Interviews By Larry Abbott
.
Bently Spang
Northern Cheyenne

Main
Email
Sara Bates
Rick Bartow
Pat Deadman
Joe Feddersen
Anita Fields
Harry Fonseca
Bob Haozous
Melanie
Printup Hope
Bobby Martin
Gerald McMaster
George Morrison
Shelley Niro
Joanna Osburn-Bigfeather
Diego Romero
Mateo Romero
Bently Spang
Ernie Whiteman
Richard Ray Whitman
Alfred Young Man
Related Links
For The Community
.

LA: Maybe we could start with the sculpture you completed a few years ago at a park in Aurora, Colorado.

BS: The park was commissioned by Arapaho County in Denver to commemorate Cheyenne and Arapaho people, so it's not designed like a typical park with picnic tables and jungle gyms. The overall design incorporates some of the motifs of Native people -- the circle, the entrance from the east -- and some of the significant plants and trees favored by my people and the Arapahos. The park is called Tsistsistas/Hinonoei Park, or, in English, Cheyenne/Arapaho Park. I wanted to create a piece that honored the memory of the grandfathers and grandmothers that made it possible for me to exist today. The piece is called Hoxovestave, which means "Journey Across Country," and it is really about movement and traveling, which is what life was about for my tribe in the old days. It's also about my life in that I traveled a lot growing up, and I continue to travel, but I always have and always will consider the Northern Cheyenne reservation my home. So with the idea of travel in mind I decided to use the travois structure as one of the central motifs. The piece is made up of two thirty-five foot long, fourteen-inch thick lodgepole pine travois supported by a steel I-beam tree form. Each of the travois carries a different, I don't want to say symbol, identifier of both Northern and Southern Cheyennes and Arapahos. One travois points north to honor the northern groups and one points southeast to honor the southern groups. The tree supporting the travois represents the knowledge and history that supported the existence of our two groups and brought them together as allies. When I was young we hunted or picked berries on the res, and I remember my grandma Spang or my dad would comment on certain old dead trees.


"The Healing," 1992, cast aluminum, bronze, catlinite, sinew

Click link or on image to see larger size
**All images courtesy of the artists**
All images copyright of the artists
**All reproduction rights controlled by the artists**

They would say, "Oh, that's a good one!" I knew they were talking about firewood, but I also got the sense that they had a real respect for the tree for living so long. So I wanted to pull in respect for that tree, that it had seen a lot of history and that it had a lot of knowledge to offer. I tried to capture the character that these old trees have. It's a pretty good-sized piece; it's about twenty feet tall and fifty feet across in both directions. It's pretty substantial.

It mirrors some of what I've done in the past in that I combine natural materials, man-made materials, to talk about my existence today as a contemporary Native American in a contemporary setting but with information from my cultural past that I use in my life and in my work. Within that combination, there's a tension that exists between the man-made and the natural materials. It's an inherent tension, so I try to create a balance of some sort between the two because they don't want to co-exist in the same space. They want to stand alone, one or the other. So it's always a challenge to get them to work together.

LA: The park area will also have some poems by Lance Hensen?

BS: Lance is Southern Cheyenne, and he created two poems specifically for the entrance to the park, about thirty feet from my piece. Each poem is etched on sandstone slabs and has the Cheyenne version and an English translation below it. They are really powerful poems and create a wonderful mood when you enter the park. They also work well with what I was after in my piece.

LA: The piece uses steel I-beams and lodgepole pine logs. Some of your other pieces combine cast aluminum, bronze, sinew and bone.


"The Beginning of the End for the End of the Trail," 1994, mixed media/bronze
Click link or on image to see larger size
**All images courtesy of the artists**
All images copyright of the artists
**All reproduction rights controlled by the artists**
BS: The sinew and the bone definitely fight the metal when I'm working with it. It's a real tension I've consciously worked with because it's like the metal wants to destroy the sinew; in a lot of ways, it wants to rip it apart. There's a kind of fragility when I think of the earth, of nature, and when man encounters nature too often it gets destroyed. I'm working with a balance that I think is much the same as what my ancestors tried to do in their artwork. The sinew also represents an honoring of animals that have a strong physical presence on the earth. I grew up hunting and I was taught by my father and uncles what place the animal has in our lives as far as sustaining us. I was taught to respect the animal. There was an understanding that you don't shoot something that you won't eat, or if you don't need all the meat the rest goes to the community, to the elders, or others to help in some way. Most of the time I use sinew from animals that my Dad and I have hunted.

A: You wrote for the The Spirit of Native America exhibition that "the specific materials I use also serve a metaphorical function in that they support the layers of meaning built into each piece. Each material, and the motif it assumes, has its own diverse symbolic life." 1

BS: Well, in The Healing, the aluminum stands for or is a metaphorical reference to the modern world, the contemporary world. Aluminum doesn't appear naturally; it's an alloy, a creation of man. Then it's combined with a little bit of sinew and a piece of catlinite, pipestone. It's the only time I've ever used pipestone and I won't use it again. There's a lot of controversy around the use of that material for decorative purposes. For tribes that use the pipe catlinite has significant spiritual power. To use the material otherwise is considered disrespectful, but I didn't know that at the time. But, in my mind, I'm not using it decoratively. I'm honoring that stone and talking about its significance within my history. It's something that appeared in my work because I was drawn to it. This piece isn't for sale. Once I understood the significance of it to the people, then I backed away from it. That's something that I'm always dealing with, that tension, that line you walk as an artist, as a Native artist especially, because some information should stay within the tribe and other parts of it, I pull out and talk about from a personal standpoint. I always try to deal with it from my own personal perspective and not define it for other people. It's how the material manifests itself in my mind. So as a Native artist I assign metaphorical meaning to my materials, but that's not something new or revolutionary. Native artists have always done that. I'm just continuing that tradition in these times in a more personal way.

LA: You also mention that your "pieces are personal icons. An exploration of and veneration of self, they are meant to be autobiographical in nature but also function as a microcosm of life." 2

BS: Right. All that I can speak about is my own personal experience, how I see the world. What interests me most is talking about today's existence because, as Native people, I think our past has been so romanticized. But the past does exist in my work; it manifests itself in more of a personal way, but I'm always trying to talk about the combination of the past and present. The problem with only talking our past is that that's all the general public wants to focus on. Everyone feels that they know who Native people are and yet they continually put us in one time period. I think that happens for several reasons: one, this country has a lot of residual guilt about the genocide inflicted on Native people and it's easier to deal with us as "Noble Savages" who don't exist anymore, and two, there has always been a need for this country to define Native people for political gain and personal exploitation. These are issues that I've dealt with recently in my own writing. I think it is essential that we speak out, and start defining ourselves to ourselves.
"Culture Cache #1," 1993, mixed media sculpture
Click link or on image to see larger size
**All images courtesy of the artists**
All images copyright of the artists
**All reproduction rights controlled by the artists**
I want people to know that I'm part of a living culture. Today, as a contemporary Cheyenne, I go home and the past is all around me in many ways -- the land, pow wows, the regalia that is still used. We're still capable of doing a lot of the things that were done in the past and creating structures that existed in the past, like medicine wheels, sundance lodges, and sweat lodges. But the information has been adapted for use today; some of it is held pretty closely and watched over, which it should be, but little bits of it are allowed to adapt to contemporary life. That's just a mirror of the culture itself. The definite strength of Native culture has been the ability to adapt.

LA: Do you try to explore that in your work?

BS: I'm trying to understand how the artists of the past created work. In '92 I spent six weeks at the Smithsonian as a Community Scholar Fellow, looking at the old pieces from my tribe and from other Plains groups, just being with the pieces, and trying to understand what the artists were feeling and trying to communicate. I came away with a couple of things. One was that I saw how different materials were adapted and brought together, so I saw pieces that were combinations of the natural and man-made materials. For instance, a beaded buckskin dress would have glass beads that were brought by the French, and buckskin that was from an animal, and there was no hesitancy about combining these different materials. This way of adapting materials from outside the culture for use within the tribe is a powerful example of how adaptable my tribe and others were. And during this process, they were always keeping the core identity of the tribe intact. There was a dynamic happening of both change and preservation. The amazing thing is that all that information shows up in the artwork. I was really able to see how much the artwork actually defined the tribe. In my work I try to comment about that and to carry that sensibility forward. Seeing these old pieces also helped me to realize how different the art made by Indians is, as compared to the art of Western culture. It functioned in a completely different way in the Native community by fulfilling the spiritual, personal, social and political needs of the community.

I saw one piece that was pretty amazing, a baby's bonnet. It was fully beaded and around the neck area were these little buttons that were tied on with sinew. They looked like brass buttons, but when I looked really closely at them I realized they were actually rifle cartridges. They used the ends of the cartridges which had been cut off and the primers knocked out so they looked like little buttons. It was just so ironic and so powerful that the rifle cartridges, symbols of death, could be converted into something so beautiful and so nurturing. The other thing I learned while I was at the Smithsonian was that there is a lot of heaviness and sadness around those pieces. The experience helped me to understand that these pieces have a lifeforce still within which must be respected. They are more than just beautiful objects. They need to be dealt with in a way that is specific to the needs of the tribe that made them. It's like they were a person separated from their loved ones. That affected some of my work later on; it was really difficult to be around those pieces because they wanted to be home.

LA: Did the specific imagery of some of those older pieces come into your work?

BS: Not so much the specific imagery. I went into the Smithsonian fellowship thinking I would draw from some of the design work, and I have used some stylized geometric design in the past, but the most important thing I came away with was that feeling, that essence of the work, and the understanding of how pulling those materials together and making them work somehow, created a sense of harmony and a balance that transcended the piece itself.

LA: You did a series about encasing objects in drawers. Did that come from seeing those objects at the Smithsonian?

BS: Out of that Smithsonian experience came a brief series called the Culture Cache Series. It felt so strange experiencing these pieces in drawers and enclosures. I would pull the whole tribe off a shelf and take everything out of the box, examine it, and then the whole tribe would go back into the box, put on the shelf, and disappear. I had the uncomfortable sensation that my culture just disappeared each time I did this. I felt like I was being physically separated from my ancestors as I put their artwork back on the shelf. I did the series to talk about that feeling and to talk about how the heart of my people shouldn't be put in a box and "vanished." As contemporaray Native people we're an extension of that past, we're part of an uninterrupted continuum of existence on this continent. We're not a separate entity that has no history, no connection to our past. My cultural identity has been handed down from my great-great-grandmother, to my great-grandmother, and so on down the line. The next generation has always been taken care of.

So I did these pieces involving drawers with objects in them. Culture Cache #1 has a red stone in a drawer that represents the heart of my people; it even looks like a human heart, but it's situated so that the drawer won't close. There are objects outside of the drawer that show a transition, things coming back through repatriation and the persistent self-healing of our culture. The cocoon figure in my work represents transition, change and growth, like what happens within a cocoon. The Smithsonian experience affected my understanding of the place that we've had in the history of this country, because in order to be in a museum, you have to be defined as less than human by the dominant culture. That allows the scientific community to look at every aspect of you, pick you apart, put you in little boxes and then file you away. Of course, it's an extension of Manifest Destiny. That started some other wheels turning in my head about how we need to articulate our own existence, because as artists and writers that's essentially what we're doing. It also helped me understand how much we've been looked at from the outside and how much we've been defined from the outside and how many misconceptions have come from that. There's some good information out there, too, that's come from different sources, but I would have to say that from my perspective, I'm more interested in what Indian people have said and are saying about themselves. Those are the real Indian experts, the Indian people themselves.

LA: The three pieces in the series were cast aluminum and bronze with steel, bone, and stone. Did you fabricate the drawers?

BS: Most of the work was cast. I made molds and cast each piece in one shot, and then added other materials to the cast metal framework. It was interesting because in both of the aluminum pieces in the series I was trying some new techniques with the casting process, so it took about six losses to get those two aluminum pieces. The bronze was easy, but the aluminum was new. I was trying some things that didn't normally work in the aluminum casting process so it was pretty amazing to to get everything to pour all at once. So it's not really fabricated; the mold itself is fabricated and then you throw caution to the wind and cast it. Hopefully, you get the whole thing because the aluminum cools pretty fast.

LA: You mentioned earlier the cocoon figure, which is a recurrent image of yours. The Healing Series (1992) was comprised of drawings, one18 feet by 54 inches, and a number of sculptures. Could you talk about that series?

BS: The Healing Series came out of my understanding of my identity within both worlds. I was raised Cheyenne both on and off the reservation, and I always understood that I was Cheyenne, but as I got older, I had to educate myself about who Cheyenne people were through my relatives and through other sources. The Healing Series talks about how important it is for me to know who I am, to have a foundation of identity, and within that identity comes self-healing and a sense of peace with the self. There's not a struggle about where am I from, who am I, all that, it's just an understanding. The big drawing represents the process of discovery, self-discovery, and therefore it's a space for self-healing. The figure in the center represents myself going through that discovery process, that transition and growth; then all around it are tools for that process. The larger metal sculptures function almost like shields, which are very specific to me, as shields were in the past. There are two shields to represent the duality of my identity. The outer sculptural materials are actual tools for use in that healing process. They're simplifications of different pieces from the Indian community I saw growing up, but they also talk about the importance of what might be considered ordinary objects, like a wooden stick. There is real significance, real power, in a simple object like a stick; it has a lifeforce, an essence. To honor it as a tool reminds us that the earth is important and needs to be honored. The actual materials themselves have the metaphorical functions we talked about earlier. The drawing functions as a backdrop, but also as a place to express energy. The dry materials I use and the way I use them are very intuitive, I don't know if I like that word, but it just happens. I didn't plan the piece out a whole lot, I just gathered the sculptural elements, put them over the drawing, and then went for it. I allowed things to happen. I try to do that with a lot of my pieces. I plan them to a certain extent, the basic structure, but then as I'm making a piece, I just leave it wide open and whatever happens, happens, and it always surprises me. It's a real eye-opener.

LA: This series included a colograph on rice paper, so you were utilizing a number of different media.

BS: In the drawing and print-making media I pulled the cocoon figure out and focused on that. That's been really enlightening, understanding that figure and what it represents to me and discovering that as I get older there are periods when I feel like I'm in that cocoon, like it's wrapped around me. It protects me during that change process, but it also blinds me to the process in a way. I don't know that I'm going through a change or a growth period at the time. I just know it hurts or it's difficult or whatever. So the cocoon reminds me that that process is going to continue to happen throughout my life and that it's something that I should get used to, because change is ultimately a positive thing. It teaches me, it helps me, it's something I can look back and say, "I was able to get through the experience. I was able to survive hardship or trial in my life and so I know that I can meet any kind of challenge." The cocoon is a reminder of that; it's been a healing symbol for me. That's the function of art in my life. It's been a very positive force. It's always been my intent to communicate to people the power of art not only in my life, but also that it can touch other peoples' lives more than just aesthetically. Art is an integral part of life. It's a barometer of our lives. And in the old days I think it was like that.

I'm also using other motifs and taking them in different directions, like the braid. I've used it in other works, but it came out most significantly in an installation I did for the Heard Museum Invitational [Between a Rock and a Hard Place, 1994]. It was really interesting how the braid re-emerged in that piece. Since I've been in Madison [Wisconsin, where Spang went to graduate school; he has since moved to Montana] I've been working with hot glass and was trying to make bone forms out of glass one time. I had all my glass built up and shaped like a bone and I went back into the glory hole with it and was reheating it. The longer the piece became the more difficult it was to control it and keep it from flipping. Finally it flipped back on itself and I got angry. I thought, all right, I'm just going to spin it. I spun it and spun it and it kept spinning back on itself; it was melting. Then I pulled it out of the glory hole and held it up and all of a sudden there was a braid. I hadn't planned that. It was another manifestation of letting the process happen. Then it turned into a series of braids. The piece talks about the the challenge of living in two worlds as a contemporary Cheyenne. You get closer to who you are if you're aware of the need to have a foundation of identity. The glass braids, there are eighteen of them, represent cultural identity. They're suspended from a bannister by strips of deer rawhide and hang above several red rocks. The bannister is the equivalent of colonizing the American dream, and the rocks are a specific place on the earth. The rocks are bits of shale that you see a lot on my reservation; they're used to cover the dirt roads. They're also identifiers, in the sense that if you go anywhere in Montana, say, for instance, if I go to Billings, and I see a car with red dust on it, I know I can get a ride back to the res. It's probably got 29 license plates and all that. I may be related to who's driving. So it's an identifier in that way, but the rocks really talk about the land, about the importance of a particular spot on the land, which is, to me, the Northern Cheyenne Reservation. That's a real big part of my identity, the reservation land. Our traditional hunting grounds are there and our sacred places are close by. In the past there was a real struggle to get us back to that land. The two chiefs who got us back to that spot on the earth, Little Wolf and Dull Knife, fought very hard to do so. There were 500 Cheyenne that came up from Oklahoma. We were originally taken south to stay with the Southern Cheyennes in Oklahoma and were told that we could eventually return to Montana. When we told the government that we wanted to go home, they said, "No, you will live here now," so the chiefs said, "We're going anyway." Little Wolf, Dull Knife and the others beat incredible odds to get us back to Montana. It was a really courageous thing to do and it was something that they knew they had to do for their people because we were dying down there. That spot in Montana was just that important. It carries the history; it carries the heart of those people and of us today as well. It literally runs through my veins. It's where my family comes from; it's where the beginnings of my life are and the continuation of that life through my family and through future generations.

LA: This cocoon figure also appears in its own series.

BS: When I came to Madison, I singled out the cocoon figure and dealt with it sculpturally. I've used it in drawings in the past, but I wanted to understand it a little more and bring it to life. In the earlier drawings its structure is more symbolic. It's become more proportionately referential to the human body. Some of the drawings I'm doing now are large scale, about six or seven feet by four feet. I did two drawings for the New York show at the American Indian Community House that reference my body directly. I laid on the paper and drew around myself in different poses using natural pigments and other materials. It's becoming more connected to me personally in referencing my body. In the sculptures I wanted to inject some movement into the form and the feeling of a life force within it. The cocoon shape in stoneware is something that happens in working with clay. It's a very alive substance; it has its own life force and it wants to be a moving figure.

LA: Just to touch briefly on a couple of pieces from the Indian Humor show. One uses the cocoon figure but in a totally different context [How High's the Metaphorical Water, Mama?], and the other, a bronze [ The Beginning of the End for the End of the Trail ], is structured like some of your "serious" pieces but with a humorous underlay. These pieces are a little different from some of your other work.

BS: I guess you'd say they're political in the sense that they're more directly referencing issues. But I've heard it said that as Indians we are born political, so I think my work naturally confronts these issues. There are underlying issues in all my work, but these pieces deal more directly with them. And, let's face it, Indian people are hilarious. Some of the funniest people I know are Indian people, I swear. There's always an element of humor when Indian people come together. You expect it and it's there. It's a type of humor very specific to Indian people, often imitated by never duplicated! I wanted to deal with some serious issues in a humorous way because humor allows me to access people and they won't throw up their guard. The humor brings them in. For instance, the Beginning of the End for the End of the Trail actually references what some earlier pieces were based on. There's a design element that's similar to what is actually a Fisher-Price toy called the "Busy Box." It's a toy designed to teach children rudimentary skills, like dialing a phone or ringing a bell. I put in different elements, like little plastic Indians and beads, which I use as teaching tools. It's a toy for adults. It's a teaching tool dealing with misconceptions, stereotypes, and issues regarding Native existence, things that the country needs to deal with and are dealing with to some degree. It has to do with the fact that the Indian identity of popular culture was created in large part from outside of us. The End of the Trail sculpture was created by a non-Indian, and it reflected the idea that Indian people were eventually going to vanish, that we were on our way to extinction. I have a small End of the Trail figure in the piece and you can slide it along the bottom from the past forward to extinction, from the old ways to the modern world where we were supposed to be assimilated, disappear, and lose our culture. Of course we didn't, but the experts defining us were banking on it. Each one of the quadrants in the piece deals with a specific issue.

For instance, in the "Intellectual Property" quadrant is half of a brain locked in a box. This is about anthropologists who have come into the Indian community and copyrighted information. Consequently, in a legal sense, we don't even own half of our brain. We're starting to talk about those issues in our communities and understand the importance of positioning ourselves so we do own our own information and control our own destiny, and decide on our own definition of who we are.

LA: You've put some text in, too, like "HAND OUT" and "TRINKETS," and attached chintzy souvenirs.

BS: "HANDOUT" is about . . . well, I remember when I was in college several non-Indian people came up to me after they found out I was Indian, and asked, "So how much do you get for your Indian check?" It floored me. I didn't know what they were talking about. They said, "Don't you get a check from the government for being Indian?" I said, "No," but I had to go into a long explanation, and since then I've had to give the same explanation over and over. We don't get checks because we're Indian; we get money sometimes through a per capita payment, but only if we have some economic development on the reservation. What little we do get from the government through health care and education and things like that are treaty obligations entered into voluntarily by the U.S. government as a business deal. People believe that we're all destitute and that the government is taking care us. In reality, the government is obligated to fulfill their end of a business deal, which is a crappy deal by the way. I mean, really, millions of acres of land for a little bit of often substandard health care, high-fat commodities, and failed programs? If people only understood. And the "TRINKETS" issue talks about how trivial Indian art is considered by the Western mainstream artworld. The work that I saw at the Smithsonian has always been thought of as trinkets. It's now being looked at a little more seriously so there's some hope, but that Western definition of the art of my ancestors affects how art today is looked at and how art throughout the whole continuum of Native existence has been looked at, and why it isn't accepted by the mainstream art world. I've heard non-Indian curators say, "Oh, Indian art -- it's all just trinkets." The idea of the work as trinkets actually came from really bad reproductions by non-Indians of Indian pieces. There is still a proliferation of it today. It was pretty easy to find those bad little trinkets I included in the work.

LA: The Filter Series from 1994 has a different look than some of the other work we've been talking about. Does it extend some of your same concerns?

BS: The Filter Series is indicative of my search for new materials to deal with and to change my direction a bit. In this series I use natural objects, like rocks, and encase them in a material which I discovered recently, sort of industrial packing material. It's a paper mesh material but it's really strong. It reminded me of filters in the sense that something is coming through the material and being channeled, filtered somehow. So the natural objects enclosed within this material suggest that whenever these materials are encountered by man or society, we're more inclined to not deal directly with them, but to filter out whatever is there. As an example, in mining, things are extracted from natural materials. The same is true with Native culture; things are extracted from Native culture and taken out and rearranged and what results is a distorted definition of the culture. So this series is a less direct way of saying that. I wanted to move into some new materials and these intrigued me. They seemed like a natural combination. Then the packing material with the encased objects are bound with metal brackets from filing cabinets. So the natural objects are not only filtered but they're also filed away.

LA: You encased a lot of different things, like rocks, bones, feathers, wood and sections of a tree.

BS: These materials always teach me as I go along so I just try to respond to them as they're in my studio. I let them lay around. This filter material was around for a year, and after I re-discovered it, it just kind of communicated to me what it wanted to happen. It seemed right to combine it all these materials and it became an obvious extension of my past work. Each of the natural objects has an energy, a significance, but seems like an ordinary object. People don't always understand that these objects have a life, have importance, and have knowledge to hand on.

LA: You traveled around growing up, Seattle, Alaska, the Northwest Coast, and different towns in Montana. You've mentioned that Northwest Coast art had an impact on you, and also Isamu Noguchi. Could you talk about the confluence of what seems to be diverse influences?

BS: We moved off the Northern Cheyenne reservation when I was four or five, and ideally, I think being raised on the res would have given me a lot of information about my own people, but my dad, mom, and other relatives filled in those gaps anyway, and we visited home often, too. If I was going to be raised somewhere off the reservation, I feel like I was pretty fortunate to be in the Northwest Coast area around other Indian tribes. It really gave me a sense of how, as an Indian person, you expect art in other Indian communities and that art is a part of everyday life. It isn't something that is separate from life. Being around different Native groups I began to understand that concept. In the urban centers like Seattle we always wound up around Indian people, too. There's always a coming together of Indian people, a sense of community. Somehow you find each other in these settings and you rely on that bonding to sustain you. We always sought that out. The art of the Northwest Coast, the look of it, the different surfaces, the design, all of that, was really powerful to me. The first artist I remember and was able to interact with was a friend of the family, Ray Neilsen, a Tlingit, in Alaska. I was about nine at the time. He was always giving us art so I saw his work often. He was a wood carver and a painter working in the traditional style of the Northwest Coast. I remember admiring the power of his visual imagery and how clean it was. It was executed flawlessly and I think that high level of execution influenced how I render my work. I was so impressed by his work that I did a piece in seventh grade that was based on one of his paintings of a killer whale, and it got accepted for a student exhibition. That was my first show! All the work I saw in Alaska influenced me, though, the totems, the longhouses, the dance outfits. That all showed me how art exists in the Native community. But it also reminded me that I needed to look at the art of my own people to understand where their art fit in my life. It didn't directly influence how I created my imagery, but it helped me to understand the place of art in my life as a Native person. As I look back on it now I'm reminded of how, at that time, I understood art as life. It wasn't "art" in the way Western culture defines it; it was all around you in a profound way. Then when I'd go home to the reservation, to the pow wows, to other things, it was that way too. I saw art around me. My aunts were always beading. I knew there were artists in the community. It was expected. So art was something that I accepted and expected and understood as important, as integral to life. I always understood that there was a certain amount of "making" that you did so I would always draw, my Mom painted somewhat and did pastels and things like that. I was always picking up things, making things, constructing things. But I never thought of myself, "Well, I'm going to be an artist," so as I went through junior high and high school I was attracted to writing and art, but I never thought of it as a career. Even into college, I didn't think of it as a way to go. I took business classes; I went for two years and quit. I didn't know what I wanted to do, so I went into the construction trade for six years, into the pipefitters' union, and I'm still a member of that. They taught me a lot of structural skills: welding, layout, being able to visual things three dimensionally in your head before you do it. I didn't know that was leading to this. I decided I couldn't do that for the rest of my life, so I went back to school in '87 and started taking some art classes. Then I understood that this is what I need to do. This is what fulfills me. This is what adds incredible meaning to my existence. That's when I saw that this was what I'm supposed to be doing.

Noguchi gave me a little different take on the same thing. His work showed me how art manifested itself in Asian culture. His sensibility was greatly influenced by his culture, in that for me his work is about balance and harmony, about allowing the medium to speak with its own voice. I become like a facilitator of that balance and let things work through me as an artist. He was one of the first artists that I locked into because he helped me to understand through the visual power of his pieces and his use of materials how that can work in my own art. I approach the process, and if I'm open to it, it just happens. I need to have a level of technical skill and imagination, but I must also allow other things to work through me and to trust the process. What I saw in his work was amazing harmony and balance and out of that came a real quiet power. That's what I look for in my work. It really reminded me of my culture's reverence for the earth and gave me the understanding that these inanimate materials have a power or voice of their own, so you get in there and facilitate it, try to help that happen without controlling the piece. I've been influenced by other artists outside of purely Native culture, but I'm always drawn to those who respect the lifeforce that exists in the materials, and understanding that it has to speak. You don't have to create a big fanfare for it to speak; you just have to find a way to let it out.

LA: You also curated a two-part exhibition at the Denver Art Museum. How does your curating reflect your concerns in art?

BS: The Denver show actually came out of a show I co-curated with Lori Pourier at Eastern Montana College, my undergarduate school. Artists Who Are Indian was the title of both shows, as well as a third show in Durango, Colorado, that I curated. The title emerged from the idea that Indian art and the phrase "Indian artists" set up expectations of how the representative art will look. Being around and interacting with Indian artists over the past few years, I saw that a lot of the contemporary work went totally against those expectations. So it's an attempt to deconstruct that phrase "Indian art" or "Indian artist." "Artists who are Indian" implies that as Native people we're doing what comes naturally in terms of the art and not what's expected. There's a personal quality that I saw in the work, a language that's personalized, but it's still speaking from each artist's tribal perspective and their own experience as a Native person. I wanted to show that art made by Indian people is different than what has come out of Western culture definitions, and that when the mainstream Western structure for understanding art is forced over Indian art, then Indian art loses. I think that when we start to deal with either curating these shows from an Indian perspective or doing some of the writing, some of the defining, some of the groundwork, then you start to get a better understanding of the function of art within the Native community, that it had, and has, an integrated function within the community. It's been said a hundred times, but there's typically no word for art in most Indian languages. Growing up I began to understand that. It wasn't separate; it wasn't placed on a pedestal. It was on someone's body or integrated into life in some way.

So I tried to put forth that idea in these shows. It's important to recognize that there's a community of Native artists out there and that it does function as a community on a larger national scale. We interact with each other; we help each other out in one way or another. There's a cohesiveness. Artists are saying different things but they're all, in some way, talking about this moment in time as a Native person.

LA: Is there a unity among these different artists' works?

BS: I think it's a broad unity. It's specific in the sense that it is talking about how that person, that individual, is existing today with the knowledge that they are a Native person, that they have a community that they come from, or that they have a sense of who they are as a Native person. Beyond that, it gets really complex; it goes in every direction as far as media go, as far as whether they're dealing with things from a humorous standpoint, all of that. For instance, I'm attracted to the way Rick Bartow deals with his medium and I'm influenced by the way he approaches his work and the textural quality of his surfaces and the energy that goes into those strokes. That's the same kind of thing I'm after in my own drawings, so I feel a real affinity with the way he's dealing with things. We might be talking about very different things in our work but I feel that affinity. I also feel that affinity that we know who we are, our identity as Native people. I'm comfortable with that identity being present in the work and not intimidated by the mainstream art world. But the most important thing is to talk from here, talk about who I am. I can't deny that I'm a Native person. I can't put aside the direction in my art just to cater to whatever needs the mainstream art community has for a "universal voice." I have to talk about who I am as a Native person.

LA: Looking back at your work over the eight or so years, what do you see as the evolution in your work, the threads that have gone through it?

BS: Probably the major thread that has gone through is the sense of identity. What keeps coming back through all the motifs and through the different materials is that concept of identity. The natural materials take me back to that specific place on the earth where I'm from and I talk about the importance of that place. Throughout the work there's been the re-connection to natural material and to place. That's an integral part of my identity.

But I'm contemporary, too. I'm not riding a horse everyday, I'm not living in a tepee. I'm living today, so contemporary materials are also part of my identity. There is the importance of establishing that identity for personal well-being -- what the Healing Series was talking about -- and beyond that a view of who I am and communicating that to other people. It's a feeling of being at peace with oneself, to know who you are and not take on other people's identities or other people's ideas of who you need to be, but to be comfortable with who you are, culturally, personally, all those different levels. So the art functions deeper than just the visual level, deeper than just the formal level. It's a very personal thing, but hopefully the way I arrange things keys into another person. I think that art has so much more to offer people than just, say, matching the couch, or looking good on the wall. It goes so far beyond that. Sometimes you get lucky and this powerful piece of art does match your couch! And that's when you know everything is in sync.

NOTES 1 Bently Spang, in The Spirit of Native America, San Francisco, CA: American Indian Contemporary Arts, 1993, p. 35.

2 ibid., p. 34.

SELECTED EXHIBITIONS

1995, Indian Humor, group exhibition, American Indian Contemporary Arts, San Francisco, CA

1995, Vantage Point--Abstraction, group exhibition, Jan Cicero Gallery, Chicago, IL

1994, solo exhibition, Dahl Fine Arts Center, Rapid City, SD

1994, 6th Native American Fine Arts Invitational, group exhibition, The Heard Museum, Phoenix, AZ

1993, The Spirit of Native America, group exhibition, The United States Information Agency and American Indian Contemporary Arts, San Francisco, CA

1993, Native Peoples--Our Ways Shall Continue, group exhibition, Denver Art Museum, Denver, CO

1992, The Healing, solo exhibition, Western Heritage Center, Billings, MT

1992, The Contemporary Room, group exhibition, Plains Indian Museum, Buffalo Bill Historical Center, Cody, Wyoming

SELECTED BIBLIOGRAPHY

Bently Spang, "The Process of Self Definition Within the Native North American Art Movement," Journal of Multicultural and Cross-Cultural Research in Art Education 13 (Spring,1996):

_____, "Re-Thinking Images of Native North Americans in the American West," Western Heritage Heritage Center, Billings, MT (in press).

_____, "Artist's Statement," Indian Humor, American Indian Contemporary Arts, San Francisco, CA, 1995, pp. 84-85.

_____, "Artist's Statement," 6th Native American Fine Arts Invitational, The Heard Museum, Phoenix, AZ, 1994, p. 16.

_____, "Artist's Statement," The Spirit of Native America, American Indian Contemporary Arts, San Francisco, CA, 1993, pp. 34-35.

To Top