native American without being phony,  without getting involved in things that are not mine,” he says.

Glassblower C.S. Tarpley  (Choctaw/Chickasaw/Anglo)  cherishes a youth spent in Santa Fe, NM. “At an age when I would have been flipping burgers in any other town, I was casting bronze, silversmithing, and learning to cut precious stones for minimum wage,” he says. Having worked in a local glassblowing studio, Tarpley set his sights on training at the Pilchuck glass studio in Washington. His blown-glass vessels mimic traditional pottery forms. “Every design I use is universal and appears in European as well as Native American traditions. This aspect of these ancient motifs appeals to my sense of place in our present culture and allows me to honor the multiple nationalities and ethnicities that make up my family.”

Preston Singletary (Tlingit) has adapted a variety of stylistic in-fluences to create his signature glass vessels: stylized Italian classical forms, Scandinavian design sens-ibilities, American color, and Tlingit graphic designs. “I’m hoping to bring Tlingit designs into the future,” he says. “Glass is so permanent. It will never rot away like a piece of wood.”

For the artists in this exhibit, craft traditions influence how they think about materials, imagery, and forms. Indeed, the aesthetic of each is based in Native craft traditions. But the work of all the artists also shows very clear and trenchant traces of contemporary society and of Western art. The results are as rich and varied as the influences.

Featured in January 1999