9: Elements of Her Being, 1994
by Anita Fields, polychrome with terra sigillata,
gold leaf, and sawdust, 6x5x3 ft. Collection of the artist.
Photograph by Tom Fields.
In recent decades, the matriarchs and their descendants have inspired a number of American Indian women of rare and innovative ability. These craftswomen have forged artistic paths in many new directions, creating an avant-garde of American Indian pottery. Driven toward unusual aesthetic accomplishments, they create works that defy traditional definitions.
Some "new generation" women, born with unusual vigor and drive, have chosen to live in two worlds, balancing both Indian and Anglo cultures. Many have gone to college and have learned about the history of world art. Others have left the tribal homes of their youth to reside in cities. The ceramic art practiced by some of these women is executed in non-traditional materials and techniques, drawn from the Anglo ready-made marketplace. Most of these Indian women struggle with dealers and agents in the same way Anglo artists do.
All of the artists featured here, however, have chosen to maintain traditional Indian lifestyles and acknowledge the specific traditional influences that shape their work. They pay tribute to the vision of their elders, and then proceed in their own ways - stretching and experimenting, sometimes breaking barriers to bring innovation to their work. I selected these women because of their artistic abilities and innovative qualities. I also used as criterion the requirement that each woman still live the Indian life and work basically in or from the traditional indigenous processes.
The "new generation" of avant-garde Indian clay artists have one foot in their relatively closed Indian environment and one foot in an open Anglo society; it can be a struggle for these and other native women who try to extend barriers and break bonds. Even changing firing techniques from traditional bon-fires to Anglo-style kilns is frowned upon in Indian cultures. Just this point has caused no end of controversy among members of families and tribal groups, yet some of these artists find kiln firing necessary to their large-scale works that would otherwise be destroyed in an open fire.
Other problems, such as dealing with art galleries, selling for money, giving interviews to reporters, being photographed, being publicized in books when Indians traditionally abhor the written word - these necessities of the Anglo world often alienate the Indian artist from her indigenous group.
The situation is similar, however, to the limitations on women of all ages, nationalities, and cultures - indeed, all women everywhere who are trying to break customary ties of accepted behavior. Women's role is traditionally defined as caregiver and homemaker; this is the culture of women as long as wehave known it. In these times, an unprecedented number of women - more in some countries than others but still millions of women - are trying to move into the male-dominated world. All women artists are attempting to operate outside their cultures, but only a few are successful.
Many of these trailblazers have shown remarkable integrity - striving independently to "make art" in order to relate to a confining culture in a positive way. These visionary women have achieved personal freedom while reconciling their obligations to their communities, both giving and receiving inspiration through their art.
All text © Susan Peterson.
Edited by Susan Ressler, based on compilation
© 1997 Abbeville Press and The National Museum of Women in the Arts.