Chicago artist Ted Garner recalls listening to David Bowie’s Space Oddity when it first came out. He was in his grandparents’ house–a log cabin–on a reservation. This sort of “surreal cultural assemblage is part of the state of being an American Indian,” he says.

Garner grew up with American Indian art objects collected by his anthropologist parents and was exposed to modernist metal sculpture while working as an assistant for Mark Di Suvero. His painted wood sculptures are now in the show “Native Streams” at the Jan Cicero Gallery, along with work by 18 other Native American artists.

Garner points out that Native Americans have long been influenced by modern art, but says that only since the 60s has there been anything like a contemporary American Indian art movement. He credits educational grants that made art schools more accessible. This, he says, coincided with a “reawakening of American Indian pride and spirit.”

Gallery owner Jan Cicero notes, “Most of the artists in this exhibition have MFAs. They have been educated with European art ideas.” The combination of their education in Western art and their personal experience of living as a Native American has created a new movement: works that mix influences from current art with imagery and ideas from native cultures.

Joe Feddersen’s prints are based on abstract designs on traditional corn husk bags, which Feddersen once made. Lillian Pitt borrows figurative designs from corn husk bags and cedar baskets for her ceramic masks. Her faces’ pursed lips are a reference to childhood stories of “stick Indians that are always whistling: leading a good person to safety or whistling bad people deeper into the forest.”

In addition to visual borrowings most of the pieces in the show are influenced by traditional ideas of the artist’s role. Garner points out that most American Indian cultures didn’t have a separate category of people called artists. “Ownership and decoration were the same,” he says. “You decorated everything you owned because you wanted it to be beautiful.” Feddersen identifies his “very personal pieces” with the same tradition, in which “everything was made by individuals for their own pleasure.”

“Native Streams” is on view at Jan Cicero Gallery, 221 W. Erie, through February 24, after which it travels to museums around the country. Gallery hours are 11 to 5 Tuesday through Saturday; call 440-1904 for more.

–Fred Camper

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos / Michael Tropea.