The Middletown Art Center in Lake County was packed on Saturday night. Visitors from several counties were there to look at work by 31 Native American artists, including traditional baskets, digital art and paintings, woodcut prints, bobbleheads, and a short film about the historical context of Jules Tavernier’s paintings. “Tonight, we are at the opening of Earth, Sky, and Everything in Between, which is actually the first time that a Native American has curated art by Native Americans. Ever,” said curator Corine Pearce, just as visitors began to arrive. She’s from the Little River Band of Pomo Indians in Redwood Valley, but she also claims ancestry from people indigenous to Lake County.
Pearce said the show is a culmination of a year-long project that involved teaching basket-making to Native and non-Native people as a way to build cultural bridges. She emphasized the variety of styles and approaches on display. “While we were setting this up, the owner of the gallery, Lisa Kaplan, said she’d never had as many mediums in at one time. So we have acrylic on canvas, we have three-dimensional baskets of lots of kinds, including electrical cable…if you are alive, and you are Indigenous, no matter what art you’re making, it is contemporary art.”
That includes commemorating recent achievements and memorializing ongoing tragedies. In one small room, there are a pair of mannequins in a mix of modern and traditional regalia, and a haunting empty skirt covered with red handprints. One piece celebrates a young woman’s recent graduation, while the other is a reminder of how many Indigenous women are missing and murdered. According to statistics that are part of the installation, Indian women are murdered at a rate of ten times the national average, though only 2% of the known number are included in the Department of Justice database.
The mannequins, notes Pearce, “are a cool thing.” A young woman from the Pinola family of Kashia graduated from school this year. “The school she goes to allows them to wear a traditional outfit to one graduation, and then a contemporary cap and gown. And she broke the mold. She made a little feather topknot. And the white beads that go down (across the forehead), that’s a Pomo thing, representing wealth. So she brought both of them. Also, where that room is, there’s a display for the Missing Murdered Indigenous Women that has statistics. Because that sad statistic is part of our culture.”
Many of the artists are displaying their work for the first time, from twelve-year-old Sarah Franklin, who made a small red basket, to 75-year-old Wanda Quitiquit, who created a special technique for burning designs onto gourds. But some of the artwork has been on tour. The video about Jules Tavernier’s paintings of the Elem people, which includes local experts discussing the mercury mining that began at that time, was recently at the De Young Museum in San Francisco. “It was actually at the Met first, and then it came to the De Young,” Pearce said. “When it came to the De Young Museum, they incorporated more representations of living artists. I happened to be one of those artists. So they had my baskets, they had baskets of Susan Billy, they had baskets of Clint McKay, and they had tule dolls made by Meyo Marruffo. That exhibit just ended, and they sent the stuff back to me, and then I brought that stuff here to exhibit here for a little while, and then it’s going to go to the Grace Hudson Museum (in Ukiah). So we have some really ‘fine art’ art here.”
Wanda Quitiquit, who is Eastern Pomo from Robinson Rancheria, debuted her work at the Middletown Art Center, wearing a multi-strand shell necklace made by her late sister. She took a seat on a hay bale next to a garden full of basket-weaving plants to talk about her artistic approach. She is partly inspired by her own tradition, and partly by Indigenous Peruvian artists who carve elaborate designs onto tiny gourds. “What I like to do is I make big, large gourd bowls,” she said. “I have to draw the design first, and then I wood-burn the design in. And then I use dye for color. I only do Pomo basketry designs, old designs…But they all come out different on the gourd. It just depends on the gourd, and my feeling. I think the most important thing is that these designs that I use are gifts to us Pomos who use them in our artwork. I just stick with Pomo basket designs, because I’m a Pomo. It’s done by a Pomo, and it’s Pomo art.”
Jacob Meders, who is Mechoopda Maidu, takes a different historical approach. In addition to making sculpture and woodcut prints, he is an associate professor of an interdisciplinary art and performance program at Arizona State University. He’s also the founder of a printmaking company called War Bird Press. His woodcut, “Divided Lines,” is a mixture of Socratic line theory, illustrations from accounts of first contact between Indigenous and European people, and pop-culture satirical riffs. One design features a figure wearing a cross and a crown, sitting cross-legged on a tree stump. “I was thinking more of the British crown in that,” Meders said. “What he’s sitting on is the largest stump in all of those woodcuts. It’s this very large tree that was cut down, so he’s using that as a throne in some way. And he’s referencing Manifest Destiny…the idea that God has given him the right, as the king, and chose him to be royalty, but also the idea of Manifest Destiny, that God has given him the right to take from us, as Indigenous people. So there’s that reference to that spiritual power that is a colonial spiritual power, that is used as a weapon, really.”
Jacqueline Graumann, of the Redwood Valley Little River Band of Pomo Indians, melded a personal fascination with the “Everything” part of the exhibit’s title. “During the pandemic, I got kind of a fixation on anatomical hearts,” she said. “So I have drawn probably 20 different anatomical hearts. I try to pull out, what people’s hearts are about, what their lives are about. My sister is a basket-weaver, so I did a basket-weaver’s heart. I was a traditional dancer when I was younger. I had a death in my family and I stopped dancing, so I try to find my way back to that by doing a dancer’s heart.” As a labor and delivery nurse, Graumann brings a medical understanding of anatomical features to her artwork. “I’m there at the very beginning of life, and a lot of it starts with hearing the heartbeats of babies,” she said. “Hearing the heartbeats of mamas. So it’s a connection throughout generations, and listening to the Earth. It’s the beginning of everything.”
As she spoke, an Elem elder inside the gallery clacked a stick sharply, twice. It was a call to go in and hear a blessing for a historical show, equal parts ancient, the first of its kind, and not necessarily confined to a gallery. “They are museum quality,” Pearce said of the pieces on display. “But we are not people who live in museums. So it’s important for us to share, in community, that we’re still here.”