fig. 21: Torso, I
Oil on canvas, 28x36", 1990
© Page Allen
Few would dispute that Page Allen is a quintessential western artist; she was named "spiritual descendant of Georgia O'Keeffe" by critic Sally Eauclaire in ARTnews precisely because, like O'Keeffe, she infuses her work with western themes and symbols. A vast mountain landscape opens to the touch of her paintbrush, or a hand in a human form arrests us, index finger pointing to an antelope, a "native" species and ethereal sign of a west that is real but also imagined. Animals, rocks, clouds and plants - the stuff of the earth - here become especially compelling. In both Page Allen's and Georgia O'Keeffe's art, the most basic elements take on an aura that is part and parcel of the west - its capacity to suggest new realms of possibility.
Historically, the American west has long been assigned this role. Western artists are expected to be visionaries and to some extent, outlaws. The cast calls for characters with a rugged or renegade sensibility, as only they are (supposedly) equipped to handle the frontier. They must renounce the east and the rule-bound society it represents, in order to fully embrace the new freedoms embodied (metaphorically) in the west. In this cultural construction, the west symbolizes possibility because its project is never finished. The west is raw; the east is cooked, and cooked according to custom. Thus, the west is viewed as more primal or natural and free of civilization's constraints, as well as its discontents.
The Georgia O'Keeffe legend seems to confirm this myth. She is said to have languished in New York after experiencing the magical space and light of the southwest. In order to return, she had to give up her city comforts and connections (including her relationship to Alfred Stieglitz and his avant-garde circle) and strike off on her own, as if on a pilgrimage. In New Mexico, her life-style is assumed to have been austere and bare-bones, like the skulls that she painted, stripped clean of all but the essentials. Like a nun in a monastery, during her western period O'Keeffe is always depicted in black. Her skin is shown dry and as sere as the landscape, and she becomes a venerated, albeit intimidating iconoclast: THE most famous female artist of the American west.
Ironically, although O'Keeffe's identity is inalterably merged with that of the west, she was not a native westerner by birth. She was a visionary, but not a native. Therefore, in order to claim what was not hers by birthright, she had to make sacrifices and embark on an epic journey. Her search, like that for the holy grail, is undoubtedly part of her aesthetic cachet. Thus, for non-natives who follow O'Keeffe, a path has been cleared. When the western mythos becomes part of these artists' spiritual quest, it can make their work seem more "authentic."
But who exactly is a "native" artist, and what does the term "native" mean? Should birthplace be the sole criterion? Demographics indicate that migration is a primary characteristic for most of the American west's populace. Historically, the region was the site of repeated colonial conquests, which also helps explain its racial and cultural diversity. In the contemporary American west, dislocation and fragmentation are commonly felt consequences of an increasingly mobile society. Even so-named "Native Americans" may live or be born outside their tribal home lands.
Perhaps an artist's self-defined relationship to the west and her chosen culture should be the arbiter of what consitutes an authentic western vision. Page Allen was born and later educated in Illinois, as well as at Princeton and at schools in New England. Her background does not suggest a drama comparable to the legendary Georgia O'Keeffe's, despite her having been connected to O'Keeffe's legacy by critical acclaim. However, what draws Allen to the southwest may have quite a bit in common with O'Keeffe's spirituality, once the hype and hubris are dispelled.
In her artist statement, Allen describes a western homecoming with simple eloquence: "The little plane makes its ascent, heading home to New Mexico, and the whole, great sweep of mountains appears as we rise [. . . ]. These are the landmark mountains of the southern Front Range, silent and eloquent, austere and generous. They lend their easy majesty to our human preoccupations, enlarging us, reminding us of something beyond the daily task. Looking down now, the roads unfurl north-south, east-west; they are the straight courses of our journeys and journeying [. . . ]. This western land lends itself as a subject for painting, offering an abundance of light and space, ripe with metaphor. Here familiarity and awe may coexist [. . .]."
fig. 22: Light Gears
Oil, quills, stones, 66x78", 1989-90
© Kay Miller
In Light Gears by Kay Miller, "familiarity and awe" seem to coexist and contrast. A brilliant golden sun is counterposed against a pair of dice, and even the painting's title suggests the play of opposites, such as nature and culture. But the die has not been altogether cast, as the gaming dice are framed with porcupine quills that form a shape whose presence is exquisite on the canvas, hovering next to the floating sun. Gears may seem antithetical to the power of the sun, but whatever machinations are at work in the combination of dice and animal spirits, they invoke a different logic.
According to critic Lucy Lippard in Mixed Blessings, the "opposites" in Miller's paintings "spark each other and offer a way of seeing that is fundamentally unfamiliar to Western thought [. . .]. The central puzzle for the viewer of Miller's work is to see what the two unlike images really 'have to do with' each other, and what that says about their 'offspring' - the meaning they produce. A crystal and a medicine wheel, a tongue and a waterfall, a helicopter and a dragonfly [. . .] an awesome whirling, burning sun and a multicolored cloud of porcupine quills: the logic of these juxtapositions emerges from a spiritual tradition that incorporates chance, a 'new' tradition that Miller, a student of the I Ching, weaves from Asian and Native American belief systems."
Miller's own viewpoint is that she is "inspired by the historical/cultural traditions of animals in southern plains Indian cosmologies." She adds, "I want to give a 'close-up look' at the spiritual power of animals here as they are imperiled by the impact of human activity. The native approach to these animals teaches ways to be in these spiritual beings [. . .]." Yet for Miller, who is part Commanche and grew up in urban Houston, being "native" requires integrating a number of cultures. She says, "Having my conscience and consciousness rooted in this western landbase, I was taught to listen for and observe the constants and particulars of nature here, as well as the social and political patterns of both Indians and non-Indians."
fig. 23: Yellow Whipped
Oil and mixed media, 66x78"
© Kay Miller
What is the relationship of an oil rig to a tree as joyfully colored as Christmas? And who or what does the "yellow whipped woman" signify when the only whipped object in sight is the thick yellow impasto which forms this painting's ground? Surely Kay Miller is being a trickster here: "the transformer, the Joker, the Blending Edge of Opposites [. . .] all self-identities" which are at the least, dual ones.
Lucy Lippard believes that Miller "insists on keeping her double identity and on the possibility of a spiritual union between 'urban and tribal views, ghetto and ecological attitudes, white and Indian cultures, orthodox religion and personally intuited insights.'" She calls Miller "a visionary whose 'global' political/spiritual view springs from the earthy and ethereal sources of her own class and cultural background [. . .] her images sparkle with disjunctive laughter about the irony of living in a world that is unable to put the pieces together."
Kay Miller may recognize the political fallacy of attempting to construct a seamless cosmology where all the pieces do fit together, yet one constant that informs her work is a deep respect for the earth, combined with a critical attitude towards technology. Sara Bates,whose "Honoring Circles" also derive from Native American Indian traditions, seems to share some of these same values.
Bates constructs circular geometric installations comprised of literally thousands of natural elements such as sand, shells, pine cones and dried flowers. For more than 18 years, she has been gathering these organic materials to commemorate her living relationship with specific places, plants, animals, people and above all, with the earth. As Bates explains, "it is necessary to understand that Native American people, in general, perceive the environment as an aware, conscious entity permeated with spiritual power [. . .]. The 'Honoring' pieces I create center on the traditional world view of my tribe, the Cherokee. They represent how I, as one Cherokee, incorporate traditional views in my everyday life."
fig. 24: Honoring Seven
Natural materials, 11 ft. diameter (detail), 1992
© Sara Bates
When Sara Bates seats herself on the floor of an art museum or gallery and begins to assemble the organic materials she has collected over the years, she is enacting a ritual which simultaneously honors her interconnection with nature and with all her relations. Bates says, "Our traditional belief systems teach us to respect the environment because it holds the order and structure of things. This relationship between the natural world and Human Beings is sacred, reciprocal and mutually dependent."
Bates's process is reflective and reverential as she constructs each new circle afresh, reusing most elements and recycling the old into the new. Most of her materials exhibit little or no intervention except for placement in the circle - their color and texture are inherent, enhanced only by drying techniques that help bring out the deep red of berries or the earthy yellow of flower petals. These natural objects carry the memories of her personal history - pine cones recovered from a tree at her father's home may represent roots and stability - yet they resonate with a collective experience that most of us have shared. As curator Jennifer Complo states in the brochure to Bates' 1997 Eiteljorg Museum exhibition:
It is fair to say her concerns are the concerns of most individuals with a conscience. Her work creates a mirror - a mirror of ourselves, of history and of the earth. It is a place to go and concentrate. To think of how you are connected to this piece of art, to the artist and the materials she uses. The materials are not foreign; they are familiar. We have almost all, without exception, held a pebble or a pine cone. We have all enjoyed that experience in our innocence and ignored it in our haste.
fig. 25: Honoring Pine
Natural materials, 7 ft. diameter (detail), 1992
© Sara Bates
Sara Bates's relationship to artmaking is process rather than object oriented, and this aspect of her work also reflects her native world view. At the end of an exhibition, she disassembles her pieces and packs them into four small boxes in preparation for their next incarnation. Her artworks are not for sale; the concept of owning parts of nature conflicts with her traditional culture's values, and thus no individual nor institution can purchase or own her work. By placing her work outside the market system, Bates asks us to interact with it as with nature, without recourse to commerce or other forms of exploitation. As Jennifer Complo notes, "Once the piece is disembodied, it ceases to exist except in memory. This may symbolize the delicate balance of nature and the consequences of upsetting that balance."
Moreover, Bates suggests that many common assumptions about "art" really derive from western cultural constructs, including the notion that "art" exists as a separate abstract category. She says, "Prior to European exposure, most Native Americans had no word for 'art.' The creative process was viewed as a gift in which all human beings could participate, and the idea of art 'for its own sake' was unknown. People created special things for themselves, family, community, the earth and the universe to express and maintain the depth of spirit interconnecting all that is. The process of creation was viewed as fully integrated with and inspired by vision and intent."
To view art in this context - as a purposeful creation that brings wholeness through integration - is indeed a great gift. And although Bates's art employs symbols that are specific to her culture, she strongly believes that being human gives all of us the ability to experience this connection. "Interconnectedness is reality," Bates says. "Process and participation is everything [. . .]. I believe you can access the 'Honoring' because you are a Human Being and are related to all the beauty the Earth exhibits and are connected through every part of your body. This is a natural gift that we as Human Beings have been given."
fig. 26: Honoring
Utopian Dialogues Exhibition, Los Angeles, CA
Natural materials, 11 ft. diameter, 1993
© Sara Bates
Many of Bates's "Honoring Circles" are built on a radial composition with four divisions that derive from the "equal arm cross," Cherokee symbol of the sacred fire:
The fire is burning on the earth, with one log in each cardinal direction. The fire represents balance. It is the messenger between this world and the upper world. Smoke is the connector. I start with that image [. . .]. If I need a bowl for honoring newly found materials, the clay must come from a special place. I cannot reach into Mother Earth and remove clay without permission. I must tell the Guardians and other beings who live there my name and my purpose. I call the Provider, the Old Ones of the Wolf Clan, the Water Spider Who Brought the First Fire to Our People, the Redbird, the Sacred Redheaded Woodpecker and others. I say, 'Are you well? I love you. Please help me to make good things and create honor.'
The symbols are Cherokee, but the sentiments resonate across time and culture. They were a common theme in 19th-century utopian literature (Sir Thomas More wrote that [Utopians] "consider the contemplation and praise of nature an act of worship pleasing to God"), and they are especially relevant today, when environmental ethics have become crucial to all species' survival. Western science confirms that ecosystems depend on harmony and balance for health. Cherokee tradition holds that "the most important part of yourself to develop is your relationship with the natural world [. . .]. There's a circular motion that creates harmony and holds things together [. . .] if even one species pulls out, the circle is in danger of falling apart."
Sara Bates's art has vision and consequence. She believes that "The greatest underlying malady of the mainstream contemporary worldview is the lack of belief in the sacred interchange we have with nature." Her art teaches all of us how to rekindle that flame, and reminds us that "You do not have to be Cherokee to access this work; you can access the work because you are a human being and part of the earth, as it is part of you."
fig. 27: Earth - Air -
Concrete and mosaic, 10x30'
© Mary Fuller, 1986
Mary Fuller, a California sculptor, has been carving "giant totems and goddesses" for nearly 50 years. Her artwork embodies numerous sources - Native American, Pre-Columbian, African, ancient matriarchal cultures - and like the sacred totems of the Pacific Northwest coastal tribes, honors her ancestral ties to family, both animal and human. Her art is shared and openly accessible, as public commissions have ensured that it is visible to a wide audience.
Earth - Air - Sea is sited in close proximity to the ocean and the San Francisco Zoo, and like many of Fuller's works,the animal figures (in this case a lion, bird, and fish) were chosen to relate to their environment and engage a broad audience. Fuller's "play sculpture" in Portsmouth Square (also in San Francisco) was designed especially for children. "It is important for children to see art," Fuller says, " [. . .] it enhances their senses because it represents human action, human senses, human tradition."
Born in 1922, Fuller has lived in California all but the first two years of her life. She studied philosophy at Berkeley, and discovered she loved to work with metal and stone while welding in a Richmond, California shipyard during World War II. In 1949 she married Robert McChesney, and much of her writing, including the book A Period of Exploration: San Francisco 1945-1950 (which has been called "one of the key documentary works in the field of modern California art history") has been published under the Mary Fuller McChesney name.
An ardent feminist who makes art that is consciously "anti-patriarchal," Fuller found that in the 1950's, women artists, as well as west coast artists, were not taken seriously. More recently she has said that "women artists [. . .] are often viewed as eccentrics, or perhaps merely quaint, or worse, plain uninteresting, depending upon husbands to support them, and painting privately for themselves."
fig. 28: New Guinea Lady
of the Beasts
© Mary Fuller, 1996
Perhaps in defiance of such prejudice, during the 1980s (and after her 60th birthday), Fuller began to create a series of carved concrete goddesses, many of which combined animal motifs with joyful and sensual female figures. In the 1990s, inspired by a centuries-old Chinese sculpture of an old woman dancing, she began a new series on that theme, saying, "What a delight to see an old woman depicted as strong, powerful, full of life and, what's more, happy [. . .]. I am really tired of all the negativity that surrounds us in our later years and plan to do a whole series of old women dancing to help counteract those attitudes."
Like many women who are spiritually nourished by the earth and earth-based cultural traditions, Fuller's gynocentric (or woman-centered) world view is intimately fused with her connection to nature. It would be instructive to review even Georgia O'Keeffe's work from this perspective - to consider the source of the energy that throbs in her clouds and flowers - to compare the spare image of the old woman in black to Fuller's dancing crones.
fig. 29: Yellow-Eyed Snake
© Mary Fuller, 1989
Mary Fuller's Yellow-Eyed Snake Goddess is a gentle goddess who seems almost huggable in a grandmotherly sort of way. Yet, the reference to South Indian tantric sculptures dating back to 1800 C.E., where ecstatic religious energy literally explodes as a snake coiling out of a woman's vulva, is unmistakable. Sandy Boucher, who has authored four books on Buddhism, described her personal encounter with such an image in the first issue of Snake Power: A Joural of Contemporary Female Shamanism (October 31, 1989):
I look at a photograph of a carving from a temple in India. The woman's thighs are open. From her cunt emerges a serpent. At first the thing extending from her genitals looks like a penis to me (we are so conditioned!) Then I am able to shift my perspective [. . .]. And I am angry not only at how we are treated in this twentieth century North America but at what has been stolen from us [. . .]. Yoni [. . .] vulva [. . .] kundalini [. . .] kaure [. . .] karuna [. . .] and farther back, to the female power, tenderness, mother love, enlightenment and sex that was the foundation of all the religions of the world. The power of the serpent coiling from the yoni.
Snake goddess carvings from the Neolithic era (6000-5500 B.C.E.) usually depict a woman sitting in a yogic position, with snakelike arms and legs wrapping her body in an embrace. Scholars believe these early goddess figures symbolized regeneration and rebirth, as may Fuller's goddess. Just as a woman replenishes vital uterine tissues each month, so too can the shedding of a snake's skin symbolize the seasonal renewal of the life force.
IV Woman as Origin
All images © the artists.
All text (except quotations) © Susan Ressler.