By Dottie Indyke
Her father was Oklahoma Cherokee, but Kay WalkingStick was raised by her mother, a woman of intelligence and warmth whose daily instructions to her daughter were to make something of herself. “My mother took in laundry, scrubbed other people’s floors, and was very determined to give her children confidence,” WalkingStick remembers. “She’d tell us, ‘Stand up straight, you’re an Indian.’”
WalkingStick took the advice to heart. Born during the Depression, when American Indians were prohibited from speaking their language or practicing their religion, she has evolved alongside the Native American and women’s rights movements while absorbing myriad art styles, from abstract expressionist to conceptual.
Art has been a constant in her life. She began drawing in church and to this day says she thinks best while putting pencil to paper. From the beginning her interest was depicting people; that penchant has been retained, though her style has undergone many transformations. In the late 1960s, when she had her first New York show, she was painting hard-edged, abstracted figures in flat acrylic colors. Thirty years later, the figures reappeared. “Early on I did a group of five to six paintings that worked together … a series of feet,” she says. “Today a number of my drawings are of bits of bodies, like hands and legs, so in some ways I’ve returned. Or maybe they’ve never left; maybe they’re just a part of who I am.”
WalkingStick received a fine-art degree in 1959. Directly after graduation she married journalist Michael Echols, and the couple remained together until his sudden death 29 years later. As a young married woman she wanted to go to graduate school, but finances and the demands of two small children made it impossible. Then in 1972 she received a Danforth Fellowship for Women that enabled her to attend the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, NY.
Her graduate-school years were “a beautiful time,” WalkingStick says. Commuting to New York City every day, she was overwhelmed with aesthetic and intellectual stimulation. “The experience of looking at and talking about art really shaped me,” she says. While in graduate school, WalkingStick also studied her heritage for the first time. She began reading Native American history and making paintings on the subject. Her self-described artistic journey was exploring her identity as “an Indian raised as a white Protestant.” Her vehicle of expression was enigmatic and abstract—minimal yet emotion-laden. “Someone said my work is always a dialogue with God,” WalkingStick says. “That may be. I certainly expressed my anger. My paintings for a long time dealt with tragedies that had happened to Native people.”
Then in the 1980s, resolving many of the issues that had churned inside her for 15 years, she went to an artists’ colony far out on Long Island and found herself painting abstractions of the world around her. Suddenly her palette mirrored the colors of the garden and her subject matter took a few steps toward realism.
Another change took place in 1996 when WalkingStick, by then a tenured professor of art at Cornell University, spent six months teaching in Italy. The diptychs she had made for years, often pairing mountains and abstract shapes, began portraying expressionistic interpretations of the Alps along with joyful, dancing figures.
Despite the loneliness that has accompanied the loss of her husband, WalkingStick is herself a joyful, life-affirming person. Her energy has been channeled into becoming a better teacher and painter, and she has recently taken up ice skating, she says with some amazement at her own audacity.
This period in her life has also given her time to consider her place in the world. “It’s important to me that people see me as a contemporary artist, as a woman who is modern and, I hope, courageous,” she says. “To me, that’s what an Indian woman is. I’m sure it’s my mother talking through me, telling me to stand up straight.”
WalkingStick is represented by June Kelly Gallery in New York City and LewAllen Contemporary in Santa Fe.
Featured in “Native Arts” December 2000