Postcard from Basin: The future of American Indian art




I had the privilege of spending last weekend in Basin, Mont., at the American Indian Artists Symposium, hosted by the Montana Artists Refuge. I wrote about the Montana Artists Refuge (MAR) for the Indy in 2008, and later served on the organization's board. I say that in the interest of full disclosure, but should add that I knew almost nothing about last weekend's event before I arrived for the opening reception. That's because it's organized by Native artists, for Native artists, to discuss the past, present and future of Native art.

The two-day event, which was entirely free (meals, too) and open to the public, included an A-list lineup of regional talent, including poet Vic Charlo, painter Jeneese Hilton, printmaker Corky Clairmont and multimedia performer Bently Spang, as well as prominent artists from Washington (Joe Feddersen), Colorado (C. Maxx Stevens), California (Emmanuel Catarino Montoya) and New York (Kaye WalkingStick). Discussions covered topics like, "Post-Indian: Is 'Identity Art' Over?" and "Reclaiming Identity and the Future of Native Art," and Saturday evening was filled with poetry reading and an open mic.

For those unfamiliar with the featured artists, their work appears in museums and galleries across the nation. Hilton has shown at the Missoula Art Museum, as has Spang and Feddersen. Spang made a splash with his interactive Techno Powwow, which he honed at an American Indian Artists Symposium years ago. WalkingStick is a professor emerita at Cornell University, and her work can be seen at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in the Big Apple, as well as in 35 other museums around the country. All of which is to say, it was an impressive collection of talent to be found in tiny Basin, a sleepy mining community nestled comfortably in the middle of nowhere.

It's also a nice preamble to the fact that a young artist managed to temporarily steal the spotlight from her more established peers. Ryan Elizabeth Feddersen, Joe's niece, graduated from Cornish College last year and is quickly making a name for herself in the Pacific Northwest. During a short presentation Saturday night, Ryan showed examples of her recent installation projects, including the coolest coloring book you've ever seen.

In "A Little Color in the White House," Ryan basically recreated a White House dining room by wall-papering the 500-square-foot space on three sides with white paper. On the paper, she outlined in black Sharpie the fireplace, the molding, an Abe Lincoln portrait, etc. You can see what it looked like here (click the image to enlarge):


Then, on a table in the middle of the room, Ryan outlined place settings. The food at the center of the table, however, offered the installation's only color: a big hunk of ham, a plate of oysters, some veggies, etc., all of which is three dimensional, as you see here:


And here's the catch: That food is actually crayons.

That means you're invited to pick up that hunk of ham and use it to color Abe's foot. Or grab a green bean and color the windowsill.


Ryan's exhibit was a hit, and she was later commissioned to create a similar installation for a benefit dinner for Seattle's Henry Art Gallery.

Even with the immense talent on hand in Basin, Ryan's work stood out. She's worth keeping an eye on as her career — and the future of American Indian art — continues to evolve.

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