Art Through Time: A Global View
The Natural World Art: Wallowa Mountains Memory
Since the 1980s, the works of Kay WalkingStick, who is of Cherokee and Scottish American ancestry, have focused almost exclusively on landscapes.
Often these are presented as diptychs pairing a naturalistic representation with a more abstract one. The diptych format appeals to WalkingStick in its duality, which speaks to her biracial identity, as well as to a broader notion of complementarity.
In Wallowa Mountains Memory, WalkingStick pays homage to the Nez Perce inhabitants of northeast Oregon’s Wallowa Valley. Led by Chief Joseph, the Nez Perce put up fierce resistance against the U.S. government before eventually being forced onto reservations in the late nineteenth century. On the left side of the diptych, the artist takes a realistic approach to depicting the mountains of the painting’s title. Although broadly rendered, the forms are volumetric and a sense of depth is suggested in the portion of the work devoted to the mountain range. By contrast, the diptych’s right side is given over to a flat silhouette of the mountains overlaid with a linear, geometric pattern. The cross and diamond motif, according to WalkingStick, is based on the designs Nez Perce women used to decorate their rawhide bags. For WalkingStick, memory simplifies and focuses form. She therefore uses abstraction to capture the long-term memory of a place. In this case, it is both the Nez Perce women’s recollections of the landscape as well as her own (she visited the site before making the work) that WalkingStick visualizes.
WalkingStick’s interest in landscapes goes beyond the mundane and even the historical to the spiritual. The gold sky that links the two diptychs together in Wallowa Mountains Memory represents the element of nature and the cosmos at large that is, in WalkingStick’s eyes, both sacred and unknowable. Although she celebrates and explores her Native American identity through her work, WalkingStick is just as concerned with expressing shared human values and messages that resonate across cultures. In her more recent diptychs, WalkingStick pairs images of landscapes with the lower limbs of figures painted in a variety of colors, directly addressing the relationship between human beings and the earth.
Kay WalkingStick, Artist
“The landscape affects the way I choose color and the way I use light. But the light also carries meaning. The way you light things implies certain things. Whether it’s moonlight or daylight or morning, I think the mood of the piece is affected by those things. But I think that for me, I came to landscape out of abstraction. And the abstraction was becoming more, in my head, like a landscape. But the landscape has always carried significance to me.
I think our earth is sacred. We are so much a part of this earth, evolved to live here, in this atmosphere. I also think that the shapes in the landscape are abstract enough so that they can carry implied meaning that I can impart through that. It’s transcendent in that it can refer to the unknown, those big questions of life—birth and death and our existence here on earth. All of those things can be implied, those profound ideas can be implied through nature.”
Berlo, Janet Catherine, and Ruth B. Phillips. Native North American Art.Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998.
Cotter, Holland. Kay WalkingStick: Paintings, 1974–1990. Brookville, NY: Long Island University, 1991.
Quick-to-See Smith, Jaune, et al. Women of Sweetgrass, Cedar, and Sage: Contemporary Art by Native American Women. New York: Gallery American Indian Community House, 1985.
WalkingStick, Kay, Anne E. Marshall, and Heard Museum. So Fine: Masterworks of Fine Art from the Heard Museum. Phoenix: Heard Museum, 2001.
WalkingStick, Kay. “Native American Art in the Postmodern Era.” Art Journal51.3 (Autumn 1992): 15–17.