I am a self-employed artist, having supported myself exclusively with my art for over 30 years. Although I launched my career in the early 1980’s with my hand-colored black and white photographs, I don’t consider myself a photographer…nor a painter, a silversmith, a glass worker or storyteller even though I have proficiency within all these genres and more. Rather, I consider myself an artist who chooses the medium that best expresses a statement, usually one that addresses human rights issues, especially those that affect native people today.
As a teenager, I worked for a summer at my tribe’s Qualla Arts and Crafts Cooperative in Cherokee NC, where I became familiar with the work of top Cherokee artists and traditional arts. That experience led to a job with the Indian Arts and Crafts Board where I became involved with organizing exhibitions for native artists and photo documenting the gathering of raw materials and preparing them for Cherokee basket making, carving and other crafts. After graduating from college, I was commissioned by the Department of the Interior/Indian Arts and Crafts Board to illustrate in pen and ink 20 traditional Cherokee basket patterns. These drawings taught me the math and rhythm of basket weaving and convinced me that I could probably make a basket, but I never had a desire to try until 2008.
I became politically active with my art in the early 1990’s in response to America’s quincentennial (the country’s 500 year celebration of Columbus blundering onto our shores). Using a variety of multi-media techniques with photography, I created several bodies of work that addressed human rights issues unique to native people, such as Honest Injun, a series of hand-painted black and white photographs of commercial products that use Indian names or images to hawk their wares;
Reclaiming Cultural Ownership; Challenging Indian Stereotypes, a body of 36 black and white documentary-style photographs that show Indian people as they really are, challenging the way Indian people are portrayed every day;
Kituwah Motherland, a double-exposed, hand-tinted black and white photograph, which helped to raise awareness about the corporate giant Duke Power and their plans to build a power plant overlooking the most sacred place to the Cherokee, the Kituwah Mound. This piece was used to raise money for grass roots efforts to legally investigate options for the Cherokee people who felt this spiritual mecca was in danger.
Vagina Monologues was created in support of the reading of the play by the same name to raise awareness of the incredibly high statistics of domestic violence and sexual abuse in Indian Country while High Stakes, Tribes’ Choice, two black and white photographs tinted with a high grade glitter, illustrate the tension between the glitz of casinos and traditional values.
While these art pieces and the accompanying lectures I presented about stereotypes and racism expressed my native point of view, they weren’t as successful in educating and encouraging dialogue as I’d hoped. Although I did find the occasional enlightened individual, the more common response was for an audience to retreat as soon as possible, or more unpleasantly, to engage in hostile finger pointing. Fortunately, I had an idea in 2008 about creating a work that addressed sovereignty and decided that a traditional single-weave basket shape would be an interesting way to present the friction between state and tribal government.
This paper basket was met with surprise and interest, encouraging me to pursue this technique by tackling the more difficult double-weave. A double-weave basket is very tricky to weave as it starts on the interior bottom and is woven up the sides to the desired height. The splints are turned and woven back down the sides and finished on the bottom, with no obvious indication of beginning or end.
I will mention here that the usual way a native person learns a traditional craft is by the repeated observation of someone creating these works from start to finish, usually a family member, thus passing tricks of the trade from one generation to another. Since I no longer live in NC but in Oklahoma and no one in my family weaves baskets, I taught myself by carefully examining a finished basket. My first double-weave (Sealed Fate) took me over a year to figure out and was completed in 2011; when I showed it to friends at the Museum of the Cherokee Indian, they identified me as the 14th living Eastern Cherokee who had mastered this technique. My next basket (Educational Genocide) was a lidded double-weave, created with a photo woven into it, which won Best of Show at Red Earth Indian Art Show in 2012. To date, I have woven over 230 more baskets.
I have since been awarded multiple fellowships, namely the 2015 United States Artists Fellowship, 2013 Eiteljorg Contemporary Art Fellowship, 2013 Smithsonian Artist Research Fellowship, 2013 SWAIA Discovery Fellowship and 2014 Native Arts and Culture Artist Fellowship. These grants all financially afford me the opportunity to continue the research I started at the Smithsonian, studying historical baskets, documents, letters, treaties, etc that I use as sources of inspiration to create more work.
My intention is to present historical and contemporary issues that continue to be relevant to Indian people today, to a world that still relies on Hollywood as a reliable informant about Indian life.
It was a thrilling accident to discover that the vessel shapes of baskets are a non-threatening vehicle to educate audiences. But even more exciting, I am observing viewers literally leaning into my work, eager to learn more about the history of this country’s First People which can lead to the next wonderful step of engaging in honest dialogue about the issues that still plague Indian people today. America has believed a one-sided history for too long. Acknowledging and addressing these past atrocities is movement towards true racial healing… which has always been the goal of my work as an artist.