Friday, July 31, 2020

Mothers of Invention: Kay WalkingStick

In this ongoing Mothers of Invention series I look at women artists who have had long and influential careers as well as those who have only received acclaim late in life. The posts so far:

Installation view of Kay WalkingStick: An American Artist at the Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C.
All installation images courtesy of the NMAI unless otherwise noted

You might be wondering how I select an artist for this ongoing Mothers of Invention series, since there are so many talented women with impressive and influential careers. I begin with a solo exhibition, which provides me with an opportunity to see her oeuvre. Usually it’s a museum show. For Kay WalkingStick, it was a 50-year retrospective, Kay WalkingStick: An American Artist, which originated at the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C., and traveled to five successive museums through 2018, the last of which was at the Montclair Art Museum in Montclair, New Jersey.

Installation view at the Montclair Art Museum
Kay WalkingStick, New Mexico Desert, 2011, oil on panel, 40 x 80 inches

Purchased through a special gift from the Louise Ann Willilams Endowment, 2013
Photo courtesy of the Montclair Art Museum and American Federation of Arts

In Montclair I not only got to view the show but to hear the artist and one of the exhibition’s curators, Kathleen Ash-Milby, in conversation. And recently I had a long phone talk with WalkingStick as we hunkered down in our respective studios. I’ll intersperse elements of both conversations, as well as information from the exhibition catalog, throughout this post. The exhibition, curated also by David Penney, organized by the American Federation of Arts and the Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian, follows the chronological path of an artist whose concerns have included figuration, abstraction, reductive forms, and the landscape of upstate New York and the American West, their formal issues and aesthetic expressions circling around one another to inform and enrich some five decades of work.  

To start, let me say that WalkingStick is rich with identities and interests that have sustained her life and work. The daughter of a Cherokee father and Scots-Irish American mother, she is a member of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma who grew up in Syracuse, New York. She is a feminist who came of age as an artist in New York City in the Seventies. She is a mother, a widow, a newlywed, a cancer survivor. For many years she was a professor of art at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, and taught in the Cornell in Rome program, where she became a lover of Italian culture and language. Now 85, she continues to paint and exhibit. She lives in a large Victorian house in Easton, Pennsylvania, with her second husband Dirk Bach, an artist and retired art historian.

Two comments, culled from the catalog, contextualize the rich complexity of the artist:
"What does heritage have to do with my art? It is who I am. Art is a portrait of the artist, at least of the artist's thought processes, sense of self, sense of place in the world. If you see art as that, then my identity as an Indian is crucial." At the same time she notes,
"This is who we Americans really are. All different, all the same, all it it together, making art."

Installation view at the National Museum of the American Indian
This view is just to the right of the museum's entrance to the show, with WalkingStick's paintings of silhouetted figures from the early Seventies, an exuberant time of  body positivity supported by the Women's Movement. There's a lovely dichotomy here: hard edges depicting fluid figures in a saturated palette of what you might call robust pastels.

On the left wall, Feet Series Arrangement, 1972, acrylic on canvas, six panels each 20 x 20 inches
In the distance, two paintings from the Hudson Reflections series, acrylic on canvas

Below: Me and My Neon Box, 1972, acrylic on canvas, 1973, 54 x 60 inches
Writing in the catalog to the show, Kate Morris identifies these figures as "a composite self portrait"

Kay WalkingStick in 1972 before Hudson Reflection, 1
Photo by Michael Echols

"When I first came to New York City, my goal was to be seen as a Native artist, but also be part of the New York art scene," said WalkingStick in conversation. This is a goal she has achieved, and it is "part of the reason" her retrospective came to be. "The idea that I was showing in the mainstream but identified as a Native person was important to the NMAI. It was an important contemporary statement about indigenous artists. We are still here and working at our chosen vocations, but part of mainstream America."

A Sensual Suggestion, 1974, acrylic on canvas, 48 x 42 inches

Installation view at the Gilcrease Museum, Tulsa, Oklahoma, showing A Sensual Suggestion. I'm including views from museums other than the NMAI and MAM so you can see the various iterations of curatorial organization, as well as get a sense  of the scale of the work

Photo: Erik Campos, courtesy of the Gilcrease Museum and American Federation of  Arts

In 1973 when she was 38 years old, WalkingStick enrolled in the MFA program at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn. Her two children were in middle school, old enough for her to leave them during the day. She was living in Englewood, New Jersey, and would drive across the George Washington Bridge into the city for classes.

From the exhibition catalog: "I realized that what I liked about the aprons was the draped fabric, and I was thinking about that as I was driving every day to Brooklyn . . . The bridges were the best part of that drive. I think they are the best sculpture in the city. I'd look at these bridges and these huge nets that were stretched under them during repairs. I thought these wonderful draped things . . .  were gorgeous."

The painter's aprons also related to WalkingStick's domestic life, to the juggle of raising children, making dinner for her family, and still be a full-time artist. (But it was not a struggle, she takes care to point out. "It was a wonderful time.") It turns out that the draped shapes she was so drawn to were also connected to the tipi forms that appeared in her subsequent paintings, as well as to the arc shapes that asserted themselves in her paintings for many years.

From the catalog, WalkingStick says that people glean different means from her work: "If you’re a feminist, an Indian, a western formalist, you will relate to it that way and it’s all there.  Everything done, felt and experienced will eventually come out in painting."  

At the Montclair Art Museum, the exhibition's curator, Kathleen Ash-Milby (in gray sweater) with MAM's curator Gail Stavitsky, standing before Sakajaweha, Leader of Men, 1976; acrylic, saponified wax, and ink on canvas
Image courtesy of the Montclair Art Museum

View a five-minute video of the artist at MAM with comments by WalkingStick, Stavitsky and Ash-Milby

Installation view at the National Museum of the American Indian
The Sakajaweha painting is on the far wall. Cardinal Points  (more of which in a moment) is on the middle of the long wall

Installation view at the National Museum of the American Indian
The Chief Joseph Series is in the foreground

Above and below: the Chief Joseph series, 1974-76, 36 paintings, each  20 x 15 inches; acrylic, ink, and saponified wax on canvas. They are shown here in configurations that vary by number and placement.

Kate Morris, a scholar of Native American art, has this to say about the work in her catalog essay: "The Chief Joseph series is something of a paradox in that it is one of the most devoutly intellectual and minimalist works of WalkingStick's career, but it is also deeply affecting. The subject matter is profound and affecting, one that WalkingStick has returned to time and again: the 1,170-mile exodus of the Nez Perce Chief Joseph and his people in 1877."  

Formally the series consists of individual paintings, each with four arc shapes in a combination of two sizes and four forms. WalkingStick's daughter, Erica WalkingStick Echols Lowry, describes the work in more personal terms: "This arc was a primal experience. So Mama spent years painting that shape out of her system. She painted painting after painting of that arc: Arc, arc, arc, arc. They were paintings that looked clawed or carved away, or pounded away, or rubbed away, that resulted in an improbably serene, solemn series she dedicated to Chief Joseph--who became to her like a good and honest father."

Installation view at the Gilcrease Museum in Tulsa showing another grid of the Chief Joseph paintings

Photo: Erik Campos, courtesy of the Gilcrease Museum and American Federation of  Arts

Cardinal Points, 1983-85, acrylic and saponified wax on canvas, 60 x 60 inches

Switching venues: Here we see the placement of Cardinal Points and Montauk, II (Dusk) at the Dayton Art Institute
Photo from

Montauk, II (Dusk), 1983; acrylic, saponified wax, and ink on canvas; 56 x 56 inches

This painting marks a turning point for WalkingStick. An abstract composition, it nonetheless draws from the land and sea she experienced during a monthlong residency in Montauk, at the tip of Long Island, courtesy of the Edward F. Albee Foundation.  From this point on landscape anchors much of her work in a side-by-side diptych format or in the horizontal proportion that would have been made by two squares.

I'll address the diptychs in a bit, but first let me talk about WalkingStick's materials. You will see that for much of the Eighties, WalkingStick's work is made with saponified wax. While you may be familiar with encaustic, which is pigment suspended in beeswax, saponified wax is different. Also known as wax emulsion, it is a mix of beeswax and water brought into an irreversible mix by means of a third ingredient, which for WalkingStick was sodium borate. The resulting substance, with a consistency somewhere between cold cream and heavy acrylic gel, is a medium that can be mixed with a water-based paint like acrylic. (Conventional encaustic does not take to acrylic but to oil.) WalkingStick typically applied the paint with her hands to a double layer of canvas to achieve the richly impastoed, almost topographical surfaces that bear the marks of incising and excavation. As she describes it, each layer was a different color so that the history of the process could be glimpsed at the finish.

Installation view at the National Museum of the American Indian

Night/ORT (Usvi), 1991; oil, acrylic, saponified wax, and copper on canvas, 36.25 x 72.25 inches
Montclair art Museum, New Jersey, purchased with funds provided by Alberta Stout, 2000.10

Installation view at the National Museum of the American Indian
Two paintings from this view are shown below

The Abyss, 1989; left panel: oil on canvas; right panel: acrylic and saponified wax on canvas; 36 x 72 inches

In terms of chronology, this painting was made in grief, after the unexpected death of the artist's husband, Michael Echols. WalkingStick had just been appointed to the Cornell faculty and found solace in the landscape surrounding the university, particularly the gorges, which found their way into her work 

Remnants of Cataclysm, 1992; acrylic, saponified wax, oil, and copper on canvas; 28 x 56 inches

The diptych format is a signature for WalkingStick's work, a way of bringing together seemingly incongruous elements--abstraction and landscape, the spiritual and the physical, imagination and experience, undefined space and the tangibility of earth and water set into perspectival views. The format has even been identified as an expression of the artist's bicultural identity.

"The 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," says the artist. But, notes David W. Penney, one of the exhibition's curators, in his catalog essay, Stereo View, "The diptychs do not divide into an Indian side on the one hand and white side on the other." As I see it they are, in Buddhist terms, a union of opposites through time, material, and idea. In a recent conversation, WalkingStick said she sees the format not as a reconciliation of opposites but as a "continuation" of ideas, "like the stanzas of a poem."

Installation view at the National Museum of the American Indian
Featuring Venere Alpina, I on the center wall, and ACEA V on right wall

Below: Venere Alpina, 1997, diptych with oil on canvas, left, and steel mesh over acrylic, saponified wax, and plastic stones, right

ACEA V, 2003, gouache and gold acrylic on paper, 19 x 38 inches
Image from the Dayton Art Institute website

The Azienda Comunale Energia e Ambiente, a former thermoelectric facility in Rome, now a museum, houses the historic marble statuary and mosaics that inspired WalkingStick to produce a series of joyous paintings that juxtaposed dancing feet with sumptuous plant patterns and arabesques

Over Lolo Pass, 2003; charcoal, gouache and encaustic on paper, 25 x 50 inches

The appearance of legs is not always lighthearted, however. Here, WalkingStick draws from the Native American narrative to commemorate the struggle of the Nez Perce. Long before the arrival of the Europeans, the tribe used the Lolo trail to travel the Bitterroot Mountains between Idaho and Montana for hunting and fishing. In their struggle with the U.S. Army in 1877, Chief Joseph tried to lead his people, numbering some 800, to safety over this path and into Canada, but just shy of their goal they were forced to surrender in what is known at the Battle of Bear Paw.  Some escaped and successfully crossed the border, but Chef Joseph remained with those who stayed behind. (Read more here.)

Going to the Sun Road, 2011, oil and white gold leaf collage on canvas

Farewell to the Smokies, 2007, oil on wood panel, 36 x 72 inches

Foreground: The Sandias, 2008, oil stick on paper, 25 x 50 inches

New Mexico Desert, 2011, oil on panel, 40 x 80 inches

Long Valley Caldera, 2014, oil on panel,  40 x 80 inches

Landscape has increasingly engaged WalkingStick. Writing in her catalog essay, Land Through Time, Lucy R. Lippard notes: "Time is a recurring theme in her work. In fact it is almost impossible to separate time and space when thinking about landscape. She has said of these diptychs, 'I do not see my paintings as landscapes, per se, but rather as paintings that describe two kinds of perception of the earth. One view is visual and fleeting and the other is abstract and everlasting.' " 

Tribal patterns and bead or weaving designs traverse half the diptych. Writes Lippard: ". . . their delicate presence transforms the landscapes into actively spiritual sites that remain meaningful even as they have become 'property' in the dominant culture."

These last two paintings are not part of the show but continue the chronology. You can see more recent and current work on the artist's website

Above: Teton Snow Ribs, 2019, oil on panel, 31.5 x 63.75
Below: Oh, Canada!, 2018-19, 36 x 72 inches

A recent photo of WalkingStick in the studio of her Pennsylvania home
"Paint is mud and oil, really. Yet these materials can be transformed into poetry. I love that."
Photo: Rick Schwartz for The Boston Globe

A Brief Interview

What's it like to experience a huge retrospective of your work?

While many of us have experienced, or will experience, the thrill of walking into a solo exhibition of our work, most of us are unlikely to know what it feels like to have a retrospective, particularly one that travels to five difference venues, each with curators who contextualize it for their particular institutions. "It was overwhelming to see the work for the first time," says WalkingStick. She was talking about the installation at the National Museum of the American Indian in the nation's capitol. "It's a stunning feeling."

The Inaugural opening took place at the National Museum of the American Indian in November, 2015, which she attended with her family. It then traveled to the Heard Museum in Phoenix, where WalkingStick's work is already in the collection; the Dayton Art Institute, Dayton, Ohio; the Kalamazoo Institute of Arts, Kalamazoo, Michigan; the Gilcrease Art Museum, Tulsa, Oklahoma; and the Montclair Art Museum, Montclair, New Jersey.

What was the Native response?
"There was a wonderful group of Pottawatomies in Kalamazoo. They came to the opening, draped me in a blanket, a Pendleton. That was just so touching and beautiful. I was so moved by their affection." But she admits, "I would have liked it to be seen by more Native Americans."

Illness prevented her from traveling to Dayton and Tulsa. (She had a heart attack and subsequent bypass.) However, the show was in Tulsa when the Native American Art Studies Association was meeting there, and WalkingStick was honored. Her daughter Erica accepted the award in her stead.

What have you not been asked?
WalkingStick's exhibition was much covered as it traveled to its various venues (Google it if you wish to know more). Articles, perhaps drawing from the same press materials, offered much of the same information. I wanted to know what she hadn't been asked and wanted to say.

"I want people to look. If you look at art slowly you can learn all about it. I would like people to see. If you read a book, read it as slowly as the author wrote it. All right, that's not likely, but people need to slow down.

"At the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, Dirk and I sat in front of Sargent's The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit, the painting that has the Chinese vases. We sat in front of it for probably half an hour. Just examined it really well. I love Sargent. His paintings are organized so beautifully. You can look into the blackness and see light. I wish people would look at my work that way. At yours. At art in general."

The Monograph

If you are an admirer of WalkingStick's work, you must get the exhibition catalog. A handsome tome edited by curators Kathleen Ash-Milby and David W. Penney, it contains essay contributions by critics, academics and curators, Native and not, who offer a multifacted look at this multifaceted artist. All aspects of WalkingStick's oeuvre are addressed--the feminist figures, the diptych format that is the hallmark of her work, her interest in a landscape that has been inhabited by Native people long before it became "American" land, and her passion for the art and culture of Italy. There are also essays by the artist, who discusses materials and process, and by her daughter, Erica WalkingStick Echols Lowry, who writes about the artist in a more personal and intimate way.

Where to see more work by Kay WalkingStick

WalkingStick is represented by the June Kelly Gallery in SoHo, New York City, and by the Froelick Gallery in Portland, Oregon. Her work is in numerous collections, including the Heard Art Museum, Phoenix; the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City, and the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts. WalkingStick's work is included in the recently published Landscape Painting Now and my own book, The Art of Encaustic Painting, which came out in 2001.

There's also a wealth of information--images and links--on WalkingStick's website.

At the June Kelly Gallery
Synaptic Blue, 1982, acrylic and saponified wax over double-layered canvas, 56 x 56 inches

At Froelick Gallery
Cherokee Dancers V, 2016, gouache and acrylic on paper, 17.5 x 34 inches

At the Peabody Essex Museum, Salem, Massachusetts
La Primavera, 2005, oil and gold leaf on panel, 32 x 64 inches
JM photo

Images of Kay WalkingStick's work appear with the artist's permission

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  1. I have long been a huge admirer of Kay Walkingstick's work. I was lucky enough to do a workshop with her at the second encaustic conference which really helped my focus as an artist. Saw this exhibition in Kalamazoo and it was easily one of the most powerful solo exhibitions I have ever seen. Glad for the reminder to revisit her wonderful work and that stunning catalog.

  2. So appreciate this, Joanne. Thank you.

  3. Thank you for this excellent, expansive piece on masterful artist and living treasure, Kay WalkingStick! Just thinking of that restrospective makes me emotional - the impact of experiencing in person the collected decades of such immensely powerful work.

  4. I am a distant family member. My father was Tony Vern Walkingstick of Oklahoma. He passed away in 2014 at the age of 55. I remember first coming across Kay while doing a family Google search. Her art work is so beautiful I showed my father and he was so pleased to see such an amazing woman in our family. Lots of love ❤️