269250.000; Kay WalkingStick;

Kay WalkingStick’s retrospective travels to the Dayton Art Institute

By Brittany Erwin

Photo: Kay WalkingStick’s ‘New Mexico Desert,’ one work in her retrospective at Dayton Art Institute
 
Art lovers, rejoice! A world-class, contemporary landscape artist with a nationally acclaimed exhibition now at the Dayton Art Institute. Kay WalkingStick’s touring retrospective—the first of her career—will be featured at DAI through May 7. Recently named by Hyperallergic magazine as one of the 15 best exhibitions across the United States, the show—co-curated by Kathleen Ash-Milby and David Penney of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian—is not to be missed.

WalkingStick, who identifies as Cherokee and white, is an artist’s artist who enjoys visiting galleries and is well versed in art history. When asked how and why she creates art, she reflects, “I think [the paintings] have a visual language through which they carry content as well as…beauty and aesthetic things that are pleasing to the eye and part of the craft.”

She also notes the work is deeply personal: “I’m also interested in Native American history and my own Native American background, and my white background—I don’t discount that as being important. This show is a visual autobiography.”
This assertion is underscored by the subtitle of the show, “An American Artist,” which emphasizes WalkingStick’s identity as an American, rather than limiting her work to one category or audience.

Exploring the 60-plus works of the exhibition, the scope of WalkingStick’s talent delights as well as provokes contemplation. The show’s earliest works from the 1960s feature swaths of flat-toned color blocking that progress into more abstract styles in the mid-’70s. Works like “Teepee Form,” the “Chief Joseph Series,” and “Sakajawea, Leader of Men” are unlike other minimalist works in the specificity of their subjects. Walkingstick’s work is centered on specific cultural objects and Native American icons, focusing the viewer’s attention rather than allowing a more subjective interpretation.

WalkingStick’s work from the 1980s and ’90s moves on to diptych format, where a landscape is paired with a corresponding abstraction. In paintings like “Late Summer on the Rampano” and “Where Are the Generations?” the abstracted side of the canvas is thick with textured paint, while the other half depicts soft, impressionistic visions of the land. By referencing specific places meaningful to Native Americans in her titles, WalkingStick summons the dark history that lurks just under the beautiful surface of the land. Similarly, works like “Venere Alpina,” with its glimmering slit-open canvas, explore the complicated relationship between the corporeal and spiritual. These works inspire shame and regret, but are also hopeful that we can learn from history and do better for our world and ourselves.

The more recent works displayed still rely on the diptych model, but now the landscape becomes imbued with Native American and personal narrative as it overlaps both canvases. This evolution is best captured in “Our Land.” In it, a soft orange sky spans the entirety of the diptych, suffusing the mountain range with light. Overlaying this scene on the left is a richly colored sash-like image. Reflecting on the meaning of this piece, WalkingStick explains, “It’s all of our land…but this is our [Native American] memory, this is our history, this is where we are from. We are not from anywhere else…the thrust of the painting is to remind people we are living on Native American land, but what little left is often sovereign—and in many cases, sacred—land.”

Native American history and identity shape the work, but they do not dominate it.

“My work isn’t all identity politics,” WalkingStick notes. “First, it’s about painting—the craft and the beauty of painting, the beauty of our Earth and how we should preserve that Earth. I’m one of those who believes we still can.”

This retrospective is an intimate balance of sheer beauty and the deeper meaning behind each piece—be it from WalkingStick’s own life, Native American history, or the preservation of Earth.

Reflecting on her life’s work, WalkingStick humbly muses, “I kind of swam through my life being seduced by visual excitement.”
With paintings that are often described as “sensual” and “majestic,” her choice of words resonate. Yet, she counters, “I don’t think I’d put it that way, but I suppose there’s a truth in that…If people spend a little more time with [my art], they may get more from it, but you never know what people will see… I think [viewers] can see the arc of an artist’s life. They can see a Cherokee woman who is also white, a biracial woman’s view of Native history, if they’re paying attention. I would hope they sense a concern with the metaphysical…not in a fundamentalist way, but the power of the creator in our lives.”

WalkingStick acknowledges the retrospective’s import beyond her own work. “I think to be honored in this way is tremendous for me and for Native people,” she says. In another nod to the exhibition’s influence, the Dayton Art Institute has reopened its gallery of Native American art. For a people often overlooked, having such works at the DAI is an inspiration and a call for us all to heed history.

 

Kay WalkingStick: An American Artist runs through May 7 at the Dayton Art Institute, 456 Belmonte Park N. in Dayton. The museum is open 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday; 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. on Thursday; noon to 5 p.m. on Sundays; and is closed on Monday and Tuesday. Admission is $14 for adults, $11 for seniors, students, and military; children under 6 are free. This includes admission to the special exhibition and the permanent collection. For more information, please visit KayWalkingStick.com or DaytonArtInstitute.org.

 

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Brittany Erwin
Reach DCP freelance writer Brittany Erwin at BrittanyErwin@DaytonCityPaper.om

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