By Steve Bennett
In the sun-filled loft of her stucco-and-tile home northwest of San Antonio, TX, Brenda Kingery spreads photographs on a sturdy work table like cards in a game of solitaire. Taken last year at a powwow in her native Oklahoma, the pictures show Native Americans from several tribes dancing in splendid ceremonial dress. The artist leans closer to one photograph and blocks off a portion of a dancer’s bone breastplate with her index fingers. “Look at that,” she says. “Isn’t it wonderful!”
Chances are that horizontal pattern will appear in a Kingery painting. For Kingery, who has a bumper sticker on her Toyota 4-Runner that reads “Chickasaw and Proud,” the world is made up of tiny parts, like words in a paragraph. She uses a unique visual language, developed over more than three decades as a working artist, to tell the story of her life in paintings that resemble woven tapestries.
“Many artists address Indian art as historical artifact,” says Kingery, who has been dubbed a “narrative symbolist” by legendary Texas potter Harding Black, whom she has known since 1970. “But my work is the exact opposite. It reflects my personal history and my perception of pattern. Every artist must eventually come to his or her own place.”
To get to Kingery’s place in the Hill Country, where skittish deer her “babies” eat out of her hand in the backyard, the artist has traveled thousands of miles. “My husband and I have moved 37 times since we married,” she says, explaining that husband Tom is retired from the Air Force. One of the moves that profoundly influenced Kingery’s art was a six-year stint in Okinawa starting in 1968, where she became friends with a group of Japanese potters practicing 600-year-old techniques in the tiny villages of Tsuboya and Yomitan. “It was a fluke,” she says. “I became best friends with my maid, whose brother-in-law was a potter, and she introduced me to him. The other Americans stayed on the base and avoided the village, but I fell in love with the culture.”
Following Okinawa, Kingery spent another three years traveling extensively in Asia. A painting in her dining room titled Menshiku, which means “folk home,” is a symbolic depiction of her love for the Asian landscape and its people. It was inspired by the view out the window of her small house on a tiny Asian island. Like most of Kingery’s work in the past 15 years, the painting does not follow an easy narrative line, although it is more representational than her current work. Rather, the 1985 canvas is a patchwork of feelings associated with that particular time and place, including a view of the Chinese mainland looming across the water. It is memory committed to canvas.
“There’s an inspiration inside, an emotion separate from what’s in my head,” she says. “It’s not preconceived I let intuition take over. An example is the series I did for the Marriott Hotels. When they asked me for preliminary designs, I said, ‘Sorry, I can’t do that. I work directly.’ It was a leap of faith for them, but they hired me.”
In many ways, Kingery’s work demands a leap of faith from her viewers. Abstractions such as Leaving Eden, which was recently acquired by the San Antonio Museum of Art, do not lend themselves to easy interpretation. Best Friends, with its strong male and female figures (Kingery and her husband on Valentine’s Day) is more straightforward. But if you go with the flow of any Kingery painting, it is not difficult to appreciate the technical skill, vibrant palette and artistic passion she invests in every piece.
Kingery, who claims to be “completely disorganized,” paints extemporaneously, a practice also picked up in the Orient. She remembers sitting cross-legged on the floor with an elderly Japanese instructor, practicing the ancient art of sumi-e—painting with ink and paper—for hours at a time. “It forced me to start out freely, then come back and tighten up in places,” says Kingery, who continues to paint in layers, sometimes going over a painting 20 times before considering it finished. “I never had an ‘official’ studio back then,” she recalls. “For years I painted sitting on the floor with the paper or canvas flat in front of me.” Since then she has graduated to a large table, where she paints standing up.
About 10 years ago, Kingery’s work made a “paradigm shift.” After returning to the United States and settling in Texas, she attended the annual June Red Earth Native American Cultural Festival in Oklahoma City, OK, one of the largest powwows in the world. “I thought I was so smart with all this knowledge of the Orient, but the culture I encountered at the powwow just blew me away,” says Kingery. She reconnected with her heritage, relying on her 104-year-old grandmother—a former housemother at Bacone Indian College—to lead the way. “For the next eight years, I focused on Indian imagery. My family brought my Indian heritage back to life.”
A good example of Kingery’s Native American work is the 1995 painting Francis Yellow and Penny, which she calls “a portrait” of the Lakota Sioux sculptor and his girlfriend. The artists met when both were included in the 1994 exhibition Art From the New West at the Eiteljorg Museum in Indianapolis. With its references to tribal dress and historic evocations, the painting fairly bristles with Native American pride.
“They are such a beautiful couple—very happy, very much in love,” Kingery says. “Francis Yellow works traditionally. Despite the differences in our work, we became good friends and he and Penny continue to inspire me.”
Although Kingery creates distinctly Indian and Oriental paintings, she often blends both visual languages. Other cross-cultural influences appear in her work as well, such as the African touches in Leaving Eden. “Leaving Eden is from a series inspired by the book of Genesis. I took the ancient theme of man’s confusion over the choice between right and wrong and interpreted it in a contemporary way,” she explains. “The central image is somewhat chaotic, representing man’s bewilderment. The vivid reds symbolize shame, and the red square at the top of the painting symbolizes the masks we all wear,” Kingery says.
The painting captures inner struggle, which is what Kingery’s work is all about: life boiled down to its rawest emotions—elation, sadness, uncertainty. “I see my paintings as visual memories … the colors of the islands before a typhoon, a grandmother weaving silk threads, Indians dancing to the drums of the Red Earth powwow,” she has written. “My goal is to create paintings full of life’s breath, to have that boundless energy and yet to be very controlled and exacting in combining the complementary opposites, the yin and the yang of life. Every culture gathers to sing and dance—I try to capture the times when we abandon ourselves and enjoy simple things.”
Photos courtesy the artist, Parchman-Stremmel Galleries, San Antonio, TX, and Van der Grif Gallery, Santa Fe, NM.
Featured in March 1997