I took my students to the Seattle Art Museum today, in preparation for the drawing Final. In conversation with one of the emerging artists in class, I found out that she had taught high school for five years before the system broke her.
Like me, she’s uncomfortable speaking in front of a class, so she marveled at how personable I am, despite introversion. Being personable is easy for me because though introverted I honest to goodness like people. All different kinds of people– they don’t have to agree with my politics or like what I like for me to enjoy their stories and points of view. I know that in our highly polarized world that’s unusual. But I was fortunate enough to have a socialist father and fascist mother who fell in love and married just 12 days after their initial meeting. From them, I learned that hearts don’t have to be defined or constrained by isms of any kind.
What’s always hard for me is the return to the classroom, standing at the front, with all eyes on me. It usually gives me insomnia the first week of each term, due to the anxiety of meeting so many new people all at once. I can feel sorry for myself when I’m tired like that. And then I remember that being a studio artist, being a public artist, being a teaching artist– these are all blessings that grace my life with opportunities to contribute to our larger cultural and art ecology.
Surrounded by the artworks and objects created by countless fine and crafts artists throughout the centuries, I was filled with a sense of responsibility and gratitude. Grateful to Seattle Art Museum for always welcoming my students. Grateful to all the hands that fashioned the works that engage us across time, unbound by the confines of nation, culture, gender. Like I do in the studio, as my students do in our classroom, each of these artists once upon a time touched this material world with their hearts their hands their minds leaving behind an indelible trace, a contribution to that great legacy to which we are all heirs.
I’ll spend quiet, reflective time in the studio over the summer. The easel is my home sweet home, but certainly, not my only opportunity to contribute.
I had the most amazing time with my painting students on Thursday, when we went on field-trip to Seattle Art Museum. We got to visit the special exhibit, Jeffrey Gibson’s Like A Hammer.
Comprised of sculptures, installation, film, paintings, and mixed media objects, Gibson’s restless aesthetics reach out across gender, sexualities, and racial lines to open our eyes and our hearts to our shared humanity, and the deep wounds felt by indigenous peoples and queer communities.
Power, politics, and all kinds of hierarchies were called into question relentlessly, but without a strident voice. Gibson’s work seduces first and foremost with his color, textures, craftsmanship; gently guiding us to a reframed state of mind. I am often wowed by creative genius and this show certainly grabbed me by the eyeballs and shook me. But more than that. He reached deep into my soul.
The institutional power of museums and our colonial past was movingly called into question by a documentary project in which Gibson invited fellow Native Americans from different tribes to come to the Denver Art Museum and relate to the institution’s tribal art and artifact collections. The sense of deep loss and intergenerational trauma was so palpable I had to push back tears.
Afterwards, I met my printmaking class for a short gallery tour, visiting several galleries that focus some or all their programming on the graphic arts. Stonington Gallery was on our itinerary because we wanted to look at contemporary Native American printmakers.
Stonington has been a fount of knowledge about contemporary indigenous artists from the Pacific Coast and Alaska since it opened back in the late 70s. The gallery was the very first to ever give a Native American artist a solo show in Seattle and openly acknowledges on its website that the gallery and larger city of Seattle occupiesunceded Duwamish lands.
So imagine my heartbreak if not outright horror to pull out a piece from the stacks in the formlinestyle of Northwest Coast art by a non-indigenous artist! I mean, a complete, unabashed appropriation (rip-off), being sold in a gallery that has become known for its championing of indigenous arts and artists.
A student asked, are they just being influenced? Another responded that it was appropriation, an I was inclined to agree. No self-reflecting artist would ever send such an outright cultural trespass out to a gallery, much less one devoted to Northwest Coast art!
I felt a little cornered by this gross example of entitlement because in the very first lecture for the class I showed slide after slide of how printmaking as a communication and art form has bridged cultural and national lines. Like language itself, it is universally human. I told these emerging talents that culture and art form part of our shared history. And here was a predatory printmaking piece that argued loudly for cultural isolationism! Philosophically, cultural isolationism is a kind of protectionism that stems from fear of the Other. Granted, people of color and indigenous peoples have a historical basis to fear the aggressions of white and European oppressors. But it’s a two-edged sword. All we have to do is look at the atrocities committed in the name of protectionism in the past (and in the present) to know that while self-defense is important, putting up walls is always a self-defeating proposition in the long run. But I didn’t say this.
The only thing I could think to say was that context matters.
I return again to the amazing Jeffrey Gibson, who is indigenous and queer and must have experienced both micro and macro aggressions, many of these cultural, but whose generous spirit broadens our cultural touchstones and his own by including other cultures and references into his work.
I’m thinking especially of his piece Im Ein Ani Li, Mi Li-Hillel, which features a quote in Hebrew using glass beads, artificial sinew, wool, acrylic, among other materials referencing Gibson’s cultural origins. Although the Gibson features the quote by Hillel, a Jewish leader who endured Roman rule and incorporated the Star of David in his design it differs entirely from the offensive piece we saw at Stonington. For one, Gibson doesn’t try to make it look like some unearthed manuscript found on Mt Sinai, while the print artist at the gallery definitely masked his creation so that it looked like a Northwest Coast indigenous creation.
That difference means that Gibson doesn’t trespass. He doesn’t appropriate. He doesn’t feel entitled to Hillel’s culture. But he is inspired by that ancient leader’s question, “If I am not for myself, then who will be for me?”
We all left the gallery in a somber mood. It was a little traumatic, actually, to discover Stonington could be selling something like that. It felt like a betrayal, though of course, they can conduct business as they like.
Thankfully, we got the chance to hear from Greg Kucera at the end of our gallery walk. His recollections of the great master, Jacob Lawrence, were touching, and reminded us all that there are big souls in the world that change their societies with their art, and with their teaching. That was a real balm to my heart, to be sure!