Chickasaw Nation – Visual Arts

I wrote this paper for NAS 1013 (Intro to Native American Studies). The prompt was to discuss some aspect of modern Native American life based on what we find in a given tribe’s newspaper archives.

 

“The study of arts and humanities highlights culture by expressing the beauty, strength, intelligence and spirit of the people and enhances the rich legacy of who Chickasaws were, who they are and who they will be.”*

 

The visual arts are evidently a significant aspect of Chickasaw culture. Of all the newspaper editions from January 2019 through April 2020, every single one featured at least one article about some form of visual art, often on the front page. Topics ranged from festivals and showcases to classes and competitions, from painting and sculpture to fashion design and filmography. Art is a means to express cultural identity and to preserve cultural heritage. Through this art, one can understand how the Chickasaw Nation views its past, present, and future.

Although art programs have been cut from many schools, the Chickasaw community is still committed to supporting art education. The Chickasaw Arts Academy is a two-week summer program for students between 8 and 18 years of age, and it features training in both the visual and performing arts with curriculum that is deeply rooted in Chickasaw culture. Younger students receive instruction in a broad range of subjects, while older students choose specific subjects on which they wish to focus. The experience culminates in a showcase and arts gala where students can display or perform their work. With art programs being cut from many schools, this program is often the only source of art education available to students, although some communities have access to after-school art programs at local galleries. The resounding success of the Academy demonstrates how greatly the community values artistic talent being passed on to the next generation. For adults, there are beadwork classes, moccasin making classes, and classes for numerous other traditional artforms that are regularly held at various locations across the Chickasaw Nation. These are valuable opportunities for tradition to be shared so that historical artistic methods are not lost.

Due to the great importance of art in the community, the Chickasaw Nation holds many art festivals and conferences throughout the year. Perhaps the most popular is the Artesian Arts Festival, held each May. This intertribal event features a variety of art, both traditional and modern, and includes competitions for a wide range of artistic media. In 2019, more than 11,000 people attended. In addition, the Native Creativity Fashion Show, the Holba’ Pisachi’ Native Film Festival, and the Imanoli Creative Writers Conference were all hosted by the Chickasaw Nation in 2019. The goal of each of these events was to share expressions of Native American culture that are both sensitive to history and relevant in modern times. The Native Creativity Fashion Show showcased a variety of modern designs that were inspired by each designer’s cultural heritage; design techniques are often deeply rooted in tradition and memories, yet they are applied to modern ideas and styles to create a unique marriage of old and new. This is a common theme in much of Native American art, as there is often a great desire to preserve the incredible craftsman techniques of old while still developing cutting-edge art that can be appreciated by a modern audience. In the film industry, this theme is expressed differently. The Holba’ Pisachi’ Native Film Festival featured the screening of nearly twenty Native American films, each with the same goal of telling the correct version of Native American stories. From its inception, the film industry has been dominated by non-Native perspectives, so the Chickasaw Nation developed its own film industry to give Natives an opportunity to tell their own story. Just as with other forms of art, these films aim to preserve ancestral perspectives and values while maintaining relevance in the modern day.

Further evidence of the importance of art in Chickasaw culture can be found in two galleries located on the reservation. The Chokma’si Gallery displays and sells art from the Chickasaw Nation and other Southeastern Native tribes. The purpose of the gallery is to benefit the community by providing evidence of the evolving and thriving Chickasaw culture. The ARTesian Gallery and Studios contains rotating exhibits of local artist work and several art studios where in-house artists and other locals can work. The in-house artists often do demonstrations for visitors and teach classes throughout the year. The main goal of these galleries is to get the local community involved in art, either through art appreciation or actual involvement in art creation. But the exhibit that Chickasaw artists are most proud of is the Visual Voices: Contemporary Chickasaw Art touring exhibition, which features 57 artworks by 15 Chickasaw artists. The exhibit premiered in June 2018 at the Fred Jones Jr. Museum of Art at the University of Oklahoma. It has also been displayed in museums in Mississippi, New Mexico, and North Carolina. The traveling exhibit provides a valuable opportunity for people outside the Native American community to appreciate the talents of Chickasaw artists.

Chickasaw artists of all ages are widely recognized for their artistic talent. Kaylee Martin won Best of Show in the youth division at the Red Earth Festival in 2019 for her metalwork sculpture of a buffalo, and this is the third time in four years that a Chickasaw student has won the top honor. Also in 2019, Mary Ruth Barnes received a national honor from the National Society of the Daughters of the Revolution for her life of artistic creativity and her commitment to serving others with her talents, and Daniel Worcester received a Medal of Honor for Community Service during the Governor’s Arts Awards. Worcester is well-known in the Native American arts community, as he has received numerous awards for his bladesmith skills, including countless first place ribbons at the Red Earth Festival and being named the Red Earth Honored One in 2013 for his support and influence of younger Native American artists. He has also been a part of the Chickasaw Hall of Fame since 2009. These awards do more than recognize artistic prowess; they also demonstrate the value placed on community enrichment through the arts. Chickasaw artists are not only highly skilled in their crafts, but also community leaders who strive to be positive influences for the younger generations.

The Chickasaw Nation takes great pride in its local artists, so the newspaper often highlights their accomplishments. For example, 18-year-old Abby Kelly was featured on the front page of the Chickasaw Times in January of 2020 for winning the Chickasaw Nation Butterfly Art Contest. Additionally, artists such as Dustin Mater, Brent Deramus, Joshua Hinson, Donna Welch, and Lance Straughn have been recognized for their creative, modern styles that are often inspired or influenced by tribal history. Much of Mater’s work depicts traditional Chickasaw people, but with modern artistic methods. For example, he painted a man standing in a canoe, but from an aerial perspective.  He is inspired by jazz musicians and Picasso while always looking to the future for new techniques. Deramus is an 18-year-old Choctaw artist who works in the Chickasaw Nation’s Creative Services. He takes modern items, like skateboards and T-shirts, and paints on modern themes combined with traditional symbols. He also makes copper jewelry that is intended to be used for stomp dances. Hinson builds waterfowl decoys—items which are distinctly not of Chickasaw origin—and incorporates Chickasaw symbolism into the design. In doing so, he unites his passion for duck-hunting with his love for his Chickasaw heritage. Welch crafts gourds into both functional and display works of art that are intended to demonstrate the connection between mankind and nature. Her use of gourds is inspired by their traditional use in Native American society while her symbolism is inspired by traditional Native American beliefs, yet the end result is a very modern piece of art. Straughn has traditionally painted realistic impressionisms of Native American life, but he has recently discovered what he calls “spirit paintings.” He believes these new paintings are spiritually inspired so that the ideas are coming from somewhere other than himself. The work of these artists demonstrates how important cultural heritage is to the Chickasaw people. The past, present, and future are inseparable, so one cannot look to the future without honoring the past.

Not only is it important for artists to honor the past with their work, artists also strongly believe in the importance of passing their cultural motivations and skills down to the next generation. This conviction is one that is held by the Chickasaw community at large. Brenda Kingery is an artist who has been entered into the Chickasaw Hall of Fame because of her work teaching third-world women how to express their cultures through embroidery. This empowers women by giving them both a voice and a source of income, as the embroidered textiles are subsequently sold across the United States and Canada. She firmly believes that art is an essential method of passing down history and culture to the next generation, and the fact that she has been so prestigiously recognized for her work demonstrates that rest of the Chickasaw community agrees. J. Daniel Worcester (the son of the renowned Daniel Worcester) provides another example of this value. He is a metalworker like his father, and he hopes to pass his skills down to his own son when he comes of age. Because of his belief in the importance of passing down everything he knows to the next generation, he teaches metal working at the Chickasaw Arts Academy each summer. In this way, the art form and associated tribal heritage can be preserved for many years to come. The Arts Academy is an essential way in which Chickasaw artists can pass down their skills to the next generation. It is not enough to preserve tribal heritage in one’s own artwork; one must also ensure that the next generation has the skills to preserve the heritage as well.

The Chickasaw Nation highly values the visual arts, both as a method of expressing new ideas and preserving the old. They are dedicated to providing art education for both children and adults, and they host several festivals and conferences throughout the year in order to engage the public in the arts. Chickasaw artists are highly talented. Their works are displayed in two galleries on the reservation and in a travelling exhibit that has been viewed across the country, they have received numerous awards both for their artistic talent and their dedication to serving the community, and they are masters of preserving cultural heritage in their work and passing it down to the next generation.

Works Cited

“Abby Kelly named Dynamic Women butterfly art winner” Chickasaw Times, pages 1 and 8, January 2020.

“Annual Chickasaw Arts Academy June 15-26, July 11-24” Chickasaw Times, page 5, February 2020.

“Artisan Arts Festival a success; Navajo artist ‘Best of Show’” Chickasaw Times, pages 1 and 2, June 2019.

“Artesian Gallery & Studios offers Chickasaw artists a place to showcase their works of art” Chickasaw Times, page 8, January 2019.

“Arts Academy marks 15 years of developing students” Chickasaw Times, pages 1 and 5, September 2019.

“Chickasaw artist crafts decoys to honor ancestral hunters” Chickasaw Times, page 2, February 2019.

“Chickasaw artist Daniel Worcester honored during Governor’s Arts Awards” Chickasaw Times, page 2, May 2019.

“Chickasaw artist Dustin Mater employs new methods that invite modern perspective” Chickasaw Times, page 2, March 2020.

“Chickasaw artist forges new life creating works of art from steel” Chickasaw Times, page 2, August 2019.

“Chickasaw artist Kingery’s ‘Threads of Blessing’ helps Third World women” Chickasaw Times, page 3, September 2019.

“Chickasaw artist Mary Ruth Barnes honored by National DAR” Chickasaw Times, page 2, May 2019.

“Chickasaw artist’s ‘In.Sight’ on display at Tulsa’s McKeon Center for Creativity” Chickasaw Times, page 2, April 2019.

“Chickasaw artist’s work evolves, expresses ‘spirit painting’” Chickasaw Times, page 2, March 2019.

“Chickasaw bladesmith takes top honors again at Red Earth” Chickasaw Times, page 15, July 2019.

“Chickasaw screenwriter, producer uses life experiences to drive storytelling” Chickasaw Times, page 2, November 2019.

*“Chickasaw youth artist Kaylee Martin captures ‘Best of Show’ at Red Earth” Chickasaw Times, page 2, July 2019.

“Choctaw artist creates Southeastern images through multiple avenues” Chickasaw Times, page 4, January 2020.

“Chokma’si Gallery offers great spot to study, acquire quality Native American artwork” Chickasaw Times, page 3, January 2020.

“Holba’ Pisachi Native Film Festival features movies created by Native artists” Chickasaw Times, pages 2 and 3, October 2019.

“Native Creativity Fashion Show a study of style” Chickasaw Times, pages 1 and 4, September 2019.

“Visual Voices Chickasaw art tour coming to N.C.” Chickasaw Times, page 2, December 2019.

“Visual Voices touring exhibition featured through June 2 in Mississippi” Chickasaw Times, pages 2 and 3, March 2019.

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