Interviews By Larry Abbott
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Sara Bates
Cherokee


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LA: Could you discuss the Honoring pieces that you've done and continue to do?

SB: The Honoring pieces center on my understanding of the traditional world view of my tribe, the Cherokee, and the work represents how I, one Cherokee, experience that world view in my everyday life. It's what I've learned to hold sacred, and what keeps me connected with what I feel is sacred. The world view honors our mutual dependency with the natural world and I've learned through this work over the last seventeen years and through experiential information that this relationship is reciprocal and sacred. I guess we're all unique in terms of exploring different kinds of things and going on different paths, but for me knowing my path means that I need to follow the relationship that we have with all living things. I feel that if we're going to survive as human beings then we need to think seriously about how to live in a good way. The so-called experts say that post-modern science has declared that everything is composed of a sub-atomic flux of waves and particles, chaos and patterns, the possibilities are endless, and the separation many human beings feel is an illusion. We're all related, birds, animals, plants, trees, earth, wind, fire, water, all human beings, and every molecule in our body participates in this relationship continually and exhibits its beauty.

LA: Although your work is clearly modern, it seems to have a traditional base.

SB: When I was in graduate school at the University of California in Santa Barbara I was working with the Cherokee Nation in the summers. I developed a summer arts program we called "Artmaking through traditional Cherokee mythology." It was basically looking at our oral forms of teaching and storytelling and incorporating those ideas into creating imagery. We would then integrate different types of drawing and painting and use our traditional stories to introduce different types of formal issues in art, such as the use of positive and negative space and color theory. We would sometimes contrast color in the traditional ways, the way we use it when we honor and the colors we recognize in each direction, and how our emotions influence that, even though we may be completely aware of formal issues in art in the use of complements and how to make something appear larger or smaller by making things warmer or cooler. I've found that as an Indian person it's easy to go back and forth. Understanding formal color theory didn't seem to bother my traditional understanding and I've found that to be true with the children also. They could do that very easily. I was working with our kids, 5-12 years old, and we all worked in one room. I didn't separate the age groups. We worked together, and the older ones would help with the younger ones, and sometimes the younger ones would just watch the older ones work. They would learn from each other in the extended family way. I would be working in this wonderful program in the summer with the tribe, and we would have our Green Corn Ceremony in late July, which is all about renewal. Many wonderful things happen when you dance in this ceremony.

LA: Were you able to integrate this approach to your work in grad school?

SB: I'd leave the work with the tribe and go back to Santa Barbara to work in the graduate program. At that time post-modern theory said that human beings don't have any direct experience, that everything is mediated through some form of technology or some kind of discourse, and there was no direct experience for human beings, and having just experienced community and ceremonial activities, I knew this was not true. When I talked about this beauty, I would be perceived as neurotic, romantic, naive, and somehow if I got over this Cherokee stuff I'd make some real art. It was humiliating because I was not a young person when I was in graduate school. I was a mature woman and respected by my tribe. Twice I packed up to leave but I decided that this society values academic credentials, and if I had the credentials I would have a voice and then I could say what I know to be true. For me this interconnectedness is reality; process and participation are everything. The experiential knowledge of the interconnectedness that comes from the natural world is much more than a decorative complement to intellectual comprehension or scientific observation. Experiencing this connectedness through subtle awareness can test conceptual knowledge and move you to a place of understanding that is far beyond linear concepts. I connect these fluid relationships by gathering and honoring. It's what I've come to know and value. My "Honoring" images, about 12 feet in diameter, are expressions of that process.

LA: Do you feel that the viewer can understand that process through your art?

SB: Yes, and I'm disturbed by art criticism that says that everything is socially or culturally produced through discourse, and that without this discourse we can't access each other's work. I think that's true of some things but not all things. When one of the installations was at the Los Angeles County Municipal Art Gallery in an exhibition called Utopian Dialogues, people were coming on their lunch hour and just sitting with the work. There was no text provided, but people related to the work because they related to the natural world. Somehow the work was bringing up for them the sense of connection, so, while people may not be able to completely understand the tribally-specific symbols that come from Cherokee stories, legends, songs, dance, different prayers and architecture, you can understand them as part of a symbolized reality itself. These symbols reveal an accumulation of knowledge whether I'm working on the conceptual, realistic or spiritual level, and for me there's an acceptance that all three of these levels exist simultaneously. Each can exist independently but they always exist simultaneously.

LA: Could you talk about your use of materials?

SB: I've been gathering from the natural world and participating in this process for about 17 years. All that I've gathered, with the exception of pine cones that came from the yard that I grew up in, and some scallop shells and other shells from Shell Island, which is an island off the northwest coast of Florida, will fit in four small boxes that are 15 inches by 22 inches by 12 inches. And I recycle everything that I honor. When the exhibition is complete I pick up all of the materials in the honoring and recycle them into a new form. Part of the process is even taking them out when I get to a museum site and touching each thing again and laying everything out and getting ready to begin the work. I feel that same kind of thing when I pick them up and pack them away again and send them home to get ready for creating a new form. I create these forms in my studio whether anybody sees them or not. It's part of how I stay connected and how I understand who and what I am as a human being.

I've been creating the circular forms since, oh, I would say '88 or '89. But I've been gathering materials and working with them in different forms for at least 17 years.

LA: When you do a new installation, what's your process for creating a new piece? Do you plan it out ahead or develop it at the site?

SB: It's developed on-site and as part of the process I bring everything. A lot of the things I don't use but I lay them out in the work space and honor them, I offer prayers, I ask the ancestors to come and be with me. I expect to be accountable for what I'm creating, and there's a wonderful rhythm that doing this work sets up. Each gathered material has a voice, a particular texture, a color, a particular form, and some of these forms I've become very familiar with. When I hold them there's a memory of what was happening in my life or of an event that may have taken place where that was gathered. There is also the time that has been spent with that particular object, like berries or petals, because things that you dry might do something different if they're dried outside or inside in a light place or a dark place. So I have this process going with each one of these things. There's so much to see and hear and feel and remember and create. Sometimes I can work for 10 hours straight and not even know what's happened to the time. You know, it's a very meditative type form. It just connects everything for me.

LA: Most of these works are specific to Cherokee culture, like Honoring Water Spider, Honoring Selu, and Honoring the Sacred Fire (each 1992). Do you try to focus on specific aspects of the culture in each piece?

SB: Before I moved into making the large pieces on the floor I was working on very large canvases, 60 inches by 80 inches, and I was priming the canvas with clay, for example, and then I was applying these materials and creating stories about Water Spider and the Redheaded Woodpecker, creating a dialogue and integrating myself in some way. Then I began to create an honoring to these beings on the floor in front of the canvas, and after that the canvas completely disappeared and the honoring was what remained. About Water Spider, there's a very private story. We believe that there are some things that you just don't tell publicly, that if you talk about certain kinds of things power can be acquired or lost but if you publicize things you can sometimes lose it. Maybe that's not a story that would be good to tell. A lot of times in gaining new knowledge and experiencing new things these pieces come about.

LA: Did you begin as a painter?

SB: A sculptor. I entered graduate school in sculpture and was working in mixed media and clay. I was making very large sculptures with found objects and natural materials. Then I started working on canvas, and then on the floor creating the Honoring pieces. I'm trying to remember when I made the first Honoring piece without any canvas or anything else attached to it. It was probably somewhere in the mid to late 80's. I know that I've been creating these forms for 6 or 7 years and they're all different. They are never the same. There are certain things that repeat themselves in the form, though. Frequently I create an arbor out of sticks that represents where our families sit at our ceremonial grounds. Creating that form and putting it right in the center of the Honoring piece is where I start. That creates a sense of family for me. Usually on top of that arbor I will put something like a bowl with special things that I've gathered, or which holds special memories and says certain things to me, and then I begin spiraling out and making the circle, usually working counter-clockwise.

LA: Early in your career you worked in business.

SB: I worked in business for eleven years or so. I was in art school in the early 70's and then I began to do some illustration work and some ads for shopping centers and then, let's see, how did this all happen? I was invited to join a company and very shortly after that I wasn't doing artwork any more, I was doing marketing, and in that eleven year career I became national media services coordinator for one company. The job paid a lot of money, and friends and family were saying that I was so successful, but I didn't feel successful at all. I felt very unhappy in what I was doing. I didn't feel good about the kinds of ethics that existed in the corporate world. And it certainly didn't match my world view. So I finally just said I can't do this any more. And that was when I left and went back to undergraduate school and decided I would never do that again. And so now I'm teaching and making art and curating exhibitions.

LA: You've curated a number of shows through American Indian Contemporary Arts, so you get the chance to see a great deal of contemporary Native art. You've said that there can be no single definition of Native art, but that there are some common threads. From your vantage point as artist and curator, what do you see as some of those common threads?

SB: I think that was almost five years ago, and I see fewer threads now. What I see happening is that artists are becoming informed about mainstream issues and the relationship between traditional art-making and mainstream art, what our artistic practices are today, what is it that we want to participate in, or don't want to participate in, and what is it that we choose to negate. I see artists creating works and being much more vocal than five and a half years ago about their work. Native artists are gaining a lot more visibility, and I think that's probably the most significant thing that I see. Everyone is choosing their own way of being, and not so much relying upon what may be done traditionally, or even what's happening in the mainstream. They are utilizing the creative process to explore the depth of spirit in a lot of things. I'm really proud of the work that I did at American Indian Contemporary Arts the five years that I was there. During that time we developed three national touring exhibitions. Native America: Reflecting Contemporary Realities has now been touring for almost three years. The Indian Humor show that began its tour this last year already has eleven bookings, and The Spirit of Native America is now traveling in this country, but it was curated to travel in Mexico, Central and South America, and was at eleven venues in eleven different countries. I was able to travel to some of the countries and present the exhibition. In Santiago I was very fortunate to be able to spend some time with the Mapuches in Chile, and share our images and talk about some of the issues there, and maybe create some exchange programs. I feel really fortunate to have gotten to know so many wonderful artists who will be lifetime friends.

LA: Are the artists in the South doing anything similar to Native artists in the States?

SB: Yes, I do see similar explorations. While I was in Santiago a group of artists invited me to come for the evening and they brought slides and we talked about our work. It was really interesting to see how many of the same kinds of issues are being addressed, or even very similar conceptual work. And for many, the close attachment to the land, and the dialogue that goes on between the artists and representations of that, was something that felt very familiar.

LA: Do you feel that your work attempts to make a bridge between the traditional and the modern arts?

SB: In some ways, I could not create the Honoring pieces if our tradition did not exist. The equal arm cross that I represent many times is a representation of the sacred fire. The way that I create the form, and its relationship with the earth, is all new. The equal arm cross in a circle is very, very ancient. In my classes in Tahlequah with the children we would look at some of those different forms as they were created through time, and what they represented, not only in pottery but in many different kinds of forms. Some are as old as 800 A.D. This is the way we tell our stories to future generations. I think each generation has a responsibility to know about their traditions, to know what it is that informs life, and to create some expression about that so that there isn't a gap between previous generations and future generations about what was experienced today. Form is about experience. I think each of us contribute to that and if my work is looked at by future generations, they will see something very old from ancient times. But there are new stories about how the materials are gathered and how the forms are created from them. I fill shells with water from different places and allow it to evaporate. Sometimes it's sea water from different places and it leaves beautiful salt crystals in the shells that say something about my traveling. It's obvious in looking at these materials that they're not all from one place; they're not all from Oklahoma. But Oklahoma wasn't our home anyway. Before the removal in 1838, before the Trail of Tears, we were in the Southeast, in North and South Carolina, Kentucky, Tennessee, Northern Georgia, and Northern Alabama, and one thing that I would like to do in the future is to go back to a lot of those sites and just spend time there and feel what they're like and what I can understand about them. But I just know that if I could not do the Honoring pieces that I'm doing right now, living in an urban area, I don't think I could survive. It is what keeps me connected. I was lecturing to a group of students at Hunter College in New York once , and the students said well, you know, we don't live in the woods like you do and we don't have access to these things. I said I live in downtown San Francisco. It's what you choose to focus on. When I walk to work every morning, I make sure that I acknowledge the sky, I touch the trees and the vines that are on my way to work, and I ground myself with those things. And when I'm not working, I get out of the city and spend time in places and with things that are important to me in my life.

LA: As you look ahead, can you see what direction your work is going?

SB: In terms of what form the work will take, whether these Honoring pieces will continue, I don't know. Right now, the connection that comes from them and the excitement about doing the work is very, very strong and does not seem to diminish. I don't know if a new form will come about. I absolutely never know that. I just let the materials and the forms speak for themselves and then if it changes, it changes. As long as it's informing me and a dialogue is continuing to present new information it probably won't change.

Selected Exhibitions

Experiencing in Art, Crocker Art Museum, sacramento, CA, 1995

19th Century American Painting: The Native American Program, Palazzo delle Esposizioni, Rome, Italy, 1994

In the Spirit of Nature, San Jose Museum of Art, San Jose, CA, 1994

Utopian Dialogues, Los Angeles County Municipal Gallery, Los Angeles, CA, 1993

A Kindred Spirit, Bedford Gallery/Regional Center for the Arts, Walnut Creek, CA, 1993

Migration of Meaning, Hillwood Art Museum, C.W. Post/Long Island University, NY, 1993

Native American Land Issues, Pro Arts Gallery, Oakland, CA, 1992

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