Interviews By Larry Abbott
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Anita Fields
Osage


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LA: You've said that your work "is about transforming my dreams, thoughts and inspirations into clay objects and forms." 1 Could you talk about that process of transformation?

AF: I often begin with things that are based on memories, based on my emotions and how I feel toward whatever subject matter I happen to be working on at the time. My inspirations come from things that are important to me in my life. Some things that I'm working on right at the moment are based on the female spirit. I am inspired by the female role models who were very close to me, my aunts, my grandmother, my mother, and also my sister and daughter, and the incredible strengths that I have seen in these women. I was very close to my grandmother and many of the things that I really treasure came from her, and these were things that she treasured in her life. I'm talking about Osage honor blankets and ribbonwork blankets, for example. These were given to her or she had them made during her lifetime, and they were considered special items. We would get them out during ceremonial time to wear. I've always related to them. I admire the craftsmanship and how they were made, but now, at this time in my life, I like the metaphorical dimension. I use them as metaphors in relation to what they meant to my grandmother, what they symbolized for her, and what they symbolize to me at this time, and that has to do with our integrity as a people and how we feel about ourselves, the pride we take in wearing those clothes, the customs and traditions that they keep going within our culture. So a lot of my work is based on ideas derived from traditional clothing, and they become metaphors for the work that I do. They really are about how I feel about tribal clothing and the people who wear them. This is what my work talks about. It is also about knowing where I came from, knowing who my ancestors were, and the process of realizing who we are as individuals as we go down this road of life.

LA: What does the ribbonwork consist of?

AF: Ribbonwork is an appliqué of design that men, women, and children wear on their ceremonial clothing during our dances. There are four different colors and various geometric patterns. The Osage patterns are very geometric. The source originally was to identify your clan and your family. The men's breechcloth and legging designs are much more intricate and have more colors. There are bands of ribbon that trim the skirts and honor blankets women wear during a man's dance. Women can participate on the outside of the dance, but generally the man has the central position.

LA: You also do beaded purses.

AF: The purses come from a couple of places. I have an antique child's beaded purse which I've had since I was a little girl, something that my grandmother gave me. A lot of my inspiration comes from that. One of my aunts was an Osage woman who married into the Omaha tribe and she was given a beaded purse as a wedding gift. My memory of it is that it stayed in the same place over her lifetime. Every time I went to visit her this purse was in the same place. These pieces of clothing and the purses are metaphors, saying a lot about the kinds of feelings we have for one another when we do something. The objects I put inside the purses are made of clay and refer to the things that women would usually have, based on memories of my grandmother, who used to tie things like rings or coins up in little bundles using handkerchiefs. There's also a little hand mirror, which is a metaphor of looking at yourself, knowing who you are. There's a photograph, using a photographic process on clay, of my daughter wearing one of our traditional Osage blankets with ribbon work on it. I like using these objects as still lifes, each one telling a little story.

I used that same photograph in a triptych titled Elements of Her Being (1994). I experiment in a lot of ways trying to show the Osage ribbonwork with my clay, and I've never been satisfied with it; I haven't been able to do it justice, but I thought I could through a photograph. I used one of my grandmother's blankets to finally express my feelings about my children and about working in clay and doing the ribbon work. When I took the photograph my little son ran into the frame, and that capsulated it all for me right there.

LA: You've mentioned that over the past few years you've been doing slab and coil forms that are narrative in nature. 2 What kind of narratives do they speak of?

AF: I can give you an example. Two pieces that could relate to that are Woman of the Stars who Carry Bundles While They Dream (1993) and Elks Tooth Dress (1994). The first one is a piece that is a windowed box, and inside there are two feminine figures with little bundles in front of them. These figures go back to what I was saying about feminine sensibilities. They represent the spirit within all of us that makes us who we are, makes us all unique, and also makes those differences between us. We all have that spirit within ourselves. The little bundles in front of these figures also relate to our Osage culture. When we give away something to honor someone, we bring the items out in a little bundle. Within that bundle are the give-away items. When we have a give-away, we are sharing our material belongings and expressing our feelings toward other people. It is our way to honor our families and show respect to people who have done something good for us or our children. I utilize the bundle form because it symbolizes my beliefs and expressions of human emotions. This same piece has shutters on the outside of a shelf, giving the appearance of a window. The windowed form and the shutters represent the process of looking inside oneself, looking into one's soul trying to find the place where good dictates and flows and where our inspiration comes from. Most of the time when I use the shutters there will be a figure inside of what looks like a house structure. I like the representation of the house, of being yourself, of looking inside and getting to know where you're at in your own life, how you interact with others, the people you love, your family. There is a constant process of learning.

The first Elks Tooth Dress I made looks totally different from the ones I'm working on now, but the representation of what I'm saying is the same, and goes to my feelings about being a Native American woman. They are metaphors for the strength I have seen in my grandmother, my mother, my daughter, and my sister and aunts, and for the incredible love and spirituality they want to pass on. The dresses are one way of expressing this. There's also a correlation to the Osage ribbonwork. Because of my knowledge of this kind of sewing and making items for a tribal purpose, custom or tradition, I have a great respect for what Native people make throughout this country. I'm interested in what the objects stand for, in the beauty within these things, and how the clothing is made in a prayerful way, who is going to wear it, what it will be used for, and the intention for which it will be used. I wanted to find a way of bringing all these feelings together through the dresses, so the Elks Tooth Dress I make is not something you would see an Osage person wearing, but is more of an expression of my feelings about the clothing.

LA: It seems that your work is process-oriented, utilizing a wide range of materials.

AF: I had to think about the process of how I wanted the dresses to look. At first I was making them out of white earthenware. All of the ones I make today are handmade from porcelain clay because the smoking process is so much nicer. They may not always resemble a dress; sometimes they look like a shell decoration, but all are rakued, often with gold or metallic thread, and a gold luster glaze for the belt. I look at different styles of tribal clothing to get various patterns for the dresses, although they are not meant to look like a specific tribe's dress. The inspiration comes from different tribal dresses.

LA: How did you decide to use these particular materials?

AF: I experiment with all kinds of things. One of the places I studied was Oklahoma State University and I worked with Richard Bivins, who teaches ceramics there. I did a lot of experimentation during that time. I learned about different clay bodies, glazes, slips, and firing methods. I like the terra sigillata slips because of the soft, natural surfaces they produce. The raku glazes and firings produce a wide range of results and possibilities. Part of using all of these different processes available in clay is that the result is never the same. The process may be the same but the results aren't. I really like the spontaneous results that you get from experimenting with different processes, but there's always a point where you never know if anything is going to turn out or not. You put your faith in the process and hope that it's going to come out. A lot of things can happen in trying to reach different temperatures in firing, along with the cracking that goes along with clay. Working with the clay is a very involved process. The clay changes form and shape and goes through several transformations as I work on a piece. During this time my thoughts might change from the initial idea. The process allows me to work on an intuitive level with the clay, letting the clay guide my actions. Nothing is ever exact.

LA: The ceramic dresses are basically fluid in form, while the ribbon patterns are fairly exacting.

AF: For the ribbon work I probably wouldn't start deviating and going off on my own patterns because those patterns were taught to me in a certain way. The ribbon patterns do become a source of inspiration for the clay work, though, and sometimes I'll use ribbon designs on large ceramic platters. I feel completely free to do that. Technique-wise there's nothing similar to clay. The clay pieces aren't going to show the exact ribbon patterns, but they'll be something similar. I'll start out with a ribbonwork design but alter it to fit whatever I'm working on at that time. I may take a piece of paper and fold it into fours and start cutting with those designs in my mind, but they're not going to be the same patterns that I'd use on the ribbonwork. I think the correlation is knowing this art form, the ribbonwork, which is traditionally woman's work, and as an Osage person having that knowledge and repeating it in my clay work. There are also parallels when we talk about the narratives in my work. I have great admiration for the workmanship that I see go into ribbon pieces. I know how long it takes to make one of those, what the effort and the energy were, and why someone made one for somebody else. When I look at ribbonwork blankets and clothing I have a deep admiration and appreciation for the workmanship, energy, and effort it took. I feel that the correlation of the clay and the ribbonwork is the inspiration and the source of ideas it offers for my clay work.

LA: It sounds like work in one medium can lead you to another.

AF: I barely get finished with one piece and I have an idea how it will evolve into the next piece; even though they may be very similar, they are not the same. There is something in that process that sparks another idea in my imagination and it will lead me down the road to the next piece. I'll even have an idea in my head for what could be two years before I can finally execute it in a way that is acceptable to me.

The box and the heart of Heart Shelf (1991), and the smaller pieces from that time, were precursors to what I'm doing now. They were very straightforward, these little hearts on shelves. Some hearts are full, some are round, some are broken, but each signifies human emotions like pain and joy. Then in Starry Heart (1992), the figures move closer toward the larger and newer body of work, talking about the spirit within. They are figurative-looking, but they don't have physical features that a body would have because I'm more interested in portraying the spiritual part of ourselves.

LA: You work in both "traditional" and modern forms. What do you see as the role of the artist working this way?

AF: I think there's probably two ways you can approach this question. One of the ways is that you can look at the people who create clothing or objects for ceremonial use or for social interaction. These things are based on cultural knowledge that is passed on from one generation to the next and created for functional use, the kinds of things that make the tradition and culture alive. The artists who work in this manner have very important roles. Their works allow ritual and ceremony to continue, a means for the spirit to survive. But you can also look at an artist who does contemporary work as a Native American. For me, working in a modern form, my work expresses the essence of my being, my viewpoints, and the influences of my culture within my life. My work is inspired and influenced by my ties to tribal tradition.

LA: This touches on the role that the Native artist plays in the community.

AF: I think that for a Native American artist the role that we play is similar to any other culture. We have the opportunity to document events that are going on in the times that we know. We do it in the language that we understand the best, be it clay sculpture or dance or poetry or writing. We have an opportunity to truly relate our feelings and present in a true manner what impact historical events have had upon our people and our families and ourselves. My idea of art is that it's based on the experience that a person has had up to whatever point they are in their lives. For me, that would be expressing my ideas and emotions about the world around me and the people who I interact with.

LA: This links the arts of different cultures.

AF: Art provides a connection to other cultures. It is a way we can share and learn from one another. Art is a powerful communicator. It carries the message of who we are. Again, the role of the artist has always been to document the times, document what is going on in the here and now.

LA: Some artists document the times in a political way, while other artists deal more with the personal or the spiritual.

AF: I think Native American artists have a unique opportunity to address issues that have impacted on our lives and our communities. It's a good way to relay the truth in messages that we understand as Indian people. These messages are very different. They're going to be different from region to region and place to place and community to community. But in that context what's important is that we have an opportunity to show the truth as we know it from our point of view.

LA: As you look back over your career, how has your work evolved?

AF: I guess it all starts from childhood! Art was one thing that I related to over and over even as a child. I'll give you an example. One time when I was in my grade school art class, I didn't have art every day, it was once a week or something, but we were asked to make a collage out of construction paper of what we wanted to be when we grew up, and I made an artist. I remember that I always wanted to make things, wanting to sew or cut paper or glue, or go outside and play in the mud. So these experiences started early on for me and they were something I related to over and over again. I went to school at the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe and when I left there, I started having my family. I have three children, a married daughter who is nineteen, a son who is fifteen, and a son who is six. There was a long period when I would dabble in and out of things, and one of the things that I did when my daughter was very young was the ribbonwork. I kept doing that, but as far as doing either clay or painting, I did them periodically but not on a consistent basis. I balanced the needs of a family with my own need to make art. About six or seven years ago, I made a conscious evaluation of where I was at in my life. I had had a lot of experiences and jobs leading up to this point, but knew that art was the only thing that I really felt like I was ever supposed to do, so I decided to be true to myself. So my work has evolved out of that into what I do now, and I would say probably in the last three years it's really evolving into the things that I talked about earlier. To me, it's both a self-realization process and the ability to express that process. When I talk about knowing yourself, it's about joy and pain, those opposites that we encounter in life. I have an emotional connection to whatever piece I'm working at the moment. I think that's true probably for all of us. That doesn't bother me. I want people to be able to make their own interpretation when they see my work. It's exciting to be able to do that.

NOTES

1 Anita Fields, quoted in Contemporary Native American Artists: Reflections on Their Past. Susquehanna, PA: Susquehanna Art Museum, 1994, p. 9.

2 ibid.

SELECTED EXHIBITIONS

Contemporary Native American Artists: Reflections on Their Past, group exhibition, Susquehanna Art Museum, Susquehanna, PA, 1994

Women, Windows and Dreams: Ceramic Sculpture by Anita Fields, solo exhibition, Southern Plains Indian Museum and Crafts Center, Anadarko, OK, 1993

United States Ambassador's Show, group exhibition, Rabat, Morocco, 1992

SELECTED BIBLIOGRAPHY

Anita Fields, "Artist's Statement," Contemporary Native American Artists: Reflections on Their Past. Susquehanna, PA: Susquehanna Art Museum, 1994, p. 9.

"Anita Fields," Ceramics Monthly 42, 4 (April, 1994): 16.

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