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1980-now: learning resources

Ruthe Blalock Jones, Medicine Woman

Ruthe Blalock Jones, Medicine Woman, late 20th century, gouache on poster board, 58.8 x 50.7 cm (Gilcrease Museum, Tulsa)
Ruthe Blalock Jones, Medicine Woman, late 20th century, gouache on poster board, 58.8 x 50.7 cm (Gilcrease Museum, Tulsa)

Key points

  • The career of artist Ruthe Blalock Jones (Delaware, Shawnee, Peoria) has been shaped by her lifelong role as an educator. She served as both instructor and director in the art department at Bacone College, an Indigenous American-serving institution, from 1979 to 2010. Her distinctive images of daily life in the Native communities of northeast Oklahoma have appealed to and informed a broad audience for decades.  
  • In her paintings, prints, and drawings, Blalock Jones draws on her upbringing and experience in the Native American Church, a religion that emerged in the late 19th century in
    Indian Territory
    and blends different spiritual traditions. In particular, she tends to focus on representations of women’s roles in the church, such as providing water or food to practitioners after an all-night prayer ritual, as seen in Medicine Woman. 
  • Blalock Jones’s scenes strike a balance between detail and generalization, providing a view into the practices and beliefs of the Native American Church without representing specific individuals or transgressing Native beliefs about privacy regarding religious or ceremonial activity. Her images serve to educate non-Native viewers who may not be as familiar with the traditions of the Native American Church by challenging persistent and erroneous stereotypes about it. They also serve to inspire younger Native generations who wish to connect more deeply with their heritage and community. 
  • Blalock Jones works in a version of Flatstyle painting, a distinctive approach to Native American imagery that emerged at Bacone College in the early 20th century. As the name suggests, Flatstyle presents subjects in flat shapes of color set against largely unadorned backgrounds. Blalock Jones’s use of the bold, opaque colors of the
    gouache
    technique accentuates the effects of Flatstyle, to which she adds refined details like fringe or hair to heighten visual engagement with her subject.

Go deeper

Learn more about this painting at the Gilcrease Museum.
Hear directly from Ruthe Blalock Jones in an oral history with the artist.
Learn more about the history and practices of the Native American Church from the Encyclopedia of Oklahoma (produced by the Oklahoma Historical Society) and the Encyclopedia of the Great Plains (developed by the University of Nebraska, Lincoln). 
Learn more about Bacone College.
Laurie A. Eldridge, “Ruthe Blalock Jones: Native American Artist and Educator,” Visual Arts Research 2, no. 35 (Winter 2009), pp. 72–85.

More to think about

How do you see Blalock Jones’s particular blend of specificity and spareness in her images challenging stereotypes of Native people and the Native American Church? 
What other ways are Native artists challenging harmful stereotypes in their work?

Sam Gilliam, Purpled (Chasers Series)

Sam Gilliam, Purpled (Chasers Series), 1980, acrylic on canvas, 203.2 x 228.6 cm (Virginia Musem of Fine Arts, © Sam Gilliam)
Sam Gilliam, Purpled (Chasers Series), 1980, acrylic on canvas, 203.2 x 228.6 cm (Virginia Musem of Fine Arts, © Sam Gilliam)

Key Points

  • Sam Gilliam approached artmaking with an interest in expressing both the labor of making a painting and the potential of painting to be more than just pigment applied with a brush on a square- or rectangularly-shaped canvas. He played with the expectations of what a painting can and should be, and emphasized the physical manipulation of his materials to create highly original and dynamic artworks. 
  • In Purpled, Gilliam built a 9-sided, irregularly shaped polygonal stretcher for his canvas and used hard-edged implements like a palette knife and comb to apply paint in a highly varied and textured way. The effect is an object that appears to be bursting from the confines of traditional painting in terms of both shape and surface.
  • Gilliam’s father was a carpenter and his mother a seamstress and quilter. He was influenced by the commonplace nature of their manual labors, and visibly applied the practices of carpentry and quilting in his work. The result was a celebration of the ordinary and its infusion into the history of painting.
  • Purpled is akin to a quilt made from layers of variously shaped, paint-covered pieces of canvas. Gilliam cut and glued these pieces together in a manner that evokes the stitching together of swatches of fabric in a quilt. With its pattern of repeated triangles and rectangles, Purpled’s composition draws on the Flying Geese quilt design, which was specifically used by enslaved Black people to signal the time of year (spring) when it was best to travel northward toward freedom, following the path of migrating birds.

Go Deeper

Learn more about Sam Gilliam from the Smithsonian American Art Museum.
Read reflections on Sam Gilliam from fellow artists Melvin Edwards and Rashid Johnson in the New York Times
Explore the 2012 photographic work “Flying Geese” by Hank Willis Thomas, who like Gilliam, draws on this motif from the tradition of quilting to reflect on Black experience.

More to Think About

How have Gilliam’s innovations in painting changed your perceptions of painting–as a practice and as a visual experience? Spend time observing Purpled up close and from a distance (by pausing the video at relevant moments) to inform your response to this question. And, consider and share about other artists who may have shaped your perceptions of painting.

Masami Teraoka, American Kabuki

Masami Teraoka, American Kabuki (Oishiiwa), 1986, watercolor and sumi ink on paper mounted on a four-panel screen, 196.9 x 393.7 x 3 cm (de Young Museum, Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco), © Masami Teraoka
Masami Teraoka, American Kabuki (Oishiiwa), 1986, watercolor and sumi ink on paper mounted on a four-panel screen, 196.9 x 393.7 x 3 cm (de Young Museum, Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco), © Masami Teraoka

Key points

  • The nearly nonexistent government response to the HIV/AIDS epidemic during the 1980s was largely due to prejudices against the most critically impacted communities. Activists worked to raise public awareness and reduce the stigma around the disease, leading eventually to improved medical care and research, but not before the death of tens of thousands of people.
  • Masami Teraoka, who grew up in Japan, draws on the traditional format of the folding screen (byobu) and kabuki theater for this piece. Popular during the Edo period, kabuki had been a popular form of theater that often used historical narratives to offer covert commentary on contemporary politics during a period of censorship and suppression. Similarly, the artist uses traditional symbols, including the blackened teeth and makeup of the female figure, to speak to the personal and universal tragedies of HIV/AIDS.
  • This screen is modeled in the style of ukiyo-e woodblock prints. Masami Teraoka uses a strong, violently undulating line to add drama and tension to both the figures and the waves that threaten to overcome them. He depicts a struggle against an overwhelming destructive energy, echoed in the calligraphic text inscribed on the panels.

Go deeper

Read about the history of HIV/AIDS in the U.S. and worldwide

More to think about

Since I always had been fascinated by Ukiyo-e wood block print and its beautiful vocabulary coming from Japanese cultural background, what if I use my favorite vocabulary to create my work. I could make comments on Japanese culture and US culture in Ukiyo-e style work.
—Masami Teraoka, “Bridging Life and Art,” interview with Mike Foldes, Founder and Managing Editor,” Ragazine (November-December 2014)
The artist drew on his own cultural heritage to make this work of art about modern American and Japanese society. If you were to try this, what could you borrow from your own family’s cultural heritage?

Carrie Mae Weems, Untitled (Woman Feeding Bird), The Kitchen Table Series, 1989-90

Carrie Mae Weems, Untitled (Woman Feeding Bird), The Kitchen Table Series, 1990, gelatin silver print (printed 2015), 27.94 x 27.94 cm @ Carrie Mae Weems (Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art)
Carrie Mae Weems, Untitled (Woman Feeding Bird), The Kitchen Table Series, 1990, gelatin silver print (printed 2015), 27.94 x 27.94 cm @ Carrie Mae Weems (Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art)

Key points

  • Carrie Mae Weems has carefully staged the photographs in this series to suggest moments of everyday life, but also uses symbolism, lighting and props to create deeper levels of meaning.
  • Weems suggests that the familiar, unremarkable domestic kitchen is actually important as an epicenter of family life and human drama.
  • Unlike in so much art through history, the everyday lived experience of a woman, as opposed to a man, is central here.

Go deeper

More to think about

Visit Carrie Mae Weems’ website to see all of the photographs in The Kitchen Table Series. Choose one and discuss the story the image suggests to you. Compare it to Untitled (Woman Feeding Bird) considering some of these questions:
  • How does Weems use the same setting to create different moods and emotions?
  • How does Weems use formal elements (light/dark contrasts, shapes, lines, composition) in her photograph to engage the viewer and enhance its meaning?
  • What broader themes about women, family, and contemporary society can be found in both of these photographs?

Turning Uncle Tom's Cabin upside down, Alison Saar's Topsy and the Golden Fleece

Alison Saar, Topsy and the Golden Fleece, 2017, wood, tar, steel, ceiling tin, wire, acrylic paint and gold leaf, 35-1/2 x 11-1/2 x-8 1/2 inches (Toledo Museum of Art, ©Alison Saar)
Alison Saar, Topsy and the Golden Fleece, 2017, wood, tar, steel, ceiling tin, wire, acrylic paint and gold leaf, 35-1/2 x 11-1/2 x-8 1/2 inches (Toledo Museum of Art, ©Alison Saar)

Key Points

  • Although Harriet Beecher Stowe supported the abolitionist movement and her novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, was an effective component of that campaign, her story also created stereotypes of African-Americans that have persisted in popular culture. In particular, Topsy, often considered the embodiment of wickedness and wildness, was widely caricatured and dehumanized and became an image of ridicule. Amid rapid social changes, Vietnam War protests, debates on gender roles, and civil rights, the stability of middle class American life during the 1950s gave way to a period of disillusionment and uncertainty by the 1970s.
  • In Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Topsy is powerless. Not only is she a slave, but her character is a passive vehicle for other people’s feelings, a stereotype created to contrast with the Christian spirit of Eva. (The gift of a lock of Eva’s hair, given from the young girl’s deathbed, then becomes a catalyst for the redemption of Topsy.) In Topsy and the Golden Fleece, Alison Saar reimagines Topsy as an empowered and angry force who has seized a blood-streaked Golden Fleece and now controls her own destiny.
  • Alison Saar combines elements of two mythic narratives, Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Jason and the Golden Fleece, to dismantle an African-American stereotype and give her a new sense of power and authority. Saar may be reacting to the continuing racial inequalities and contemporary tragedies that have prompted the Black Lives Matter movement.

Go deeper

More to think about

In Topsy and the Golden Fleece, Alison Saar reimagines the life and story of a literary character, reclaiming Topsy from her role as a passive stereotype. Think about a character from another story who lacks control or power in his/her life, or a figure that has been used as a popular cultural stereotype. How could you reimagine their story and write a different ending for them?
What are some negative stereotypes that you’ve encountered? Consider how they are reinforced, or challenged, through depictions in the media and popular culture. What strategies do you think are most effective for calling out such negative stereotypes in society?

Titus Kaphar, The Cost of Removal

Titus Kaphar, The Cost of Removal, 2017, oil, canvas, and rusted nails on canvas, 274.3 x 213.4 x 3.8 cm, © Titus Kaphar (Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art)
Titus Kaphar, The Cost of Removal, 2017, oil, canvas, and rusted nails on canvas, 274.3 x 213.4 x 3.8 cm, © Titus Kaphar (Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art)

Key points

  • Portraits often represent leaders as heroic, noble, and deserving of respect and admiration. Such images, however, fashion an incomplete historical narrative that may not acknowledge the problematic or even violent aspects of their legacies.
  • Signed by Andrew Jackson in 1830, the Indian Removal Act authorized the president to grant unsettled lands west of the Mississippi in exchange for Indian lands within existing state borders. Native Americans were forcibly removed by the U.S. government, including 4,000 Cherokee Indians who died on what became known as the “Trail of Tears.”
  • Copying and altering Ralph Earl’s 1836 portrait of Andrew Jackson is one way that Titus Kaphar calls our attention to the power of art and museums in writing a history that is, in his words, “at best incomplete, and at worst fiction.” The viewer is reminded of who is typically included in this telling of history and who is typically excluded.

Go deeper

More to think about

Read the comment below by Titus Kaphar, which was quoted in the video. Based on your own experience and academic study, do you agree that our understanding of history is inherently incomplete or idealized? What are some ways we might improve our knowledge to better understand the past?
“I feel very strongly that most of the history we have been taught is at best incomplete, and at worst, fiction. The more I read history, I realize that all depictions are to some degree fiction. . . We lose something in the interpretation, and as I realized that painters throughout history have embraced this idea of fiction, I have felt complete freedom to address these paintings in a way that made sense to me.”

Dorica Jackson, Diving Whale Chilkat Robe

Dorica Jackson, Diving Whale Chilkat Robe, 2002–18, design from The Basketry of the Tlingit and the Chilkat Blanket by George Emmons, Merino wool and yellow cedar bark (Totem Heritage Center, Ketchikan, Alaska)
Dorica Jackson, Diving Whale Chilkat Robe, 2002–18, design from The Basketry of the Tlingit and the Chilkat Blanket by George Emmons, Merino wool and yellow cedar bark (Totem Heritage Center, Ketchikan, Alaska)

Key points

  • The practice of Chilkat weaving originated among the Indigenous peoples and nations of southeast Alaska and the coasts of British Columbia and Washington State, including the Tlingit, Haida, and Tsimshian. The name refers to the Chilkat region of southeastern Alaska, home to the Chilkat Tlingit people.
  • Chilkat weaving is carried out on a loom with a free-hanging warp, on which the vertical warp threads for the weaving are attached only at the top of the loom and not at the bottom. The weaving is done through the twining technique, interlacing weft (horizontal) threads of yarn with the warp threads by hand. Between the preparation of materials and the actual weaving, Chilkat weaving is a very time consuming process.
Left: Diagram by Alfred Barlow, adapted from The History and Principles of Weaving by Hand and by Power, 1878, Low, Marston, Searle & Rivington, London, CC BY-SA 3.0; right: Unfinished Chilkat Robe on loom, c.1920 (Northwest Coast), wool and wood start, 72 x 22 in (Portland Art Museum, Oregon)
Left: Diagram by Alfred Barlow, adapted from The History and Principles of Weaving by Hand and by Power, 1878, Low, Marston, Searle & Rivington, London, CC BY-SA 3.0; right: Unfinished Chilkat Robe on loom, c.1920 (Northwest Coast), wool and wood start, 72 x 22 in (Portland Art Museum, Oregon)
  • Robes are one of a number of items created using the Chilkat weaving technique. Robes have previously been referred to as blankets but the term robe more accurately reflects their purpose. Robes are worn and enlivened in ceremonial dance, activating the colors, designs, and voluminous fringe.
  • For this robe, Dorica Jackson recreated a woven design featured in George Emmons’ 1907 book, The Basketry of the Tlingit and the Chilkat Blanket. Emmons was a collector and
    ethnographer
    who studied the Indigenous populations of Southeast Alaska in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. As part of his research, he received explanations of the Chilkat technique from Tlingit weavers.
  • The symmetrical design of the robe fills the entire woven area. The design features a diving whale in the center, flanked by abstract figures on the two sides. The placement of specific colors within the design is consistent with the Chilkat tradition. Chilkat weaving is practiced by women, but the initial designs are created by men in the community.

Go deeper

Learn more about Tlingit weaver Clarissa Rizal’s Resilience Robe at the Portland Art Museum
Learn about Chilkat Robes, Tlingit Dance, and more at the Haines Sheldon Museum
Learn more about the Totem Heritage Center
Sources such as these by non-Indigenous authors have helped to document and revive the techniques of Chilkat weaving during a time when certain Indigenous cultural and artistic practices in the Northwest Coast region were restricted or no longer shared with new generations:
George T. Emmons, The Basketry of the Tlingit and the Chilkat Blanket, American Museum of Natural History, 1907
Cheryl Samuel, The Chilkat Dancing Blanket, The University of Oklahoma Press, 1990

More to think about

Compare two recently created Chilkat robes: Clarissa Rizal’s Resilience Robe, which blends motifs visible in today’s culture (like the doors of a museum) with those used in Chilkat weaving from the past, and Dorica Jackson’s reproduction of an older design she found in George Emmons’ 1907 book, The Basketry of the Tlingit and the Chilkat Blanket. How are both approaches to design meaningful for the Tlingit community today?
Dorica Jackson, like other Chilkat weavers, prepared all of the materials for this robe in addition to carrying out the time-consuming weaving process. She spun and dyed the wool, cut and strung the warp threads on the loom, and readied the weft threads for weaving. Working full time on these steps, a robe could take at least a year to create. What kinds of creations do you see in our contemporary culture which necessitate such time? What purpose do they serve and how do we value them?

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