Kay WalkingStick

Kay WalkingStick: Passion and Place

Kay Walkingstick With Hudson Reflection, I, October 1972. Photo Courtesy Of The Artist, Photo By Michael Echols

Kay WalkingStick has always been enthralled with the beauty of the landscape.

Sitting last May along the edge of the Ramapo River, in northern New Jersey, a place brimming with activity as tiny insects leaped across the surface of the water and thick foliage bristled in the summer breeze, WalkingStick silently studied the scene as she sketched.

“My paintings aren’t exact depictions of a place; they are based on the look and feel of a place,” she says. “Landscape paintings are depictions of nature re-organized by an artist. This is what landscape painters have always done.” This thoughtful, but sophisticated, approach to landscape painting has led WalkingStick to her standing today as both a celebrated Native artist and landscape painter.

The retrospective Kay WalkingStick: An American Artist, which opens this fall at the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C., will be a major milestone in this Cherokee artist’s career. It will provide a detailed visual history of her life’s work, from the early 1970s onward. It may come as a surprise to some visitors that WalkingStick’s paintings have ranged from edgy, playful, candy-colored nudes, such as Me and My Neon Box (1971) to dramatic abstractions which pay homage to American Indian historical figures, such as Sakajeweha: Leader of Men (1976). However, in a career spanning almost five decades, it is the landscape that calls to her again and again.

Early in her career, while she balanced the challenge of raising a young family in northern New Jersey with pursuing opportunities in the buzzing art world of New York City, her representational imagery focused on color and form, including numerous nudes depicted in silhouette, and also elegant, lightly whimsical depictions of the Hudson River and a cloud-filled sky. In 1973, WalkingStick decided to pursue her MFA at Pratt Institute in New York City and turned wholly to abstraction, both as a formal exploration of geometry and as a means to express deeper meaning about Native history and leaders. Though she had always taken her Cherokee identity for granted, during this time Native people were becoming more and more visible within the national media, leading her to use her art to more closely examine her relationship to a larger American Indian identity.

 Sakajeweha: Leader of Men (see page 53), is an iconic example of WalkingStick’s work from this period. The surface is covered with an acrylic and a cold wax emulsion, giving the green paint a cartographic texture of subtle ridges and valleys. The arc, a shape that repeats in this painting four times, was a focus of her work throughout the 1970s and early 1980s. Some primitivist readings suggested that the arcs in her work “danced” or referenced the “bow.” In other cases feminist writers saw the shapes as renditions of the female anatomy. It is obvious that at a time rife with political protest these ideas could easily be associated with the artist and her work. For the artist, the arc was a geometrical form, a segment of a circle.

Whether they are meditative, pictographic or feminist, these ambiguous shapes provoke inquiry. Rich colors and bold hard-edged forms attract the viewer while the title ignites intrigue about the story of Sakajeweha, Chief Joseph, John Ridge and other key figures in American history. WalkingStick’s paintings were an overt attempt to come to terms with a history that was forgotten or ignored.