Louisville-based artist Ryland Stalder said he’s felt “empowered” by having his work included in a touring exhibition called “Native Reflections: Visual Art by American Indians of Kentucky.”
“Sometimes I feel like I’m working in a vacuum,” said Stalder, who in the past few years began drawing on his Lakota ancestry in his artwork. “So, to work in dialogue, and to see my work in a collection of Indigenous work just feels powerful.”
The 22-year-old Spalding University undergrad is one of a dozen artists featured in the “Native Reflections” show, which has made several stops already this calendar year, and is now on display at Art Center of the Bluegrass in Danville, Kentucky through Dec. 19.
The piece Stalder has in the exhibition is “pretty small and unassuming” at first glance, what he describes as a “regular handheld washboard.”
“And the big thing about it is the closer you get to it, you realize that there’s an image that’s screen printed on it,” Stalder said. “Then you begin to realize that that image is torn, and that there’s something a little bit off.”
The image is actually a blending of two: one of the Hunkpapa Lakota leader Sitting Bull, at 50% opacity, and the second of Stalder, also at 50%.
Having grown up in a small town in Indiana, Stalder said many of his classmates would question his heritage, not believing that he has Lakota lineage.
“And so, for an even longer time, I hid that part of myself because it was a target for cruelty from other children,” he said, adding that he’s adopted and, therefore, noticed how he didn’t look like his close family members. “Coming into college, and who I am now, I have had to learn to reclaim that. And in a way, that’s what this piece is, it’s me reclaiming my identity and my rights.”
Highlight Kentucky’s present-day ‘great diversity’ of Native cultures
Mark Brown, the folk and traditional arts director for the Kentucky Arts Council, said the idea for this exhibition formed after the council did a land acknowledgement, for the first time, at its 2019 Creative Industry Summit in Mt. Sterling, “recognizing that the land and resources we were using that day were part of the cultural landscape of Native American people before it was colonized.”
“Kentucky was the homeland of the Shawnee everywhere but in the extreme western end,” according to Tressa Brown, the state’s historic preservation coordinator who coordinates the Kentucky Native American Heritage Commission. “The Chickasaw were there. A bit later the Cherokee came into the southern and eastern portions of the state.”
The state was also home to smaller tribes and the people who lived on these lands before them, but “we don’t know what the people who were here before that called themselves,” Brown said in an email.
The Kentucky Arts Council reached out to Brown and the commission, as well as the Kentucky Heritage Council, about the art exhibition. She appreciated that it would acknowledge the state’s present-day Native population and the “great diversity of cultures among the American Indians in the state today.”
The agencies worked together to reach out to artists, both those enrolled in federal- and state-recognized tribes and those who aren’t enrolled but who identify with their Indigenous heritage.
“As required by law and custom, the ‘Native Reflections’ exhibit labels indicate whether an artist is an enrolled member of a state- or federally-recognized tribe, or if they are not currently enrolled or recognized,” according to the Kentucky Arts Council website. “Each artist is listed as either ‘Enrolled Member’ or ‘Native Inspired.’”
Reflection on identity, place through art
The resulting works are reflections on “identity and their sense of self, sense of community, and sense of place,” KAC’s Mark Brown said.
For Lawson Glasergreen of Owensboro, his “Native-inspired” work is a reflection of the part of his identity that has Cherokee roots.
His works, titled “Cherokee Circle of Life 1 & 2,” draw on “circular imagery,” which, he said, holds significance in many Indigenous cultures including Cherokee.
Glasergreen thinks the exhibition is “an outstanding opportunity from a cultural standpoint to connect all of us with the idea that there were previous peoples” living on the land that is known today as Kentucky.
“It gives us a breath of consciousness to expand ourselves,” Glasergreen said.
Author and artist Darlene Campbell, who is an enrolled member of the New River Band of the Catawba Nation, said she was thrilled about the idea of this exhibition.
“I thought this is such a positive thing for Native culture, and I was just really proud that they were doing that, that they were acknowledging Kentucky’s Native population… and I’m trying to present it as a very real and intricate part of Appalachian history,” she said.
Campbell, who also teaches art at Adair County Primary Center in Columbia, has two paintings in the show: “White Top Woman” and “Fields of August.” Each pictures the same woman, who shows up in a lot of Campbell’s artwork.
“I try to personify nature as a girl, and she repeatedly shows up in the artwork, it’s the same girl every time,” she said. “I want to set a standard for different types of beauty, but I also want to show what an integral part of our culture of nature is, and how there’s no huge dividing line between the natural and the spiritual.”
She creates her work with the intention of speaking “to the spirit of people, and to realize that we are, first and foremost, above all, we are all human beings.”
Artist Ryland Stalder hopes, after seeing the exhibition, people will acknowledge “that indigenous people are still here.”
“We’re not a story, or a stereotype. I am not a story or a stereotype… You don’t always know what someone identifies as, and you don’t get to assume that based on what your perception is,” he said.
Other artists featured in the exhibition include Jacquelyn Carruthers, Cher Devereaux, Eugene King, Fred Nez-Keams, Jannette Parent, Linda Pierce, Tiffany Pyette, Carrie Rogers and Brigit Truex.
In 2021, the show will tour to Butler County Arts Guild in Morgantown, Cumberland Falls State Resort Park in Corbin, Glema Mahr Center for the Arts in Madisonville, Clark County Public Library in Winchester and to the Capitol Rotunda in the State Capitol Building in Frankfort.
The exact dates haven’t been confirmed yet.
Support for this story was provided in part by the Great Meadows Foundation.