POSTED ON APRIL 4, 2012:
Seeking the sacred in black and white
Philbrook Museum of Art is buzzing with two exhibits running simultaneously, both of which deserve a visit. BlackonBlackandWhite, featuring the work of two iconic artists, Laura Gilpin and Maria Martinez, runs through April 15. Offering a stunning portrait of the American Southwest, the exhibit shines with Martinez's pottery and Gilpin's photographs.
Opening April 1 is Seeking the Sacred: Religious Ritual in Native American Art which will run through June 3. The curator of this exhibit is a lovely woman by the name of Christina E. Burke.
Christina's tour was as infectious as her laugh. The months of hard work twinkles in her eyes as she saunters from station to station. She is quick to admit that the exhibit is a team effort and has a fascinating view of what she wishes the Tulsa audience to embrace and experience during their visit.
The main focus of the pieces are religious rituals in the Native American culture. Burke wants the emphasis to be on the parallels in the imagery and nuances displayed in this collection with contemporary forms of religion, such as the practice of Lent or Passover.
Preparing for Ritual
"I want individuals to look at commonalities among religion. In various religions we prepare our bodies for various kinds of ritual cleansing, whether it's fasting, or for a lot of native communities, using a sweat lodge -- sort of a temporary sauna where your body is getting rid of physical toxins, but it's also to clear your mind of negative thoughts and prepare yourself for this interaction with the spirit world. So we want to be in as good a place and frame of mind as possible. Once we've cleaned our bodies and our minds, then we wear whatever ritual clothing or adornment, in this case, face paint, for that particular ritual," Burke said.
During this part of the talk, we saunter up to a basket from California, with an iconic pouch and peace pipe, embellished with images of teepees. The level of decoration is a symbol of the level of their importance and the importance of tobacco in ritual use.
"Another important part of preparing for rituals is the smoking of tobacco. Smoking of tobacco in Native American communities is not just for relaxation or socialization. It really has a ritual use, and often times tobacco is smoked at the beginning and at the end of a ceremony. It marks the place, the time and the event as something solemn and sacred."
Spirits in the Material World
"So often people will take themselves out of their community and go out solitary, whether it is for prayer or meditation, but a direct connection with the sacred," Burke said. "Sometimes in Indian communities, these are called Vision Quests and again, you take yourself out of the community so you're alone in the wilderness usually as high up as you can be as close as to the heavens and the world of the spirits as possible. You're asking for their assistance: maybe it's with health for yourself or a family member, it could be for strength or bravery going into battle, health of the community, there are a number of things we ask for assistance with."
We come up close to a piece of art with arms outstretched to heaven in blue as lighter blue pieces fall like rain from the spirit world. One could make the argument this has a direct connection to the infamous hands on the ORU grounds, but Burke's explanation is far more appeasing.
"The piece at the end is called 'Atonement in Blue.' We humans are fallible and sometimes make mistakes or transgressions, so here we have a figure who is asking forgiveness in the spiritual world, which I think is an important part of many religious traditions. We're all going to make mistakes, but hopefully there is some mechanism where we can be forgiven and start over again."
Spiritual Leaders or Intercessors
This section highlights people who are trained in these rituals and intervene on the behalf of the community. In a Lakota piece, the central figure is female, titled "White Buffalo Calf Woman," and for the Lakota, she is what Burke describes as a 'culture heroine.'
"She is seen as the spiritual figure that brought the pipe to the Lakota people, how to properly use it and how it would differentiate the Lakota people from other tribes. She is the one who made them 'Lakota.' She's instructing these two men, and spiritual leaders can be women or men, it really depends on the community, in this particular image, you see she has a halo around her head. We see this mixture of native and Christian imagery. Sometimes she is seen as a parallel of the virgin Mary. As this maternal figure, giving life, in a very different way than the virgin Mary but helping to teach people how to behave properly and conduct these rituals with this new knowledge."
Several spirits mentioned are those of the animal that is sacrificed to the rain so that the crops can grow. We connect with the sacred to ask for assistance, but also to give thanks when things go well.
"There are often community celebrations, to celebrate the hunt, so we see images, again, of animals and animal headdresses; or successful harvests and the notion of thanksgiving and when things have gone well, and are successful, not only when the individual is healthy, the community as a whole is healthy," Burke said.
"Other sections in the exhibit portray the native American rituals of honoring the dead and rituals that are specific to Oklahoma, which includes a piece that dates back to the 1930's and was one of the first pieces of art Philbrook acquired."
Come take your own vision quest to Philbrook Museum to immerse yourself in Black on Black and White and Seeking the Sacred: Religious Ritual in Native American Art. Philbrook is open Tuesday-Saturday 10am-5pm and stays open until 8pm on Thursdays.
Two Painters, Two Places
In the long tradition of painters working together in a landscape setting, such as Paul Cezanne and Camille Pissaro, or the infamous Vincent van Gogh and Paul Gauguin, local artists Louise Higgs and Cathy Deuschle bring their magical world of the Stuart Park in Osage County and the Quartz Mountain in Western Oklahoma to the Tulsa PAC Gallery in April.
Being dedicated to the practice of being instructed through direct contact with nature must make the scenery especially enchanting. What, exactly, calls such a devoted team back to capture the essence of these locations time and time again?
"Stuart Park, which is close to home, contains gardens, lawns, woodland and two small ponds," Deuschle said. "I've particularly enjoyed the algae blooms, the odd tree shapes and openings the ice storm created and the bird life. These paintings are completed within a brief span of time because the landscape develops so rapidly and markedly."
"Quartz Mountain -- it is really about the architecture of the place, the scale of the mountains, the way the sky meets land, and the sense of being in a place that is totally unique," Higgs said. "Painting outside without the use of photographs is about accepting change -- rapid change sometimes as the effects of weather and time of day play out. It is becoming part of the place you are in. Cathy and I would plan our trips to the Mountain so we would have at least three full days of painting time. These were working trips for us and we would be out early in the morning and painting all day, usually until dark. We did not paint the same views. Cathy chose her spots and I mine. I painted a single view of the mountain and painted that view over and over again at different times of day. I have about 14 views of the mountain. It is a magical place."
How does one describe the experience of painting with another person as opposed to painting alone?
"Painting is a solitary pursuit and spending the day struggling to translate the landscape is ultimately very satisfying, it fills me up," Deuschle said.
"Cathy and I have a very amiable connection -- unlike poor Vincent Van Gogh and Paul Gauguin. It is a way to share, with more immediacy, the challenges and intensities of painting outside. Still, painting remains a solitary pursuit in the end. I think, with Cathy and I, it was the shared effort of our commitment to paint the Landscape that had a great deal of importance to us," Higgs said. "We did not start this endeavor as a way to have an exhibit. That came much later in the sequence of time. We thought that perhaps the work we were doing would be an exhibition of interest to the community. We worked hard and both felt it was a combined body of honest work. It is also a way of honoring the Art of Painting itself. In my mind, the painter remains behind the work."
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