It was Aristotle who said that art takes nature as its model, but it was three Native American women whose art took nature as its canvas.
“The materials that we used are ancient,” said Kristen Wyman (Natick Nipmuc), who worked with copper, sinew, and wampum beads—a type of shell derived from the quahog—in her paintings. “They’ve been here for thousands of years.”
Wyman’s artwork is part of the Native American Resilience Through Art exhibit, which also features work from Nia Holley (Nipmuc Nation) and Michelle Napoli (Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria—Coast Miwok and Southern Pomo). The exhibit opened on February 1 at the Joseph P. Healey Library’s Grossmann Gallery. Students, faculty, family, and friends were invited to join the artists as they discussed their artwork and the significance of their Indigenous heritage in influencing their work.
Napoli, who chose 14 paintings to feature in the exhibit, said that creating the artwork has helped her in slowly understanding her identity “through a history that keeps systematically trying to erase [her] ability to be who [she is].”
“It’s a whole different way of making sense of my world,” Napoli explained. “It’s some way to recognize who I am and to come back later, and it’s still there. I get to build something that doesn’t go away, and it doesn’t get eroded.”
The three artists worked with different materials that were significant to their tribes. Wyman started working on her pieces in September and said the process of cutting and polishing each shell was all done by hand.
“Nowadays, folks can use machines to speed up the process, and I really take pride in having each piece never leave my hands,” she said. “I’ve learned the places where the shell is most fragile—and when it has those fractures, it still works with me.”
Cedric Woods, director of UMass Boston’s Institute for New England Native American Studies, which co-sponsored the event, said that some of the materials used for the artwork are “symbolic and ceremonial significance for Indigenous peoples.”
“One of the artists uses gifted materials and works that into her aesthetic, and it also has a degree of meaning to her,” he said.
That artist is Holley, and those materials are cedar, sweet grass, and sage: items that she received as gifts from her mom during a time when Holley was feeling unsure and unmotivated.
“The particular pieces in this exhibit are special to me. They are works of validation and self-empowerment and are also just me trying to feel OK with myself during a time when I was going through a lot,” said Holley, adding that once the exhibit is over, she will be giving away her artwork to women in her family who have helped to inspire her.
Maria John, assistant professor of history, was one of many in attendance at the opening of the exhibit, which was also co-sponsored by the Joseph P. Healey Library, the Student Alliance for the Indigenous Peoples of the Americas, the Native American and Indigenous Studies Program, and William James College. She said she encouraged her students to come as well.
“I’m very keen to support the work of Native artists that we have in our community,” John said. “I think it’s a real gift that this work is on our campus, and it’s great that we have a chance to introduce our students to the work of local artists and just raise their awareness of the communities that are here around them in New England.”
Woods said he hopes more people will take the opportunity to visit the exhibition, which will be on display through August 2018.
“It’s the mission of the institute to underscore and emphasize the ongoing persistence and resilience of Indigenous peoples in North America,” said Woods. “So this art exhibition provides another modality for making that point in a way that hopefully many of our students and community members can engage with and learn from.”