Interviews By Larry Abbott

Joanna Osburn-Bigfeather
Cherokee/Mescalero Apache

Sara Bates
Rick Bartow
Pat Deadman
Joe Feddersen
Anita Fields
Harry Fonseca
Bob Haozous
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: 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 of objects.

LA: Some of the pieces are collaborative. Was that the original intent?

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 follow.

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 imaginations.

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 Series (1993).

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 consumer culture.

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 expansion.

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 that?

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 pieces.

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.


1 Joanna 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, 1994

Bridging Two 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

Portfolio III, group exhibition, American Indian Contemporary Arts, 1991

From the Earth VI, group exhibition, American Indian Contemporary Arts, 1990

Quarter Mile 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. 4-6.

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.

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