Ancestral Connections: A Constellation of Contemporary Artists Show Their Ties to Their Native Cultures
Marvin Oliver

Marvin Oliver

From the 1970s until his death in May 2019, Marvin Oliver (Quinault/Isleta Pueblo) merged his Quinault culture in northwest Washington state with a spectrum of unexpected materials and techniques to craft his art. He created enormous sculptures and paintings on buildings, in parks and in other public spaces in many countries, from his 30-foot bronze orca fin in a park in Italy and a totem pole in Japan to a painted bus in Alaska (above) and the carved red cedar “Raven Doors” curated at NMAI’s Cultural Resources Center near Washington, D.C. His glass sculptures are also renowned. At nearly 2 feet tall, “Our River’s Ancestors” is an impressive glass representation of a traditional Quinault fish basket that has caught salmon spirits who have human hands in place of fins. The piece honors the salmon, a fish essential to the culture and subsistence of the Quinault people. The etched image inside is from a 1930s photograph of Native fishermen using dipnets at Columbia River’s Celilo Falls, a site submerged when the construction of the Dalles Dam was completed in 1957. Photo by Hall Anderson

Marvin Oliver

From the 1970s until his death in May 2019, Marvin Oliver (Quinault/Isleta Pueblo) merged his Quinault culture in northwest Washington state with a spectrum of unexpected materials and techniques to craft his art. He created enormous sculptures and paintings on buildings, in parks and in other public spaces in many countries, from his 30-foot bronze orca fin in a park in Italy and a totem pole in Japan to a painted bus in Alaska (above) and the carved red cedar “Raven Doors” curated at NMAI’s Cultural Resources Center near Washington, D.C. His glass sculptures are also renowned. At nearly 2 feet tall, “Our River’s Ancestors” is an impressive glass representation of a traditional Quinault fish basket that has caught salmon spirits who have human hands in place of fins. The piece honors the salmon, a fish essential to the culture and subsistence of the Quinault people. The etched image inside is from a 1930s photograph of Native fishermen using dipnets at Columbia River’s Celilo Falls, a site submerged when the construction of the Dalles Dam was completed in 1957. Photo by Hall Anderson

“Our River's Ancestors,” glass sculpture by Marvin Oliver, 2014, glass and paint, 24" x 25" x 19".

“Our River's Ancestors” by Marvin Oliver, 2014, glass and paint, 24" x 25" x 19", NMAI purchase, 2015. 26/9630

“Our River's Ancestors” by Marvin Oliver, 2014, glass and paint, 24" x 25" x 19", NMAI purchase, 2015. 26/9630

Isabel Rorick and Robin Rorick

Isabel Rorick and Robin Rorick

Spruce root artistry is a multigenerational tradition for Haida weaver Isabel Rorick (right) and her son, Haida artist and carver Robin Rorick (left). The Haida people come from the northwest Canada archipelago of Haida Gwaii. Isabel learned how to weave spruce root by watching her paternal grandmother (Naanii) Selina Peratrovich weave and listening to advice from her aunt Delores Churchill and her mother Primrose Adams. Isabel continued to learn by studying spruce root pieces at museums. In 2016, Isabel began collaborating with her son Robin, who also studied museum pieces and consulted his relative, Haida artist Robert Davidson, about how to design and paint on spruce root pieces. Robin was inspired to paint a raven on Isabel's spruce root hat (right) by the raven designs painted by his great-grandfather Charles Edenshaw on a series of spruce root hats woven by his great-grandmother Isabella Edenshaw. In an exhibition catalogue for the Stonington Gallery, where Isabel and Robin Rorick’s painted spruce root works are featured, they write: “We are all a part of a giant complex weaving of life that requires respect and love to further interconnection. The trees are nourished by earth’s elements and by the life cycle of the plants, insects, fi sh and all the other animals. In return, the trees provide gifts of life for all those who are living. It is the same for the roots that connect us to our ancestors.” Photo by Chuutsqa L. Rorick

Isabel Rorick and Robin Rorick

Spruce root artistry is a multigenerational tradition for Haida weaver Isabel Rorick (right) and her son, Haida artist and carver Robin Rorick (left). The Haida people come from the northwest Canada archipelago of Haida Gwaii. Isabel learned how to weave spruce root by watching her paternal grandmother (Naanii) Selina Peratrovich weave and listening to advice from her aunt Delores Churchill and her mother Primrose Adams. Isabel continued to learn by studying spruce root pieces at museums. In 2016, Isabel began collaborating with her son Robin, who also studied museum pieces and consulted his relative, Haida artist Robert Davidson, about how to design and paint on spruce root pieces. Robin was inspired to paint a raven on Isabel's spruce root hat (right) by the raven designs painted by his great-grandfather Charles Edenshaw on a series of spruce root hats woven by his great-grandmother Isabella Edenshaw. In an exhibition catalogue for the Stonington Gallery, where Isabel and Robin Rorick’s painted spruce root works are featured, they write: “We are all a part of a giant complex weaving of life that requires respect and love to further interconnection. The trees are nourished by earth’s elements and by the life cycle of the plants, insects, fi sh and all the other animals. In return, the trees provide gifts of life for all those who are living. It is the same for the roots that connect us to our ancestors.” Photo by Chuutsqa L. Rorick

Basket hat

Basket hat, ca. 1890, attributed to Isabella Edenshaw and Charles Edenshaw (Haida), spruce root, paint, 16" x 8.3", MAI purchase, 1920. 9/8015

Basket hat, ca. 1890, attributed to Isabella Edenshaw and Charles Edenshaw (Haida), spruce root, paint, 16" x 8.3", MAI purchase, 1920. 9/8015

Yaahl Hat

“Yaahl Hat” by Isabel Rorick (Haida) and Robin Rorick (Haida), 2017; spruce root, acrylic paint, 7.3" x 14.8", NMAI purchase, 2018. 27/125

“Yaahl Hat” by Isabel Rorick (Haida) and Robin Rorick (Haida), 2017; spruce root, acrylic paint, 7.3" x 14.8", NMAI purchase, 2018. 27/125

Rose B. Simpson

Rose B. Simpson

Born into a family of Tewa potters and sculptors, Rose Simpson (Santa Clara Pueblo) grew up with clay. So while she likes to work in a variety of media—from dance and writing to metal and clay—“clay is the most important to me,” she says. “Clay is the most grounding and the most honest. It is the most integral relationship because it doesn’t feel forced because it was inherited.” Her two ceramic figures sitting inside and outside of twine and reed baskets, or “pods,” are rough, created in one session rather than perfected over time. Simpson says she sometimes works in this “slap slab” technique so that she cannot go back and make a piece “acceptable.” She prefers to reflect the unscripted reality of moments in life. When looking at the pensive figures, their internal struggles are apparent, a reflection of Simpson’s own feelings when she created them. She says her works are “all about emotional growth and trying to identify what the issues are so we can heal from them. Part of that is not being in denial of our honest emotional spaces.” Photo by Minesh Bacrania

Rose B. Simpson

Born into a family of Tewa potters and sculptors, Rose Simpson (Santa Clara Pueblo) grew up with clay. So while she likes to work in a variety of media—from dance and writing to metal and clay—“clay is the most important to me,” she says. “Clay is the most grounding and the most honest. It is the most integral relationship because it doesn’t feel forced because it was inherited.” Her two ceramic figures sitting inside and outside of twine and reed baskets, or “pods,” are rough, created in one session rather than perfected over time. Simpson says she sometimes works in this “slap slab” technique so that she cannot go back and make a piece “acceptable.” She prefers to reflect the unscripted reality of moments in life. When looking at the pensive figures, their internal struggles are apparent, a reflection of Simpson’s own feelings when she created them. She says her works are “all about emotional growth and trying to identify what the issues are so we can heal from them. Part of that is not being in denial of our honest emotional spaces.” Photo by Minesh Bacrania

"Pod III" basket and ceramic sculpture by Rose B. Simpson, 2011.

"Pod III"  by Rose B. Simpson, 2011; ceramic, reed, cotton twine, pigments; approx. 10" x 6" x 8", NMAI purchase, 2012, with support from the Ford Foundation. 26/8636

"Pod III"  by Rose B. Simpson, 2011; ceramic, reed, cotton twine, pigments; approx. 10" x 6" x 8", NMAI purchase, 2012, with support from the Ford Foundation. 26/8636

"Pod IV" basket and sculpture by Rose B. Simpson, 2011.

"Pod IV" by Rose B. Simpson, 2011; ceramic, reed, cotton twine, pigments; 6" x 2" x 4.5", NMAI purchase, 2012, with support from the Ford Foundation. 26/8637

"Pod IV" by Rose B. Simpson, 2011; ceramic, reed, cotton twine, pigments; 6" x 2" x 4.5", NMAI purchase, 2012, with support from the Ford Foundation. 26/8637

Ceramicist Gedion Fernandez with sculpture.

Gedion Fernandez

Gedion Fernandez (Quechua) began to learn about creating ceramics as a child from his grandfather and then started perfecting the techniques of the art during high school. He has since become a ceramicist and ceramics instructor. He is known for his life-size musicians, soldiers and other figures that document Peru’s sometimes violent past but also celebrate the social and cultural landscape of his childhood village of Quinua. According to Fernandez, “Chuncho” (next image) represents an Ashaninka tribal member from the Peruvian rainforests. He says that during his childhood, the Ashaninka would come to his village with their animals to sell their handmade necklaces and play their panpipes in front of a church. They no longer come to Quinua, he says, because internal violence in the 1980s drove them away. This figure is his way of remembering these people. Photo by Williams Pavel Fernández Mallcco.

Gedion Fernandez

Gedion Fernandez (Quechua) began to learn about creating ceramics as a child from his grandfather and then started perfecting the techniques of the art during high school. He has since become a ceramicist and ceramics instructor. He is known for his life-size musicians, soldiers and other figures that document Peru’s sometimes violent past but also celebrate the social and cultural landscape of his childhood village of Quinua. According to Fernandez, “Chuncho” (next image) represents an Ashaninka tribal member from the Peruvian rainforests. He says that during his childhood, the Ashaninka would come to his village with their animals to sell their handmade necklaces and play their panpipes in front of a church. They no longer come to Quinua, he says, because internal violence in the 1980s drove them away. This figure is his way of remembering these people. Photo by Williams Pavel Fernández Mallcco.

"Chuncho" statue by Gedion Fernandez

“Chuncho” by Gedion Fernandez, 2014; ceramic and paint; 29.5" x 17.5" x 13.4", NMAI purchase, 2014. 26/9347

“Chuncho” by Gedion Fernandez, 2014; ceramic and paint; 29.5" x 17.5" x 13.4", NMAI purchase, 2014. 26/9347

Lillian Pitt

Lillian Pitt

Lillian Pitt (Warm Springs/Wasco/Yakama) incorporates the legends and histories of her Columbia River Gorge ancestors that she has learned from tribal elders into her works. However, she is also inspired by artists from other cultures who are striving to tell their stories. “It is the same message, just a different method,” she says. Some of her firing techniques are Japanese, for example, and her “Spirit of the Driftwood, No. 10” (next image) was patterned after an Inuit mask. Although Pitt first formed her masks from clay—“It was love at first touch”—she has since worked in wood and other media and now creates glass and bronze sculptures, silver jewelry as well as tapestries and prints. Photo by Holly Andres for the Oregon Cultural Trust

Lillian Pitt

Lillian Pitt (Warm Springs/Wasco/Yakama) incorporates the legends and histories of her Columbia River Gorge ancestors that she has learned from tribal elders into her works. However, she is also inspired by artists from other cultures who are striving to tell their stories. “It is the same message, just a different method,” she says. Some of her firing techniques are Japanese, for example, and her “Spirit of the Driftwood, No. 10” (next image) was patterned after an Inuit mask. Although Pitt first formed her masks from clay—“It was love at first touch”—she has since worked in wood and other media and now creates glass and bronze sculptures, silver jewelry as well as tapestries and prints. Photo by Holly Andres for the Oregon Cultural Trust

Spirit of the Driftwood mask

Left: “Spirit of the Driftwood, No. 10” by Lillian Pitt, 1982; pottery, feathers, commercial leather thong, glaze; 23.2" x 18.8" x 1.9". U.S. Department of the Interior transferred to NMAI in 2000. 26/1349

Right: Mask by Lillian Pitt, ca. 1995; pottery, glass beads, abalone shell beads, copper beads, metal wire, glaze; 13" x 9" x 3". Presented to Senator Daniel Inouye (D–Hawaii) and gift of Irene Hirano Inouye to NMAI, 2013. 26/9042

Left: “Spirit of the Driftwood, No. 10” by Lillian Pitt, 1982; pottery, feathers, commercial leather thong, glaze; 23.2" x 18.8" x 1.9". U.S. Department of the Interior transferred to NMAI in 2000. 26/1349

Right: Mask by Lillian Pitt, ca. 1995; pottery, glass beads, abalone shell beads, copper beads, metal wire, glaze; 13" x 9" x 3". Presented to Senator Daniel Inouye (D–Hawaii) and gift of Irene Hirano Inouye to NMAI, 2013. 26/9042

Jeri Redcorn

Jeri Redcorn

Jeri Redcorn (Caddo/Potawatomi) of Norman, Oklahoma, first saw Caddo pottery in a museum in 1991. As no living Caddo elders were creating their pottery at that time, she set out to revive this lost art by teaching herself through trying to replicate their processes. Like her ancestors, Redcorn gathers clay and makes her pottery by hand and then fires it in wood-fueled fire pits rather than kilns. Though her artworks are contemporary, many of her designs and forms, such as bottles and pots shaped like human heads (next image), draw inspiration from those her ancestors used hundreds of years ago in Arkansas, Louisiana, Texas and Oklahoma. In the NMAI book "Born of Clay: Ceramics from the National Museum of the American Indian,” she says, “I started making pots to concentrate on the past, to feel the ancestors, and it was like a healing process. Now when I make a pot, I can see the lives of my ancestors, what they suffered losing their land, their children, and their language.” Redcorn has been passing on what she has learned from her research and elders by teaching other potters to carry on this tradition. Photo © Allen Russell

Jeri Redcorn

Jeri Redcorn (Caddo/Potawatomi) of Norman, Oklahoma, first saw Caddo pottery in a museum in 1991. As no living Caddo elders were creating their pottery at that time, she set out to revive this lost art by teaching herself through trying to replicate their processes. Like her ancestors, Redcorn gathers clay and makes her pottery by hand and then fires it in wood-fueled fire pits rather than kilns. Though her artworks are contemporary, many of her designs and forms, such as bottles and pots shaped like human heads (next image), draw inspiration from those her ancestors used hundreds of years ago in Arkansas, Louisiana, Texas and Oklahoma. In the NMAI book "Born of Clay: Ceramics from the National Museum of the American Indian,” she says, “I started making pots to concentrate on the past, to feel the ancestors, and it was like a healing process. Now when I make a pot, I can see the lives of my ancestors, what they suffered losing their land, their children, and their language.” Redcorn has been passing on what she has learned from her research and elders by teaching other potters to carry on this tradition. Photo © Allen Russell

Caddo Head Pot

Left: “Caddo Head Pot" by Jeri Redcorn, 2005, ceramic and pigments, 7.3" x 8.3" x 7.8", NMAI purchase, 2005. 26/5161

Right: “Intertwining Scrolls” by Jeri Redcorn, 2005, ceramic, pigments, 8" x 6.9", NMAI purchase, 2005. 26/5160

Left: “Caddo Head Pot" by Jeri Redcorn, 2005, ceramic and pigments, 7.3" x 8.3" x 7.8", NMAI purchase, 2005. 26/5161

Right: “Intertwining Scrolls” by Jeri Redcorn, 2005, ceramic, pigments, 8" x 6.9", NMAI purchase, 2005. 26/5160

Michael Massie

Michael Massie

Michael Massie (Labrador Inuit/Métis/Scottish) of Kippens, Newfoundland, learned some of the skills he uses to create art by watching his mother create items such as the grass baskets she wove as well as moose and seal-skin boots she sewed. He went on to learn how to draw and make silver jewelry in high school and commercial art courses in college. However, it was when he combined metal and wood from his Scottish heritage with the limestone, moose bone and sinew indicative of his Inuit ancestry that he redefined Inuit art. Now his unique style of whimsical teapots and sculptures are recognized throughout the Inuit art world. Coming from a harsh environment, he says humor was a big part of his growing up: “You kind of have to have a sense of humor to survive at times.” And as “storytelling is big for the Inuit,” says Massie, every piece of his art tells one. For example, on one side of “A Blind Man's Vision,” (next image) an elderly hunter who has lost his vision from snow blindness puts on snow goggles and appeals to the owl (on the reverse side) to restore his vision for one last hunt. Photo Courtesy of Michael Massie

Michael Massie

Michael Massie (Labrador Inuit/Métis/Scottish) of Kippens, Newfoundland, learned some of the skills he uses to create art by watching his mother create items such as the grass baskets she wove as well as moose and seal-skin boots she sewed. He went on to learn how to draw and make silver jewelry in high school and commercial art courses in college. However, it was when he combined metal and wood from his Scottish heritage with the limestone, moose bone and sinew indicative of his Inuit ancestry that he redefined Inuit art. Now his unique style of whimsical teapots and sculptures are recognized throughout the Inuit art world. Coming from a harsh environment, he says humor was a big part of his growing up: “You kind of have to have a sense of humor to survive at times.” And as “storytelling is big for the Inuit,” says Massie, every piece of his art tells one. For example, on one side of “A Blind Man's Vision,” (next image) an elderly hunter who has lost his vision from snow blindness puts on snow goggles and appeals to the owl (on the reverse side) to restore his vision for one last hunt. Photo Courtesy of Michael Massie

"A Blind Man's Vision" ceramic sculpture by Michael Massie.

“A Blind Man's Vision” by Michael Massie, 2003; limestone, tagua palm nut, moose bone, ebony; 8.5" x 6.7" x 4.6", gift to NMAI by R.E. Mansfield, 2006. 26/5810

“A Blind Man's Vision” by Michael Massie, 2003; limestone, tagua palm nut, moose bone, ebony; 8.5" x 6.7" x 4.6", gift to NMAI by R.E. Mansfield, 2006. 26/5810

This “Ancestral Connections” exhibition— which opened this past spring—brings together the past and present of Native artworks spanning the Western Hemisphere. The pieces highlighted in the show vary greatly in their forms and origins, yet their creators share a common thread: all have been inspired by their Indigenous roots. “Even their act of creating could be a form of remembering, whether individual ancestors, or ways of life, or connections with the landscape,” says NMAI’s Ann McMullen, who curated the exhibition.

On one side of the Charles and Valerie Diker Pavilion where the artworks are displayed is a large glass fish basket that captures salmon spirits, hand-blown by the late Quinault/Isleta Pueblo artist Marvin Oliver of Washington state. Nearby, a face peers back from one of the two ceramic vessels by Caddo/Potawatomi potter Jeri Redcorn of Oklahoma. Two ceramic masks, one with feathers and another with beads, by Warm Springs/Wasco/Yakama artist Lillian Pitt from Oregon also hold your attention with their haunting gazes. Haida artists Isabel and Robin Rorick from British Columbia took inspiration from the striking red and black formline designs and weaving techniques of Haida hats by Isabel’s great-grandparents; two of the family’s hats, created generations apart, are on display. Jackie Larson Bread (Pikuni Blackfeet, Montana) has replicated a portrait of the tribal leader White Quiver from a historic photograph on one of her bright, beaded bags. And the white ceramic, traditional dress of Oklahoma ceramic and textile artist Anita Fields (Osage) appears to flutter in wind.

On the other side are sculptures that are startling, thought-provoking and even amusing. Evoking a Yup'ik mask, the brightly colored wooden figure of the late Tlingit artist Jim Schoppert sports outstretched arms with exaggerated forked hands. The expressions on artist Michael Massie’s (Labrador Inuit/Métis/ Scottish) dual-sided owl and hunter limestone sculpture also have a hint of whimsy. One can empathize with the small, pensive ceramic figurines sitting in and beside the twine and reed “pods” that Santa Clara Pueblo multimedia artist Rose B. Simpson created. And you can almost hear the flute being played by the grand Andean forest-dweller covered by animal companions that Gedion Caseo Fernandez Nolasco (Quechua) sculpted.

All of these artists are leaders in contemporary Native art, yet the path that each has taken to this point in their journey has not necessarily been along a straight line. For example, although Rose Simpson comes from a long line of Tewa potters, she had wanted to find her own identity. She left her home village of Santa Clara Pueblo in New Mexico to earn a master’s in fine arts in Rhode Island because “I wanted to see what I could make outside of the Indian art world,” she says. However, “One of the main things I learned was how much I actually am that no matter how hard I try to be something else. It is what nurtured me growing up. I can’t extract myself from it. It seeps through everything I do.”

Lillian Pitt grew up on the Warm Springs Indian Reservation in north-central Oregon. Her parents had been forced into government boarding schools that tried to get them to relinquish their own culture and did not talk to her about their American Indian heritage before their passing. So in the 1980s, Pitt sought the knowledge of her tribe’s elders to learn about her ancestors who lived in the Columbia River Gorge. “My community taught me,” she says. The elders took her to see ancient petroglyphs, including the face of She Who Watches overlooking her tribal lands. Pitt says, “It gave me a profound sense of identity and a strong sense of purpose.” She began working in clay to create masks but has since made bronze sculptures, silver jewelry, glass vessels, prints, tapestries and other renowned works that reflect the stories of her people.

Based in Kippens, Newfoundland, Michael Massie had a different reception when he first started creating art that was inspired by his Inuit heritage but incorporated metals from his Scottish side. In 1991, he made an Inuit ulu knife of silver and wood. At that time, he says, art critics had defined Inuit art as being only authentically Inuit if it took one of three forms—carved stone, prints or tapestry—so the knife created “quite a stir.” People became aware of his works and since then, his silver teapots and Inuit-inspired limestone sculptures are sought after in the Inuit art markets. In 2018, the Canadian government even appointed him to its prestigious Order of Canada for expanding the boundaries of Inuit art. “Art is art; the medium doesn’t matter. The person making it is the art,” says Massie.

The artists whose works are featured in the “Ancestral Connections” exhibition “all tapped into that sense of ancestry,” McMullen says, “but at the same time they are not necessarily bound by it. The past and traditional heritage are there to be reference points rather than rules. From there, art can move forward.”

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