Native Arts | Judith Lowry

Judith Lowry

By Dottie Indyke

A California painter of Native heritage offers social commentary and creation myths in her art

Judith Lowry’s father, Leonard, was one of the most decorated Native American soldiers of World War II. He was also a descendant of such Native tribes as the Maidu and Pit River (as well as of Irish ancestors) and an awesome storyteller who kept his daughter up at night with accounts of the origins of his Native forebears—stories in which he became the weasel, the owl, and the wolf. A generation later, she grew up to be the family’s story-bearer, telling the tales to her children and memorializing them in her paintings.

In weh-pom and the star sisters, recently exhibited at the National Museum of the American Indian in New York City, Lowry, who is 57 and lives in Nevada City, CA, introduced the scoundrel coyote Weh-Pom, who lusts for five beautiful celestial siblings. The sisters encircle him like a constellation, toting baskets and beams of white starlight.

Creation myths, with their lessons about respect, courage, and redemption, are universal to all cultures. “Right now the world is so divided,” Lowry contends. “The uniting principles of the stories are so important in helping us make connections.”

Since she began painting more than a quarter-century ago, such tales have been a mainstay of her work. But she has also sounded off, starkly but deliciously, about the status of women, Indian gaming, and mainstream American culture in paintings such as jingle, jingle. The 1997 acrylic on canvas, featured in the traveling exhibition Who Stole the Teepee?, portrays an Indian princess before a glorified slot machine, spewing gold coins from her loins. Earlier, Lowry made a send-up of a medieval religious painting by surrounding the pop singer Madonna with such “false saints” as Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny.

Of the 11 children in his family, Leonard Lowry was the closest to his grandmother. He’d spend days helping her, threading her beading needles and hauling water from the spring, while she recounted stories of the Maidu and Pit River people of California. Soon after he enlisted in the Army, he met his wife, an Aussie with movie-star looks, at a USO dance in Sydney. For more than three years, the pair exchanged letters until she sailed halfway around the world to be with him.

Judith and her brother were also destined to be globetrotters, following their dad to posts in Germany, Japan, Australia, and towns throughout the United States. A shy girl who expressed herself through art, Lowry won her first competition at age 6 for a drawing of a fantastic, Hieronymus Bosch-ish world populated by strange, vibrant creatures. Among her other influences were illustrations in May Gibbs’ books for children and paintings in European museums.

Instead of attending college, Lowry bowed to her parents wishes and got married, raised children, and worked as a hairdresser. Her artistic indulgences were limited to taking photographs at weddings and community events and teaching art. She settled in her father’s hometown of Susanville, CA. Encouraged to investigate Humboldt State University, she finally enrolled there. “I was in my 30s, and I felt like the oldest living co-ed in the world,” she recalls of her Humboldt years. “But I managed to graduate and distinguish myself in the art department.”

With a master’s degree in hand, Lowry found career success. Today she is among the most recognized Native artists in the country and one of only a handful representing California tribes, a fact she took seriously when invited by the Smithsonian to participate in Continuum 12, a series of solo shows by a dozen important contemporary Native artists.

“If I say Navajo or Sioux, you get a picture in your mind. But if I say Maidu or Pit River? I felt it was important to take the imagery and consciousness of California Indians to the show,” she says.

With a $20,000 grant from the Joan Mitchell Foundation, Lowry created her first installation since college: k’um de-go-i-dom (home place): reflections on recurring history and survival pays homage to post-9/11 New York City with a symbolic tribal round-house, wrapped in duct tape and fronted by twin Christmas trees representing the World Trade Center towers, filled with collaged and painted photographs of her loved ones.

“As tenderly as I could, I tried to convey to my audience the importance of life affirmation and forgiveness,” Lowry declares. “The Indian people of California were almost wiped out. Yet here we are today—culture bearers, filmmakers, artists, writers. What I was trying to say is, ‘Take it from an Indian. You can forgive, you can move on, you can become part of the greater society.’”

Lowry is represented by LewAllen Contemporary, Santa Fe, NM.

Featured in “Native Arts” September 2005