Native American Art and Totem Poles: An Interview with Tracy J. Prince

Many of you are now introduced to the idea of totem poles through the Grade 3 book of Art1st. You have learnt about its symbolic functions, its aesthetics and also asked students to make their own totem poles. Most of these works were also displayed in the annual exhibitions in the schools curated with the help of Art1st mentors.

Today we will feature an interview with Dr. Tracy J. Prince who is a Scholar in Residence (Research Professor) at Portland State University in the United States. Tracy is also an accomplished writer and has done extensive research on the history of Blacks and Native americans. She was part of the Chateau de La Napoule art residency along with me and I had a chance to interact with her about her writings and research. She also did a wonderful art workshop with the kids who were visiting the museum at the Chateau on Native American art and patterns. In this interview she will talk about the Native American art, the relevance of totem poles and contemporary artists who are using totem poles and the aesthetics of Native American art in their works.

 

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Dr. Tracy J. Prince

Premjish: How was your experience with the students in La Napoule teaching Native American Art? What were your objectives?

Tracy:  I wanted to show the children images of Native American art from over 100 years ago to today, so that students could see that Native Americans have been an important part of American history and that thousands of Native artists are active today. I enjoyed teaching them via an interpreter. They were intrigued that I am a descendant of Pocahontas. They seemed very excited to learn about Native Americans.

 

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Children’s workshop with Tracy J. Prince at Chateau de La Napoule

 

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Children’s workshop with Tracy J. Prince at Chateau de La Napoule

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Tracy J. Prince with the kids at the workshop on Native American art

 

Premjish: What is your experience with the Native American Art? (In terms of academics and research and outreach)

Tracy: I’ve taught Native American Art for over a decade. I’ve published about Native art in several of my books on Portland, Oregon’s history. I’m working on a book on Native American Art of Oregon, based upon my research and teaching. In outreach, I’ve advocated with the Portland Art Museum to promote the work of contemporary Native artists (though they still tend to focus on historical Native art), and I’ve given hundreds of talks to civic groups in the US on Native American art.

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A collection of hand-woven Navajo blankets. Courtesy: Tracy J. Prince

 

Premjish: In the Art1st grade books we have a chapter dealing with Totem poles. You have researched a lot on totem poles. Could you give our teachers a brief overview about its functions, visual appearance and relevance.

Tracy: The most important thing to remember is that totem poles are traditional only for tribes in part of the Pacific Northwest. In the US, totem poles were made only in parts of Alaska and a small part of Washington state, and in Canada, totem poles were made only in the province of British Columbia. The Pacific Northwest areas where carving was/is most intense is a rain forest where enormous evergreen trees grow that are excellent for making totem poles—most are made from western red cedar. There are over 500 Native tribes in the US. Less than a dozen of those tribes have totem poles as a tradition. Throughout the world, totem poles have captured the imagination and have come to stand for all Native people of the US and Canada. But in reality, totem poles represent only a small part of a few western tribes in Canada and the US. They capture the imagination for good reason. Totem poles are carved of wood. They are beautiful, grand, and visually striking. They are usually enormous poles carved from a single tree. Totem poles can be found in many museums around the world. Their function was/is to celebrate a person’s achievements, to honor someone still living, to praise a great miracle, to serve as a funeral marker, to tell a tribal legend, and for many other functions. The icons carved onto the pole differ from tribe to tribe. Common imagery includes: a raven (a trickster figure—tricky, greedy, mischievous), eagle, bear, salmon, whale, wolf, frog, and mythical creatures such as the thunderbird and Dzunukwa. Dzunukwa is often depicted with pursed lips. The legend is that when children hear “who, who” calling in the forest, they should run so that Dzunukwa doesn’t capture them. This legend helped keep children from wandering into the vast wilderness of thick forests that these tribes were surrounded by.

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Mask of Dzunukwa face (Museum of Anthropology at UBC), Courtesy: Wikipedia and the Museum

 

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Dzunukwa holding tináa (copper shields) outside the Burke Museum of the University of Washington, Seattle, WA. Courtesy: Wikipedia.

Premjish: Do communities still make totem poles and believe in its symbolic quality?

Tracy: All tribal communities that made totem poles historically are still making totem poles today. Many Native people (in Canada the preferred terms are: aboriginal, indigenous, or First Nations) were Christianized and many of their traditional beliefs and practices were forbidden until even as recently as the 1950s. However, even with attempts to decimate cultures, many Native people still place great value on the symbolism of the imagery on totem poles. All tribes place great value on the cultural importance of the tree, taken from Native land, representing stories that have been handed down in that tribe.

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Image of a village with totem poles in Alaska. Courtesy: Tracy J. Prince

Premjish: Could you tell us more about the contemporary artists who are working in this visual idiom? Especially abstract, geometric patterns, etc.

Tracy: Wendy Red Star (Crow tribe) satirizes and critiques stereotypical ideas about Native Americans. Sometimes using pop art style, with an underlying critique, she grapples with American history and the present story of Native Americans. She wants viewers to see that Native people are not just people of the past.

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Peelatchiwaaxpaásh/ Medicine Crow (Raven) with notations from Wendy Red Star’s research.  Reproduction of image of historically significant, famous, iconic 19th century Crow leader, altered by the artist with red pen notations explaining the symbolic significance of each element of his garb and the artifacts he holds. Courtesy: Wikipedia and Wendy Red Star

And she plays with traditional Native American geometric shapes to explore contemporary art.

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Wendy Red Star, Family Portraits, Courtesy: Wendy Red Star

I like the work of Marcus Cadman (Navajo and Kickapoo tribes). He has strong regional recognition and growing national recognition. I’m especially intrigued by his paintings that use discarded bingo cards from the Navajo reservation as the background. Bingo games are pervasive throughout Native American tribes. So, he is anchoring the viewer to contemporary life on the Navajo reservation by using bingo cards.

Marcus Cadman

Website of Marcus Cadman

(To see Cadman’s works, see his website http://www.marcuscadman.com/carousel.php?galleryID=109931)

I wrote about Pat Courtney Gold (Wasco Chinook) who does basketry. Her designs are quite traditional and are meant to honor the past rather than critique it.

(See the book online https://books.google.co.in/books?id=dCYnDwAAQBAJ&pg=PA95&dq=%22lillian+pitt%22+notable+women&hl=en&sa=X&redir_esc=y#v=onepage&q=%22lillian%20pitt%22%20&f=false)

 

 

                                                                      Pat Courtney Gold

 

Premjish: Is it always necessary that Native American artists always work in their own native visual style?

Tracy: In the 1960s and 1970s, Fritz Scholder and T. C. Cannon famously exploded the idea that Native American art must reverentially harken back to the past artistic language.

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“Self Portrait in the Studio” by the artist T. C. Cannon. Courtesy: Wikipedia

They used abstraction (Scholder) and pop art (Cannon) to play with, deconstruct, and analyze Native American art. Many contemporary artists, such as James Lavadour (Umatilla), don’t feel obliged to paint typical Native American subjects. He paints abstractions of the landscapes near his home on the Umatilla Reservation.

(Read the article on these by clicking here)

Premjish: Could you tell us what are the new interventions happening in the art of totem pole creation?

 Tracy: Being able to carve in the totem pole style and with particular figures is considered the privilege of certain tribes. These privileges are passed down through generations. It is considered cultural appropriation when a Native American person carves a totem pole but is not a member of a tribe where totem poles were carved. Rick Bartow (Wiyot and Yurok) has a fantastic piece at the Smithsonian Museum in Washington DC that shows a modern interpretation of the totem pole but is not trying to replicate traditional styles. He lives in Oregon with ancestry from  California tribes. So he is not from a tribe where totem pole carving is traditional. Bartow’s spectacular sculpture, “We Were Always Here,” was erected in 2012 at the Smithsonian’s American Indian Museum.

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Photograph of a work by Rick Bartow, part of an exhibit at the gardens of the White House; url properties list title as “Cedar Mill Pole, 1997”

Bartow says that they aren’t totem poles, but “pole sculptures.” “We didn’t want a totem pole. There is a predetermined idea of what that is going to look like, a built-in iconography. There are traditions. It reflects family stories, lineages. I have no lineage right to that … and it would be stupid of me, who is not Haida or Tlingit … to pretend like I was all of the sudden just for this job. It would look like hell, frankly.”

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Rick Bartow, We Were Always Here, 2012, carved old growth western red cedar, 324″ x 31″ x 15″

Bartow’s work explores a new sculptural form and iconography to delve into contemporary interpretations of Native American art.

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Rick Bartow with his paintings at Froelick Gallery, Portland, Oregon. Photo credit: Wilder Schmaltz

 

 

 

Tracy J. Prince, Ph.D. is a Scholar in Residence (research professor) at Portland State University in the United States. She is the author of four books: Culture Wars in British Literature: Multiculturalism and National IdentityNotable Women of Portland, two other histories of Oregon, and is currently working on a book on Native American Art of Oregon. She has taught for two decades, published about, and given hundreds of public lectures on Native American art and literature. Read more about her: https://works.bepress.com/tracy-prince/

 

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Art from her Heart …. by Kathy Whitehead & illustrated by Shane W. Evans

Do not wait for the perfect time to create…

A picture book biography of the remarkable folk artist Clementine Hunter, who defied all odds for her passion of painting.

An awe inspiring journey of her paintings hanging on her clothesline to hanging in museums, yet because of the color of her skin, a friend had to sneak her in when the gallery was closed.  Can you imagine being an artist who isn’t allowed into your own show? That’s what happened to folk artist Clementine Hunter.

With lyrical writing and striking water colour illustrations, that capture the essence of her life and work, this picture book biography introduces kids to a self-taught artist whose paintings captured scenes of backbreaking work and joyous celebrations of a farm life.

Art from her Heart written by Kathy Whitehead & illustrated by Shane W. Evans is a book that gives younger readers the opportunity to learn about Clementine Hunter’s important contributions to folk art and the obstacles she faced as an African American woman artist. A picture book about, dreams fantasies and the real life challenges related to farm work, human resources, and discrimination.

 

Gopa

Artist Mentor

Story, First..

 TAW-MP-coverThe Artist’s Way by #JuliaCameron

Story, First..

Books, leading to books is a calling.

A few years ago, when I picked up ‘Who will cry when you die’ written by Robin Sharma, little was I cognizant that it was my calling for a transition. Though it took a few years to realize it, the rusted levers were set in motion by the latent forces of nature, then.

Robin Sharma suggested two books to readers; Walden by Henry Thoreau and The Artists’ Way by Julia Cameron.

Unaware of the instant shift in FOC, that evening, I went to the book store and picked up both – it was not an easy decision because The Artists’ Way was a costly ledger – the trade off between entertainment, pleasure, and fun vs. addressing & rediscovering essential deeper self.

I took that chance then….

….and realized a few years later that NATURE could never go wrong. It craves for alignment, always.

I left Walden after fifty pages; my cerebral taste buds were not so accustomed to the compound and dense creation of art. So, I began reading The Artists’ Way which is much easier to eyes and brain. (Confession – I have not yet finished Walden, but plan to do it soon).

Reading through it, this is what I have come to learn about Creativity & how ignorant we are about it.

Let me ask you a questions.

As a parent, would you ever insult your own kid?

I know your answer, it is a big NO!! Isn’t it?
What if I say, You DO, we all DO it consciously or unconsciously.

Don’t believe?

Here is something for us to assimilate.

– We want to be a Singer, but we compare our voice with a celebrity’s voice, the moment we open our mouth.

– We want to be a writer, but we expect to match up to Stephen King or Lee Child, right from the time we write our first page.

….and so on and so forth…

Is this not an insult to our creative child?

Why we forget that time defines the evolution of an artistic flair. Why are we so unfair to us, not ready to give time and chance to the creative child to metamorphose into an adult.

Why do we deny the basics – pampering, grooming, nurturing and hand-holding, every creative child inside us deserves so badly.

Above all, many of us do not even realize that we have a creative child breathing inside us.

Book Review

A book that can be classified primarily as self-help by many but is more like common sense. It is designed to help readers reject the evils of self-doubt and seek for creative indulgence not as a profession or professional but as a form of therapy.

At the core of the book is a custom called “morning pages,” based on the belief that free-form writing, each morning, will unclog one’s mental and emotional channels of all the waste that gets in the way of being happy.

The other essential ritual involves taking oneself on an “artist’s date” each week – planning an outing to a museum or some other site of thought, free from the weight of responsibility or work.

Ending Remarks

Some day I will write a book on this master art, but today, I have to end my review here with two life changing lines by the Author and then my own comprehension of what this book has taught me over the years, and when I re-read earlier this year.

‘Practice Mystery, not Mastery’
‘Artistic people must learn how to emotionally guard themselves against the tides of negativity -both external and internal.’

Creativity is beyond the realms of semantics, a divine blessing guided by higher planes. Unfortunately, our limited intellect barely qualifies to decipher even a spec of it, unless, either it’s HIS will or our aspirations guided by the subconscious.

 

By Maniissh Aroraa

Artist Mentor: Mona Rai, Day 4

The last and final session with Mona Rai began at 3 pm on 27th November.

All the participants reached on time and continued their work, which they were doing in the previous session.

 

Our mentor kept a close eye on each one of them, and the moment a few said they were done!!!! Mona asked them to work over again and try to deform the image.

On sensing a subtle reluctance, in doing so, by the participants, our Mentor indulged the participants in a discussion on, having the urge to work on issues.

A thought-provoking discussion that  began with addressing the major difference between an advertising poster and a painting. The discussion continued for nearly half an hour, that left the participants thinking.

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We are sure that the participants and the Mentor Mona Rai enjoyed the experience…..

 

 

 

Artist Mentor: Mona Rai, Day 3….

The third session with Artist Mentor Mona Rai began at 3pm on 26th November.

Despite the heavy traffic everyone reached on time.

The sessoin began with the discussion about the artists that each of them were asked to look up. Post the discussion all of them took out the Materials they had collected and began working on their works.

The materials they used ranged from threads, cloth, cardboards to found objects.

All of them worked on ideas that interested them, some worked on social issues, where as others indulged in surrealist landscapes. Some tried their hands on embroidery for the first time.

By 7pm it was time to go.

They were supposed to complete their works in the next session.

 

November 2016,Day 2

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All of us look outside our windows, but how many of us observe?????

Do we feel the changes in light with the seasons?

Do we observe the changing textures of the trees and the land?

Most of us click a picture to savour the moment, hoping to enjoy it later, rather than pausing for a moment and observing it then and there……..

Our mentor Mona felt that the children need to learn how to observe more keenly, through   their eyes rather than their smart phones, they need to learn to pause and grasp things.

On November 13th by 2:30 when all the participants had come in the, they were just asked to stand in the studio Balcony and observe the landscape….. the texture of the trees, the colours, the ground etc.

 

Our Mentor Mona stood with them and hinted at the ways they could look at the different textures and colours. After that they were left to their own, to sketch.

Mona asked them to use only three colours in their work, and they were also allowed to use several spices for colours and textures.

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The work that they were to do on 13th was meant to be a preparatory sketch ….

All of them quickly began their work….

 

Unlike the other days one could see a disinterest in their works. Only after much coaxing did they divulge that they did not like working on landscapes much , this revelation lead to many more discussions about their interests and reading habits.

At the end our mentor suggested names of artist that each one of them had to look up and come, for the next session.

Looking forward to see, what challenges our Mentor has for them , in the next session…..

Partner a Master: Mona Rai… Day 1

The space of painting is often thought to be one of quiet contemplation, of refuge, seclusion and withdrawal from the world. For Mona Rai it is exactly the opposite: it is a space for experimentation and risk – taking, where danger can be courted and limits exceeded.

For Mona painting is a space, which allows things that are excluded from daily life to happen with passion, rigor and even rage. Her looming, square works epitomize her artistic attitude. Textures fascinate Mona Rai; dots, dashes, slashes, directional strokes and streaks create her particular style.

Mona fearlessly uses a verity of textures, materials and techniques in her works, and this is what she wants the children to explore through this workshop.

The first session of Partner a Master with Artist Mentor : Mona Rai began on 12th November at 2:30 pm.

The session commenced with an introduction to Mona and her works, the Participants were shown a short video produced by “Art1st” on the artist. The screening of the video was followed by few discussions and questions on Mona’s practice.

 

Our mentor also asked the participants about the curriculum they follow in their schools, and then asked them to choose various materials like: Bindi, Buttons, Canvas, Cloth etc. and make anything of their choice.

This exercise was meant to get a better understanding of the participants.

All the students were quick at making their material choices, and began working on their works immediately as they were to finish their works within 2 hours…..

The influence of the previous workshops was evident in their works….

They quickly began drawing….. but were taken aback as our Mentor strictly prohibited the use of pencils and pens!!!!!!!!!

Mona wanted them to engage with the materials directly and fearlessly……

While a few worked with the on going issue of Smog, most of them made faces and eyes and had a concept behind the works……

They were asked to stop as soon as the time limit was over, one could see them hurry and put some last minute strokes, seconds before the discussion…..

During the discussion Mona left them with a question…..

Why should there always be a concept behind their work?

Can they not do a work only for the sheer joy of exploration and creation?

Well that was a lot of food for thought for one day!!!!!!!!

 

 

23rd October, Day 2…

The Golden Mean: The state of In-Between

 

In Ancient Greek Philosophy, especially that of Aristotle, the Golden mean is the desirable middle between two extremes, one of excess and the other of deficiency.

For example, in the Aristotelian view, Courage is a virtue, but if taken to excess would manifest as recklessness, and, in deficiency, cowardice.

Gautam Buddha taught of the middle way, a path between the extremes of religious asceticism and worldly self-indulgence.

Confucious taught excess is similar to deficiency. A way of living in the mean is the way of life.

Our Histories and cultures have always talked about the state of in-between, and this is what the students explored though their art works, while working with our Mentor Sumedh Rajendran.

The second day of our workshop began at 10:30 am on 23rd October 2016. Everyone quickly resumed their works that they had started in the previous session.

 

The participants were required to cut and paste their works on three sheets of corrugated paper, in order to make the drawings free-standing.

Cutting and pasting sounded a bit too easy than it actually was. Our Mentor was constantly guiding them through all the technical hurdles.

By 4 pm everyone was ready with their works, and now it was time for installation. Two pillars were prepared on which works were to be nailed. Some of the works were free standing.

 

By 5pm, the perfect balance was struck by each one of them, it was evident in their works.

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Sumedh Rajendran/October 2016. Day 1.

Partner a Master session with Artist Mentor: Sumedh Rajendran began on 14th October 2016. It was a Seven hour long session…………

The Session was scheduled at Sumedh Rajendran’s Sculpture studio in Greater Noida. All the participants pooled and reached the studio at 10:30 am. The studio was unlike the one they would have imagined.

Studio based in the industrial area of Greater Noida was a Bicycle factory, which later became the studio of the Sculptor Sumedh Rajendran. Amidst the tall trees and the faint industrial sounds in the backdrop, the studio stands tall with its high walls and a gabled roof top.

Students were welcomed by our Mentor. The studio seemed like a factory to the students at first, as it was a huge hall with sculptures all around the space. Sumedh arranged some chairs for the participants outside in the open.

Our mentor began with asking the participants,

What is Art for them?

What they understand by the term “Being creative”?

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After a 20 minute discussion, while talking about his own works Sumedh Asked them to, draw something taking inspiration form their surroundings.

They were to take under consideration the extremes that they have experienced and how as individuals they adapt to those extremes. They were asked to express the state of being in the “In-Between” of two extremes.

It took the participants a little while to grasp what he meant………

After much discussions and speculations each one of them came up with a visual and discussed with our mentor.

After their ideas were in place, huge corrugated sheets were spread out for them to draw on.

Our mentor wanted them to draw freely with no inhibitions, use of digital images as reference was not allowed, as they had to use their imagination and experiences.

Students worked with utmost freedom, and confidence.

 

After seven hour long sessions of thought provoking discussions, making life size drawings, soothing music and some snacks…… the day was called quits at 5pm.

We meet next Sunday for another sessoin to continue exploring the

spaces……In-Between……….. two extremes.

 

By

Gopa Trivedi/Artist Mentor