LA: Your work is very diverse in imagery and materials. Could
you talk about your use of materials?
JOB: I consider what materials represent, and when I'm
teaching a course I ask my students to think about the meaning
of materials. If it's a bronze, that refers to the Bronze Age.
If it's an aluminum casting it refers to the time that we're living
now. For me, the meaning goes beyond what's on the surface and
looks at where things come from. One piece, Cultural Signs
(1994), looks at the history of Native people, and if we follow
that history there is small pox, there is Christianity, there
are issues of how the environment has been treated for the last
500 years with the coming of the Europeans. I also think of alcohol
and Fetal Alcohol Syndrome.
LA: The piece is in four hinged sections, part of the Book
Arts by Native American Artists show. You work on both sides
of each section. It looks to be more of a sculpture.
JOB: It is a sculpture. Much of my work isn't three-dimensional;
a lot of the pieces that I do in clay are two-dimensional, where
I roll out a slab and then scratch in the information that I want
to present, but I like different materials and that was what this
show was about -- artists creating objects that could be called
both a literary book and a visual book.
LA: How did you develop the show?
JOB: When I first started working as the curator and art
director at the American Indian Community House [in New York City],
there wasn't really an exhibition in place, so I had to create
shows. I thought about a book show that a friend of mine did.
He asked other artists to participate, but they were all non-Indian.
I thought it would be great to create a book show in our community
that would reach across the U.S. and Canada and represent what
indigenous people are thinking about, but most of these artists
aren't book artists. When I think about our art books, the ledger
drawings always came to mind, but I wanted to go beyond that.
That's how the concept of this show arose. I invited twenty artists
and it was their responsibility to invite another artist. Not
everyone invited an artist, and some people didn't participate
because of the arts and crafts law, but we got a great variety
LA: Some of the pieces are collaborative. Was that the original
JOB: No. It was just the idea of people becoming involved
so that the show perpetuated itself. In a way it was self-curated.
The show creates bridges in our communities across the United
States and Canada because the arts and craft law has divided many
Native people, as well as artists. I had people in this exhibition
who are on different sides of that fence who usually don't show
together. I thought it would be interesting if all those people
could have been in one room, but I have their pieces and it's
a healing show at the same time.
LA: You have a mix of established artists, like Edgar Heap
of Birds and Jaune Quick-to-See Smith, and some younger or emerging
artists, like Melanie Printup Hope and Ryan Rice.
JOB: Yes, and that was the other idea, to introduce new
artists to our communities. I think one of the functions of the
gallery and museum is to show up-and-coming artists, and we always
have group shows. We have five exhibitions a year. As curator,
it's a responsibility to bring people along with you and that's
what I'm doing.
LA: To switch gears a little, you received your MFA at SUNY
Albany and taught there for a bit. You also studied at the Institute
in Santa Fe and at the University of California at Santa Cruz.
JOB: It's a long story. It felt as if I were in school
for a million years. My background is marketing and business.
I lived in California for a number of years working in the architectural
business as a marketing director in San Diego. I realized while
living there, fifteen years ago or so, that it wasn't the place
for me. I left that area because it was like a candy machine.
You had to be beautiful, you had to live in La Jolla or some elitist
area, you had to have a nice car, nice clothes, and be packaged
in a certain way. After five years of that I went on a rafting
trip to northern California. It felt like home, it felt like New
Mexico because of the trees and the people, and I decided at that
point that I would leave everything. I quit my job, I sold a lot
of things, I moved and became a nanny in Somerset, California
on a ranch called Cloud Nine. I worked with a family who had a
little girl and lived on 130 acres. It gave me a chance to get
back to my art. I had the responsibility of looking after just
one child and for a year I created art at the ranch and got back
to the roots of basic living and spirituality. Then I moved into
the community and started working as a full-time artist, and starving
the whole time. That place had the highest unemployment in California!
My friends said, "You're crazy to move up there. What are
you going to do?" And I said, "Well, I feel there's
something there, I don't care if I wait on tables, I'm just going
to live there." I didn't wait tables, but I did anything
related to art. I taught Indian children after school. I did my
art and sold it and just survived. When I decided to go back to
school, I researched what other artists did back home in Albuquerque.
The people I remember at that point are probably the most important
influences in my life. At that time, I looked at R. C. Gorman,
Helen Hardin, and others. A lot of what I read pointed to the
institute in Santa Fe. I decided that's what I would do. At that
same time, I was the "starving artist" and there was
a point where I just had no money to pay the rent. I didn't have
any money to put food on the table. I ate a lot of rice and beans!
I went to bed one really cold night in February, and images like
in a film came across the room showing me working in clay. I hadn't
worked in clay then and the voice was saying, "Trust me."
I don't do drugs so it wasn't some kind of experience like that!
But that showed me to do my art first and then the money would
I went to the institute for two-and-a-half years and received
an associate's degree in two- and three-dimensional art. At that
time I was very non-political. I just wanted to do my art, but
I became involved in politics when I became student body president.
Two-and-a-half years wasn't going to be enough for me. I decided
that I wanted a 4-year degree.
LA: Whom did you work with at the institute?
JOB: There was Ralph Pardington, the ceramics professor,
who I don't feel has received the credit he is due. He was there
for twenty-five years, as well as Mrs. [Otellie] Loloma, and Dr.
John Dixon, the art historian. Jean LaMarr came for a print-making
workshop, she wasn't teaching there yet, and she influenced me.
The way that she manipulated the monotype opened up doors for
a lot of young people and oldsters like myself. Other students
were influential, like Charlene Teters. I went to the institute
as a two-dimensional artist, as a painter, and that training in
representation shows up in a lot of the ceramic work I do.
LA: After the institute you moved on to Santa Cruz and then
to SUNY Albany?
JOB: A lot of my friends were in Santa Cruz from Placerville
days and I kept my residency, which has a lot to do with where
you go because of money. I went to Santa Cruz with the intention
of getting an art degree. It was a very white-oriented institution
and I kept looking for my community. At that time Gerald Vizenor
came and he was responsible, in a generous way, in helping me
shape our history. He wasn't just a professor; he was a friend.
After a literature class we would go to another student's place,
he happened to have a cafe on the wharf, and Gerald would hold
court because he tells such wonderful stories. He's had such wonderful
experiences. He helped me in so many ways that I can't express
my gratitude to him. The school at Santa Cruz was based on social
change so I put two majors together. I created a major in American
Studies, so I took a lot of courses in community studies and American
Studies because I didn't think that I should just study art. I
needed to understand how our country was put together in order
to work from that understanding. My work became more politically-charged.
It's ironic how I came to Albany. I wanted to study back east,
and one of our professors said, "apply to SUNY." I didn't
know there were sixty-four campuses, so we landed at SUNY Albany.
People don't know what happens when a Native person goes to an
institution. It's very hard. First, you don't have your community.
I looked in Albany and could not find my community. I felt that
in some ways I was a token because I was in a graduate program
and had a fellowship, but I think it's important that people know
that just because they accept you to study, it doesn't mean that
they really care to know what you have to offer. When Our Land/Ourselves
came to the art museum there, my professors didn't understand
the work, my peers didn't understand the work. I would have critiques
with students after they saw the show and they didn't understand
why people weren't working in traditional materials, because this
show included photographs, works on paper, paintings, you name
it. And I said, "Well, why do you expect us to work in traditional
materials? I don't expect you to be wearing Pilgrim outfits to
school everyday. Would you expect me to wear traditional clothing?"
Native people are always working very innovatively; we use whatever
comes into our hands and take ownership of it and work it in new
ways. I think of the people of the Southwest building their cliff
dwellings with irrigation systems -- that was beyond most people's
LA: In some of your work you've been able to combine the political
edge with a humorous dimension, like The White Man's Indian
JOB: I think humor is really important. I try to articulate
that in the work. I did five pieces in that series. For "The
White Man's Cultural Artifacts" and "Christian Artifacts
of a Faceless Nation" I used something I came across in upstate
New York. My studio's in Troy, NY, above a slip-casting factory.
The factory is huge, on the Hudson River, and has all this mass-produced
ceramic kitsch that people are used to seeing, little Indian girls
or Indian boys holding feathers, or in some kind of romantic pose.
I looked at those things for years and finally realized that that
stuff in abundance becomes instant art to me because it talks
about industrialization and about "getting" these things.
People buy them and think that it is "the Indian."
I had another piece related to this in Oregon, in the Sisters
of the Earth exhibition, called "Baby Cakes." I
used some small objects from that factory that were originally
part of a manger scene with Christ figures. There were so many
of these figures, just the size of your palm, and they looked
like something you could eat. They looked like biscuits or cakes
to me, so I put them inside an old muffin tin with bright pink
and yellow little cupcake holders. By putting them in a muffin
tin, it says, "come and eat me." People in New Age groups
just want everything about us, but the thing that they cannot
have is our spirituality, as Jolene Rickard said at a recent symposium.
You can't take something out of context, because within our culture
everything works with everything else. This piece is humorous
because it's stupid.
I did something else for the Indian Humor show at AICA,
where I used cowboys and Indians. I've been collecting all this
junk, just like other people who collect stereotypes. I stuck
these little plastic cowboys and Indians into three spaghetti
sauce jars that had corn, beans, and potatoes in them, put the
jars on little wagons with horses and titled them the Nina,
Pinta, and Santa Maria. When it got to AICA they called
and said, "The piece is great, but the potatoes are spoiled
and stinking up the gallery." So we put in something else,
blue corn. But I was thinking how ridiculous it all was. If you
start putting a lot of objects together and juxtaposing them with
other kinds of imagery, you'll get interesting results. The jars
had the labels of different Italian spaghetti sauce companies,
so to me it was looking at Columbus being Italian and once again,
those materials coming into focus. I bought a lot of toys at Toys
'R Us and I stuck a bunch of them in a bag and then I put my face
in the handle saying, you know, "we are toys." But of
course we aren't.
One of the things that struck me when I moved to the East Coast
was the diners you see all over. That's what led to May I Serve
You? Cultural Artifacts (1994). I collect a lot of antiques
and old stuff, and I found a set of cups from a diner. It also
relates to when I took a trip across country I found all sorts
of cowboy and Indian toys. I put those toys in four of the cups
and arranged those "baby cakes" on the saucers like
little tarts, and that was all served on a tray. It was about
LA: Do you think that the display of an accumulation of these
absurd objects make people question the imagery?
JOB: Some people get it, some people don't; you get a
mixed review. But just putting the image, the objects out there
just by themselves, isn't enough. A lot of artists have done that
and it can fall flat. I think you need to juxtapose them against
something that makes them seem ridiculous.
LA: They're not ridiculous enough on their own?
JOB: No, they're not because people grew up with those
objects and they accept them.
LA: The Liberty Series (1992) also combines humor with
a serious message, and is comprised of a variety of pieces.
JOB: I did a number of 17 x 24 inch clay slab pieces.
They refer to the time my then husband and I visited New York
City, not to go to galleries, but to look at tourist things. We
went to various monuments and attractions, took the Staten Island
Ferry, those types of things. On Liberty Island I picked up one
of those green styrofoam headpieces that tourists buy. I started
carrying that thing around and decided I'd wear it at different
locations. I have myself photographed posing with it as a Native
person, like in Columbus Circle, saying that we have been here
a long time, longer than 500 years, and giving a sense of the
relationship that Native people have to the land and how other
people coming here have been invaders and conquerors. Later my
husband and I took a trip across the United States, and then to
Hawaii. During the trip I became "Liberty" when I wore
that foam hat. I wore that hat to see how people would react and
I found out that we live in a very patriotic society. I would
wear it pumping gas, you know, and truck drivers would be waving
at me. I went into a little restaurant in Oklahoma where people
probably thought I was out of mind, but they were sitting there
eating biscuits and gravy and there I was, wearing the green Liberty
headpiece and the waitress was saying, "Why, honey, that's
the cutest thing I ever saw. I want one of them." For us,
the Statue of Liberty does not mean liberty. We were already free.
We've undergone massive colonization and hardships that other
people haven't had to experience. I took photographs of myself
juxtaposed against these monuments and buildings, transferred
the image onto the slab, and used a raku glaze. On one slab Columbus'
landing was a reflection in my sunglasses. In the slabs I would
inscribe phrases like, "Who are you and what do you want?"
"How much will it cost?" was inscribed on the slab next
to the image of the Statue of Liberty. In another I was in front
of the Mutual of Omaha building, posing with my baggage. I called
it "Just Another Headdress." Half of that piece was
encased in wire. I have other images I want to use so it's a continuing
series. I wear that hat when I give lectures, and most people
seem to like it, but I also get negative reactions from Italian-Americans.
They feel close to the image of Columbus because they emigrated
here. I understand that, but they also need to understand how
we feel, too. But the series started when I wore this styrofoam
hat as a performance piece.
LA: Granddaughter, I Am Teaching You (1993) is also
a slab piece with you in the green Liberty hat.
JOB: That is part of this same series. I was visiting
my grandmother Pearl Bigfeather at the end of the trip. As I was
sitting with her and talking, I was thinking what it would be
like if my grandmother and I took a trip across the U.S. We'd
traveling on a train, she would be teaching me our Cherokee history,
not necessarily traditional history but things that happened during
the Depression with our immediate family, the Osburns. Sitting
there on the train with her as the country passes by is a mythic
idea to me. Of course, the train itself also has to do with western
LA: Do you usually work in series? In addition to the Liberty
series you've done the Big Chief series.
JOB: I do. I work in series but I don't plan it that way.
It's like I start on a little idea and then it starts growing.
Part of The Big Chief Series was seeing those "Big
Chief" writing tablets that we grew up with as children.
Did you have one of those?
LA: In school? No.
JOB: These are used in schools across the United States.
They are small, with the brown paper and the chief's head on the
front cover. I was thinking, this is so stereotypical. I made
a large one that was about twenty-four by seventeen inches. I
enlarged the image on a copy machine, colored it, took ownership
of it by posing with it in a photograph, then transferred the
photograph to the clay slab. I did three of those, with my image
incised in raku. My face is on the slab holding the enlargement,
so it becomes bigger than life. These pads are not the innocent
little tablets which children use. They are an image of the stereotyped
Native American with headdress and feathers.
LA: Much of your work is concerned with reversing the stereotypical
image of Indians. You've mentioned that, "These negative
images and the political and social injustices that our people
have endured are the content of my work." 1
JOB: When I was working with these ideas I didn't know
other Native people were working with the same ideas, like Shan
Goshorn, whose Honest Injun Series looks at images, and
Charlene Teters, but I think for me it was just making it larger
than life, putting images in viewer's faces and having them wonder
and then ask questions.
There's a piece I created called The Ivory Tower. I made
a four-foot tall ceramic tower that was about eight inches in
diameter. I fired it and stacked it on top of art books, all the
art books that are used in schools. It was a performance piece.
I had my peers there and my professors. I came in and bashed the
tower. The books were still in place, but there was this ivory
tower scattered all over, which you could glue back together.
I realized that we can write those books, we can start
inserting our history into the rest of it. It may not happen in
my generation, but as it was pointed out to me, we do work for
future generations, seven generations, so even if things don't
happen today whatever we do now will affect later generations.
LA: You've used barbed wire or chicken wire in some of the
other series you've done.
JOB: I think that barbed wire and the chicken wire that
I've used are important because they represent being in prison.
Some people think it's just too easy. I've heard that criticism
but I think the wire is very effective. Pieces that I show at
the Santa Fe Indian Market are totally different than anything
else that I make, and what I found there is that my work is becoming
less and less collected because people want just the object; they
want an artifact; they want something to hang over their sofa
and that's not what my work evokes. When I did the Turtle
series in the early '90's, I took those pieces that were wrapped
in wire to Santa Fe and people asked, "Why do you have that
wire there?" Then I'd have to explain it to them. I thought
it was self-explanatory, but sometimes people get it and sometimes
they don't. A young Navajo man saw those pieces and had tears
in his eyes. They evoked so much emotion in him, as well as in
some non-Native people. One woman wanted to buy a piece, but told
me that she was going to take the wire off. I said, "No,
I'm sorry; I'm not going to sell this to you."
I started the series when I first moved to SUNY Albany. Every
place I move to I research the area, and I was intrigued by the
creation story of the Iroquois people that involves the turtle.
I thought how the story of Christ is not much different than indigenous
people's stories. It's not any different than a Christ figure
being crucified. Our myths have been crucified and put on a cross
as well. You can look to most any Native culture and see how Christianity
worked within that culture. Most people stayed with their own
spirituality but also adopted forms of Christianity. I did drawings
of a turtle hung on a cross, then monoprints with turtles swimming
in red blood, then the pieces became incised in clay. The last
one in the series, Knights of Columbus (1993) has a turtle
made out of pine branches and bark on a cross that was then cast
in bronze and placed over an Italian Bible. I put that on an altar
along with a small cast aluminum shrine. The shrine has pine needles
woven into chicken wire, so traditional materials are brought
to the twentieth century. Behind the altar is a strip of velvet,
which references the church and priest's vestments, and a banner
using Spanish lace, because the pictures of Columbus coming to
shore show his men carrying unfurled banners. There is a chalice
with little rusted medals that read "Pray for Me."
I did another series about ledger drawings. I re-presented the
ledger drawings on clay and wrapped them with wire. Some were
three-dimensional objects. When I exhibited them in Santa Fe collectors
were getting ready for Indian Market and there was going to be
an art auction at the same time of historic objects and ledger
drawings. Those original drawings were done under duress. They
are so precious now. I created a ledger book with two sides. On
one side was an image of somebody on a horse like the Fort Marion
drawings. If these drawings were handed down through a family,
instead of being collected, they would continue to grow, images
would continue to be put in these books. I was thinking how people
might draw on them and they would continue to be living objects.
On the other side was a picture from The Fisher King with
Robin Williams, bringing it to today's time. If a family had a
ledger book and a child was drawing in it they might draw something
like that from today's pop culture. Another piece is in a pouch
that stands up so it resembles a parfleche. It would be an active
part of a family, not exhibited in a case. There are other small
clay slabs with wire in between. They have tiny fragments of pictures
of ledger drawings like pages, you can hear them clink together,
and there is abrasive wire in between each page. The wire references
captivity in Fort Marion. I remember my husband saying, "you
really want people to handle this?" and I said, "yes,
I really do."
LA: Many of your pieces with multiple sections and different
components. are like installations. How did you get into doing
JOB: I think that the greater world gave its O. K. I was
in a show with Allan Michelson curated by Fred Wilson, an African-American
installation artist. We were riding back in the car and I was
saying how labor-intensive my work was with the clay. They laughed
because when they need things they simply buy them. I thought,
"Wow . . . that's a new concept for me . . . it's so much
easier." So I started creating installations.
My first large installation in '93 was called Boarding School
Memories. It was a nine by twelve foot room separated in half.
One side, the left side, depicts the child's home. It showed some
of the familiar things that would be in a Native person's house,
like corn, sage, and an eagle mask. The other side shows things
that children in a boarding school had to deal with, like a cut-off
braid, different clothes, this strange Christ-figure. So I was
juxtaposing different kinds of imagery, suggesting a sense of
loss on one side, and showing that the house they came from wasn't
a terrible place.
White Man's Boarding School (1993) is also about forcing
the white man's religion and education on Indian children. I used
antique turn-of-the-century baptismal gowns, stretched out and
splayed on large birchbark frames. It was very hard cutting these
beautiful, elegant gowns, just ripping them apart, and then stretching
them like animal hides around the frames. Then I hung them over
a chalkboard where our language, the Cherokee language, is partly
erased and being replaced by the English language. There is a
school desk in front of the chalkboard.
LA: The Cherokee language appears occasionally in your work.
JOB: Language is the introduction to the culture. Even
though there are tribes which still use their language it's one
of the major parts of the culture that many Native people have
lost. I use Cherokee in my work but I don't speak it. I do use
it as a reminder and as a connection to my family and my grandmother,
who was given away at five years old to non-Indian people during
the time of the Dawes Act. She lost her language, so that's why
I use those symbols.
LA: You also use Mound Builder designs on some of your clay
JOB: I was looking at the pottery that came out of the
Mound Builders. A very good friend of mine and relative is Anna
Mitchell, who brought back our Cherokee pottery. She has done
a lot of research about our relationship to the Mound Builders
and to those designs. Clay has been a very vital part of my life.
The image of the hand recurs in my work, and in the Liberty
Series I frequently have my hand up. And I go back to the
very first object my mother kept from first grade where I have
my hand stamped in plaster. We've been working in it a long time.
I get in tune with it and something else emerges which I lose
myself in and become part of.
LA: Were you always artistically inclined, putting your hand
in plaster back in first grade?
JOB: I think so. I was always quiet, hanging at the back, having
terrible grades; it would be embarrassing to come home with those
bad report cards. But I always had the A's in art and my parents,
my father is a painter, a landscape painter, always have seen
that part of it. But when I decided to go into a career, I went
more into education when I graduated from high school in Albuquerque
in the 1970s. I always did art but at that time to pursue a career
in art wasn't what women did; they had to go into teaching or
doing other things, so I didn't follow that as a career. I had
to come back, you know, years later to do that.
LA: You grew up in the Southwest. Do you feel that your work
has a Southwestern element?
JOB: I do, and sometimes it's embarrassing. But you can't
help but be influenced by the people around you, who were the
Pueblo people. When I first started going back to work in the
arts, I was influenced by them and that's what these pieces are
here. I did a lot of mask-making and a lot of shields, but I don't
do masks anymore because that work sold very easily and that was
very frightening to me. Every time my work starts selling, it
seems like I pull back and do another kind of series. I need to
make money, but I also have to ask the question: what is that
person buying? I used to make "nice images," so to speak,
because, I thought this is what you do. I wanted to mass produce
my work, but I never could do it. It was just not enough of me.
LA: You've been an active artist for quite some time now,
fifteen years or more. What do you see as some of the major points
in the development of your work over that time? You said your
work became more political at one point.
JOB: In that regard, I wasn't thinking that I was going
in that way. I just started creating work and wanting people to
look at the things that I was noticing. The work has changed significantly,
and I always look to other artists, Native artists, for what they
are doing. I saw that my work was in a context of work that was
being created by Edgar Heap of Birds and Phil Young, for example,
and feeling very comfortable with that. I want people to look
at their own identity. I want them to create work from their own
background. My work has changed from decorative work that had
a very spiritual context to focusing on issues of identity. I
think about people who want a piece of Native America and they
try to re-create Native American objects -- they never get it.
I often have my students do a ceramic piece about their backgrounds.
They are mainly people from the suburbs and they'll say, "I'm
just white bread, blah, blah, blah." And I respond, "Well,
make that. Do a white bread piece." And then when they do
that, they start a self-discovery process. They talk to their
families. There's Jewish people, there's Italian people, and they
start coming in contact with who they are. That's how my work
has an extension.
Osburn-Bigfeather, "Artist's Statement," distributed
through the American Indian Community House Gallery, unp., n.d.
Legacies: Contemporary Art by Native American Women,
group exhibition, Castle Gallery, College of New Rochelle, New
Rochelle, NY, 1995
Volume I: Book
Arts by Native American Artists, group exhibition, American
Indian Community House Gallery, New York, NY, 1995
Indian Humor, group exhibition, American Indian Contemporary
Arts, San Francisco, CA, 1995
Sisters of the
Earth, group exhibition, Bush Barn Art Center, Salem, OR,
Worlds: Contemporary Native American Art, group exhibition,
Pelham Art Center, Pelham, NY, 1993
Artist as Native:
Reinventing Regionalism, group exhibition, Middlebury College
Museum of Art, Middlebury, VT, 1993
group exhibition, American Indian Contemporary Arts, 1991
From the Earth
VI, group exhibition, American Indian Contemporary Arts, 1990
Mural Project, group exhibition, Santa Cruz, CA, 1990
Elizabeth Thompson Colleary, "Joanna Osburn-Bigfeather,"
Legacies: Contemporary Art by Native American Women. New
Rochelle, NY: Castle Gallery, College of New Rochelle, 1995, pp.
Joanna Osburn-Bigfeather, "Artist's Statement," Indian
Humor. San Francisco, CA: American Indian Contemporary Arts,
1995, pp. 74-75.
_____, "Artist's Statement," Portfolio III.
San Francisco: American Indian Contemporary Arts, 1991, pp. 28-29.