A remarkable collection of contemporary Indian art awaits those who visit this year’s “In the Spirit” exhibit at Washington State History Museum. Encompassing a wide breadth of media – paintings, digital photography, drawings, weaving, sculpture, beading, carving and more – the 30-plus art works showcased on the walls, free standing and in display cases communicate a wealth of stories that tell of Native American views on life in today’s world.
Among the 25 Northwest Native artists showing in the juried exhibit, 14 are new to this year’s seventh annual event, which culminates in a cultural festival and Native arts market at the museum on Aug. 11.
To open “In the Spirit” on June 21, an artist’s meet-and-greet will be held at the museum, part of Tacoma’s Third Thursday Art Walk. The free opening reception begins at 6 p.m. The public is invited to come see the art and meet the tribal artists who created it – and to vote for a People’s Choice winner that will be announced during the Aug. 11 festival.
At this opening reception, winners in four other categories will be announced: Best of Show, Celebrating the Northwest, Celebrating Tradition and Celebrating Innovation. These will be chosen by a three-member jury panel of Lynette Miller, head of collections at Washington State History Research Center; Michael Holloman, member of the Colville Tribe, director of Northwest Museum of Arts and Culture Center’s Plateau Cultural Studies program, and director of Washington State University’s Plateau Center for American Indian Studies; and Deana Dartt-Newton of Oregon, a Coastal Chumash/Californio tribal member and curator at Portland Art Museum.
Produced through a partnership between The Evergreen State College Longhouse Education and Cultural Center and Washington State Historical Society, “In the Spirit” continues to grow each year. Evergreen Longhouse curators obviously did an incredible job of gathering Native art from across the Northwest, as evidenced by the jury panel’s final selections for the exhibit. Every artist chosen to show at “In the Spirit” this year possesses such a strong and individually unique vision and aesthetic that every single piece in the collection has its own “wow factor.” Not enough space is allowed on this newspaper page to give due homage to every artist’s submissions, so the only way to fully appreciate the impact of the collection is to take time to experience it for yourself.
Upon entering the exhibit, visitors are first greeted by Jeffrey Veregge’s (Port Gamble S’Klallam Tribe) two brilliant gilcée (high-quality ink jet) framed prints of classic American comic book superheroes rendered as totems – Batman as “The Bat” and Spiderman titled “Amazing.” By so deftly combining traditional Native American spirit artistry with modern pop icons, Veregge most succinctly sums up the “spirit” behind the event.
According to his written statement accompanying these two pieces, Veregge tells of how he discovered new inspirations for his art after many years of studying more classic Native American art styles. Now he is telling his own, personal stories and in the process unleashing his inner “uber-geek,” as he calls it. “The works I’m now creating are my part of my own history. They reflect over 38 years of my personal interests in comic books, superheroes, action figures, science fiction, cartoons, toys, film and television.”
A striking piece further in the exhibit is the oil-on-canvas “After Boarding School: In Mourning” by Kaila Farrell-Smith of Oregon’s Klamath Tribe. A young woman’s face Farrell-Smith rendered in many colors reveals a childhood stolen forever by those who would force the young woman, and her schoolmates, to assimilate into the dominant white culture. Her hair is cut off at her neck. Her eyes stare outward but not in defeat, saying more than words could.
Farrell-Smith explains in her artist’s statement: “This portrait is about the embodiment of power in indigenous women’s identity. Compositionally, the gaze is focused on the viewer, revealing strength beneath the veil of historical genocide. By painting the woman at a large scale and with expressive color, I am returning her spirit of resistance and survival to her and to the untold stories.”
Turning to the weaving, beading and textile work on display, Misty Kalama of the Puyallup Tribe submitted two of her wearable dancing skirts. “She Who Spirit Dances” is made of hand-spun wool and hand made native plant dye (madrona bark and copper), beaver fur and copper cones. “Raven Enlightens the World” is made of wool yarn with commercially dyed colors, wool/acrylic blend warp, arctic fox fur, copper cones and handspun tassels. Together, they form a contemporary take on old and new ways to create traditional regalia, and both are stunning in their craftsmanship. Each piece tells its own story, which viewers can read in the artist’s statement accompanying each piece. “She Who Spirit Dances” tells the story of the sacred, interwoven relationships among plant and animal people. Of “Raven Enlightens the World” she writes: “The greatest wealth that Raven enlightened the world with is compassion. In my Salish culture, a person that is generous with gifts and helps others is considered more wealthy than a person who possesses things for himself.”
“Contemporary Fishing Net and Spear” by Charles Bloomfield is sure to get viewers thinking. The spear is made of re-purposed telephone wires, cables and computer parts, and the net is made of perfectly arranged orange prescription medication bottles. “For many of us aboriginal people,” Bloomfield writes, “gone are the days of traditional food gathering. Our lives now rely on the use of modern technology to earn income that is then used to purchase food. This means we have become removed from our long-held fishing traditions. Modernity comes with a cost. Balance is now found in the knowledge passed down by our ancestors as well as learning what is now.”
There is so much more to see and experience at “In The Spirit,” which will remain up for view for the next two months. Museum hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Sunday. Learn more at www.washingtonhistory.org.