A strong argument could be made that “Hearts of Our People,” the first major museum exhibition exploring the achievements of female Native American artists, was the most important, positively reviewed exhibit presented in the U.S. last year. Opening in Minneapolis, closing soon in Nashville and headed to the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, D.C. next, the show shattered a glass ceiling these artists had been bumping up against for decades.
Following in the wake of this historic presentation come two more opportunities to admire the work of Native American women, with hopefully countless more just over the horizon.
The James Museum of Western & Wildlife Art in St. Petersburg, Florida presents “Spirit Lines: Helen Hardin Etchings.” This is the museum’s first major exhibition highlighting artworks by a female artist.
“With tenacity and vision, Hardin rose to fame in the 1970s as a young Native woman in a male-dominated art world,” James Museum curator Emily Kapes said. “She helped break stylistic boundaries in Native art with the development of her modern, geometric compositions.”
Hardin expressed those compositions through copper plate etching, a medium where a metal plate is acid-etched with an image, then the plate is inked to produce a set number of prints. The exact processes and precise techniques of copper plate etching were fitting for the labor-intensive, detailed compositions created by Hardin.
“Up until 1980, Hardin had been a painter, but her linear work with meticulous detail was very much suited to the etching medium,” Kapes explains. “She was deliberate and controlled with every mark and her precision was impeccable; she produced some of her very best work in those last years with thoughtful compositions and intricate layering.”
Kates’ comment foreshadows the tragic ending to Hardin’s story. Hardin was diagnosed with breast cancer at the height of her powers. She continued creating art until her death at age 41 in June 1984.
“She had so much she wanted to say through her art,” Kapes said. “Even before she found out she had cancer, she worked to produce art with such focus and urgency.”
The show, on view through March 1, is supplemented with art by other women with ties to Santa Clara Pueblo, including Hardin’s mother Pablita Velarde and Hardin’s daughter Margarete Bagshaw.
“The title ‘Spirit Lines’ references etching lines as well as family lines,” Kapes said. “It’s powerful to see three generations of Native women artists represented together.”
Unlike her mother, who painted scenes of traditional Pueblo life, Hardin chose to interpret images of ancient pottery and rock art designs into contemporary, abstracted, highly individualized compositions. Choices that would influence the artists who followed in her footsteps.
“I think she helped to pave the way for stylistic experimentation,” Kapes said. “She was also one of the first Native women artists to receive the prominence that she did, inspiring many younger artists.”
From the artists with work selected for “Hearts of Our People” to Hardin and the Native women producing work today, a unbreakable connection exists between them and their foremothers, all those artisans with work displayed in the nation’s encyclopedic art and natural history museums credited by their tribe, but listed as “anonymous.” The generations of female bead workers. The quill workers. The leather workers. The potters. The weavers.
Through May 31, the Tucson (Arizona) Desert Art Museum presents “Art is the Seed: Contemporary Native American Women’s Art Inspired by Traditional Crafts,” an exhibit honoring this connection.
“Art is the Seed” explores how historic Native American crafts are the cultural “seeds” inspiring many Native American women artists today. The exhibition features contemporary works by Native American artists Cara Romero, Marla Allison, Sarah Sense, Natani Notah, Darby Raymond-Overstreet and Leah Mata Fragua.
These artists use performance art, photography, sculpture, painting and collage to fuse historic and culturally specific symbols with 21st century ideas. The artists forge new ways of being Native American in the modern world, affirming that Indigenous culture is both continually evolving and permanent.