Cherokee painter Kay WalkingStick always felt her call to the family business.
When Kay WalkingStick went to the movies as a child with her two sisters and two brothers, the siblings would all cheer when the Indians rode over the hills and onto the screen. “We had a slightly different slant on life because of who we were,” she says, laughing. “I didn’t grow up with an Indian culture, but with a great respect for Indian people and what they had done and their nobility. Every day, my mother would say, ‘Stand up straight. You’re a Cherokee.’ ”
One of the country’s preeminent Native American artists, WalkingStick, who turns 81 on March 2, started drawing with pencil and paper in the balcony of the South Presbyterian Church in Syracuse, New York, during the services she’d attend with her mother and her Aunt Lily, who was the church secretary. She had two uncles on her mother’s Scottish-Irish side of the family who were artists, plus a few great-uncles who were painters. Her older brother, Mack (Chuck), was an artist and her sister, Joy, is a ceramic artist. “If there were a family business, it was art,” she says.
After a semester of painting classes at what is now Arcadia University in Glenside, Pennsylvania, she ditched her plans of becoming a designer. “I thought, This is what I have to do with my life. I have to be a painter.”
So she painted. She got married, had two children, and kept painting — anywhere she could find a bit of space to call her own. At 38, she got a fellowship to the Pratt Institute in New York City, and her paintings became less realistic and more abstract. This paralleled the beginning of her deeper awareness of what she calls her “Indianness,” in which she played around with tepee shapes, stained canvases, and dripping paint.
Some of the explorations were tribal, some personal. In the 1974 painting Message to Papa, WalkingStick attempted to come to terms with her relationship with her Cherokee father from Oklahoma, whom her mother had left before she was born and who visited only once while she was growing up. In the mid-’70s, she embarked on a 36-panel series called Chief Joseph in tribute to the famous 19th-century Nez Perce chief. In it, according to the National Museum of the American Indian, which owns 27 of the panels, WalkingStick “worked out all possible configurations of two small and two large arcs, then incised the archetypal forms into a thickly applied surface of acrylic paint and wax, revealing the color-stained canvas below in a kind of ritual act of mourning for the loss of home, land, and lives.”
One of her last pieces using the wax-acrylic technique, Cardinal Points alludes to the four different directions that Native tribes pray to, as well as to Christianity. The bright red painting is scratched through with brighter color underneath and a sprinkling of gold in the shape of a plus sign, or cross, in the center. “It’s about what is beyond, what is outside the immediate view,” WalkingStick says. “I think that all great painting carries implications of other things. It’s about finding what is beneath — discovering, removing.”
Abstractions gave way to landscapes, which were influenced by trips to Colorado. WalkingStick would pair her realistic paintings with abstractions to create diptychs, launching another hallmark style for which she’s become known. “I put these two paintings together — it happened to be a tree — and they were having such a wonderful dialogue with each other, and together they became something so much more than what they were alone. The paintings are like stanzas of a poem — one is the body, the other the spirit.”
Since the mid-’80s, WalkingStick has primarily painted landscapes, some with repetitive Native American tribal motif overlays and some without. “Sometimes there are figures and sometimes there are patterns included, but the landscape is very important. The paintings are a visual language, and they do speak to people. I hope I am telling people about this beautiful planet we live on — and to take care of it.”
Kay WalkingStick: An American Artist is on view through September 18 at the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C.
From the April 2016 issue.