Right before Thanksgiving, I visited the National Museum of the American Indian to check out their newest exhibition, Kay WalkingStick: An American Artist, which opened on November 7, 2015 and runs until September 18, 2016. The year-long exhibition is WalkingStick’s first major retrospective. Since I hadn’t seen much of her work in person, I made a point to walk into the exhibit without overwhelming myself with information or looking at her artwork beforehand. I can say with certainty that I’m glad I didn’t. The exhibit featured over 75 of her works, including paintings, sculptures, drawings, notebooks and diptychs. Her materials used in her work were diverse, but demonstrated the lull and transition of her state of focus over four decades.
She began as a representational artist while she was attending graduate school she studied Native American art and history, but subsequently began making work that tiptoed toward the abstract. For example, she began a series that channeled Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce by utilizing simplified shapes and limited color palette. Then came the integration of other materials into her wax, oil, and ink paintings, such as shells, rocks, and pieces of pottery. Because this exhibition followed her years chronologically, the work often addressed whatever was transpiring in WalkingStick’s life at the time or spoke as a reflection of her spiritual state. She started making diptychs in 1985 (her most renowned artworks). The diptychs usually incorporate multiple perspectives of the same scene in nature. While the images are focused on portraying landscapes, WalkingStick does not call them landscapes, as they focus on the variation in depiction—representational versus abstract, temporary versus lasting, visual versus energetic memory. The images focus on the inherent differences in vitality between the two representations.
After WalkingStick’s husband died in 1989, she began integrating different types of imagery—darker, dismal, and turbulent— to represent various forms of her losses, as well as her people’s losses. Pictured below is an example of her diptych style, except instead of her usual palette, the colors are deep black and blood red. Waterfalls became symbolism for the tumult and steadfastness of time.
Kay WalkingStick, The Abyss, 1989
Photo credit: Ecourtc
Later she went on to culminate previous styles and motifs, such as legs and feet, into her diptychs. She continued to push inversions and opposites into her work in the early 2000’s. WalkingStick, in further tribute to her ancestry, wove symbols and Native American patterns into her representation of nature. Of diptychs, WalkingStick said, “"[T]he diptych is an especially powerful metaphor to express the beauty and power of uniting the disparate and this makes it particularly attractive to those of us who are biracial.”
Gioioso Variation II, 2001, by Kay WalkingStick
WalkingStick’s retrospective not only aligns her personal perception of her Native American ancestry, of nature, and her personal history, but also illuminates her experiences with others’ perceptions of her identity. She draws spiritual truth from her reimaginings of nature and the nature of existence. I invite you to look at her retrospective—the lushly painted mountains, crisp gold leaf horizons, and abstracted forms. I also suggest looking at her intimate sculptures and sketchbooks, as they reveal a great degree of her creative process and reflection.