Sisters of the Great Lakes: Art of American Indian Women

at the Field Museum, through March 29

Mary Eveland

at Intuit, through January 24

By Fred Camper

The common Western view of artist, materials, and the world–the artist shapes his materials to produce illusions that make statements–has recently been challenged by outside artists and those working with traditional crafts, including women and Native Americans. Unaffected by the academic mainstream, such artists often view their materials, themselves, and their world less hierarchically–more as equal participants in a game or dance.

Some of the Native American artists in “Sisters of the Great Lakes”–an exhibit of 24 works, including drawings, paintings, quilts, pottery, jewelry, dolls, and installations, by 20 women–practice traditional crafts while others combine aspects of contemporary Western art with traditional culture. But the best artists in either group envision humans, plants, and animals as part of a continuum: we’re less masters of the natural world than participants in it. In Tammy Tarbell-Boehning’s Three Sisters–a freestanding piece of pottery that shows Indian women as flowering plants–the face of one sits atop a corncob. The “body” of another is a squash, and beside her head, leaves open and squash flowers bloom. Though there’s a contrast between the pottery’s mostly light surface and the women’s dark faces and hair, their bodies are well integrated with the flowing, plantlike lines of the whole piece. Like the “primitive” art of many cultures, this work suggests what Westerners often forget: that we too are part of nature.

“Sisters of the Great Lakes” grew out of a 1993-’94 workshop in Michigan designed to encourage American Indian women artists by providing them with information about the art business and with a forum for the exchange of ideas and techniques. The women created some works especially for this show, and though the catalog emphasizes their cooperation with one another, the work they’ve made is remarkably diverse.

Several pieces replace the complete picture of Three Sisters with multiple, more open images. Shirley M. Brauker’s Sisters is a clay vessel solid in its lower half but broken in the upper by a friezelike openwork design that includes four women and various plants and animals. While the women’s outstretched hands touch, unifying the scene, gaps appear between their legs and arms and the tree trunks. In addition, each woman is clad differently, symbolizing a coming together of different tribes, and faces in one of the four directions, long an important symbolic tradition in Native American cultures. “The animals,” Brauker told me, “are like spirit animals: each one has a different lesson or medicine they can give the people.” Once again human figures and nature are intertwined, a melding that the broken surface heightens: the open areas take their outlines from the figures, and the resulting lack of closure suggests that these trees, or women, cannot be fully evoked by images, inviting the viewer to imagine links and spirits not fully shown.

Yvonne M. Walker-Keshick’s To Our Sisters is a birch-bark box covered with a design made of porcupine quills, which add a coarse, grainy texture to the images. Walker-Keshick, who comes from a long line of quill workers, doesn’t usually dye her quills; instead she uses brown-and-white quills to create a sort of drawing in the two tones. Cutting and arranging the quills with great care, she creates human figures and animals whose edges are articulated by the color change within single quills. She also often arranges the quills to enhance the texture of what’s depicted, to show the veins of a leaf or suggest the grain of wood. She even places a few extra quills on top of the box, above the inlaid ones, to show us what they look like on their own: you’re not only looking at pictures of nature but at the natural materials themselves, once part of an animal and now the artist’s medium. The work thus suggests the unity underlying nature: the spirit residing in any of its parts echoes throughout the whole.

While some of these works reflect traditional Native American crafts, others combine newer materials and approaches with traditional symbols. Jolene Rickard relies on photography and installation art in her Skywoman Looks Back, one of a series using circular shapes, but what’s most moving about the work is the way it breaks away from Western conceptions of the viewer. She’s arranged branches on a platform as in the outer rim of a giant bird’s nest and placed photographic transparencies in the center. Lit from underneath, these are broken up into a nine-panel grid reinforced by four twigs placed over it in a ticktacktoe pattern. The images in the photos look a bit like tree branches but are actually cracks in the earth; also included is a large eye looking up at us, which made me even more conscious of my own role as an observer than I usually am. Rather than the paradoxes and ironies invoked by many installations, this one seemed to require action, as if it were an incantation or part of some ceremony: I kept wanting to do something–sing, kneel, dance–rather than just look at it. Skywoman Looks Back has an almost religious power, crossing the boundary between life and art with a force that the playful work of the Fluxus group, for example, never could.

Rickard told me that the grid of twigs came from “the way the earth is gridded by string in an archaeological excavation site,” a way of recording exactly what was found where but also “an interruption of nature.” The circle in part refers to the Iroquois creation story, in which the “Skywoman” from whom the tribe is descended falls to earth through a hole in the upper world. For Rickard, the circle represents “this moment of transformation–and I believe our people are in a real state of transformation right now.” The twigs are branches, called red whip, “that would be used symbolically on a man who’s stepped out of line.” But one doesn’t have to know all these facts to feel the work’s allure. The combination of illuminated nature photos and actual branches, all arrayed in a circle, made me feel the inadequacy of viewing art alone and in silence. Here there’s no single “right” place for a lone spectator. Wherever I stood, I was aware of the empty spaces around me; finally the work seemed to call out for a group of observers.

This is not a small matter. Much of modern Western art, with its perceptual complexities and ambiguities, addresses the viewer as a lone individual, making one keenly aware of one’s own uniqueness. Much of the art in this show, on the other hand, defines the viewer as a member of a community.

Perhaps as a corollary, many of the works in “Sisters” seem more pictorial than expressive. A stained-glass wildlife piece in the exhibit would look great in someone’s foyer, and a large geometrical quilt in which parallelograms of printed fabric make a symmetrical design could happily grace many walls. These served as reminders that elegance of design doesn’t necessarily mean interesting work. A related proposition–that interesting work isn’t necessarily elegantly made–is demonstrated in the six quilts by Mary Eveland now at Intuit.

There are also 31 paintings and drawings on view: the show constitutes the entire oeuvre of this farmer’s wife and factory worker, who lived near Pekin and died in 1981 at the age of 85. Untrained as an artist, she began making quilts in 1976; at that time collector Merle Glick encouraged her to paint as well. The paintings are charming but reminiscent of much naive art. More extraordinary are the six large quilts, two on Biblical themes and four on historical subjects.

Eveland’s eyesight was failing when she began working, and her designs are broad and imprecise. The quilts are usually divided into panels arrayed in grids, each panel embroidered with colored thread to form text, pictures, or both. Eveland’s point of view is evident in the quilts’ very simplicity: representing the grandest of subjects in the sketchiest of designs, she deflates, whether intentionally or not, the monumentality of Christianity and history. Personalizing her subjects, she reconfigures the past as craft. Christian high art has traditionally used the most refined techniques to hide its artifice and produce the illusion of saints and Trinity, while Eveland’s naively obvious technique makes her own act of stitching the subject. Her awkwardly lettered words and schematic figures remind us that these are designs made by a single somewhat limited hand. At the same time her beguiling sincerity–manifested in her colors and designs and juxtaposition of subjects–makes the work emotionally convincing.

In The Birth and Teaching of Jesus she illustrates the words “I am the way the truth and the life” with the simplest possible outline of Christ in black, white, and red thread. She depicts other important subjects, such as the Crucifixion, with a similar sparseness. At the top of History of Illinois is the poetic sentence “Tall prairie grass became the first roads.” One panel shows only the outline of a house against blue cloth–early settlement, perhaps. Though Eveland researched her history quilts in the library, the panels are not chronological: “1978 school buses,” accompanied by two outlines of buses, is above the panel showing the “1858 McCormick self-rakere,” accompanied by stitchings of a scythe and a rake. Most of the panels are square, but Eveland’s playfulness surfaces in one wide horizontal panel, extending the full width of the quilt, labeled “rail road” and stitched with a train track.

Great Opportunities–United States History is perhaps the finest of the quilts, made up of 63 square panels. Here Eveland mixes the historical and the personal with an audacity that bespeaks the truths of an individual’s experience: “strike over back to work” and “father’s day” are as important as “election year 1916.” Though she understands historical connections–she juxtaposes Ben Franklin flying a kite with a telephone in an adjacent panel–she doesn’t try for either a grand overall statement or aesthetic “perfection”: a checkerboardlike pattern in alternating colors is disrupted once or twice by the odd third color. Nor does history follow any grand pattern. It’s a series of events that interested her, that she remembers, to which she’s applied her hand. Just as she makes her own life part of history, so the awkward charm of her eccentric, irregular stitching reminds us that this object is the product of an individual. Looking at her sewing, I felt almost as if I were watching her do it.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): “Skywoman Looks Back” by Jolene Rickard photo courtesy Sisters of the Great Lakes/MSU Museum; “History of Illinois” by Mary Eveland.