Bringing Native American themes to landscape painting

The American landscape — vast, diverse and lyrical — has inspired artists for generations, and artist Kay WalkingStick regards her own recent interpretations as among her best works.

Throughout her career, WalkingStick, 86, has explored Native American history and personal identity. Recently, she’s doing it through landscape paintings of the American West and New England. The paintings are overlaid by geometric patterns designed by the tribal peoples who lived in these locations long before anyone else.

Kay WalkingStick (© Julia Maloof Verderosa)
Kay WalkingStick (© Julia Maloof Verderosa)

WalkingStick paints landscapes and seascapes as diptychs, suggesting the duality of “the known and the unknown” and as a metaphor for “uniting the disparate,” which she says is “attractive to those of us who are biracial.” (She is a member of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma through her father’s family and is of Scots/Irish heritage on her mother’s side.)

WalkingStick is regarded as a distinguished American artist, with work in the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian, as well as other permanent collections.

Her creativity has gone through phases. In the 1970s, she produced abstract paintings focused on the Nez Perce tribal leader Chief Joseph (1840–1904). Those paintings mourn lost lives and lost homes. The series, she says, is a “long, dirge-like song to honor Chief Joseph and his people,” who were forced out of Oregon’s Wallowa Valley.

Three geometric paintings (Courtesy of Kay WalkingStick)
In these three panels from the Chief Joseph Series, completed in the mid-1970s, WalkingStick incised archetypal arc forms into acrylic paint and wax, to reveal a color-stained canvas beneath. (Courtesy of Kay WalkingStick)

WalkingStick says that while her creative technique has changed, her paintings’ themes have always related to the land. After traveling to Montana battlefields — where 19th-century Native warriors fought to retain their ancestral homelands — she began using the geometric motifs with landscapes in order to remind viewers of the Native American origins of the United States.

While some call the patterns modernist, WalkingStick points out that the Plateau tribes (including the Nez Perce) and the Great Basin and Plains peoples have used such patterns for centuries to decorate rawhide pouches. “Traditionally, men painted their battle exploits, while women painted abstractions,” she explains.

Different Native peoples can be identified by distinct patterns. Each tribe’s patterns typically represent landscape features, such as rivers or mountains. “In all the paintings, I used patterns based on the specific peoples” who lived in an area depicted, WalkingStick says.

Painting of seascape (Courtesy of Kay WalkingStick)
New Hampshire Coast, 2020 (Courtesy of Kay WalkingStick)

She incorporates patterns of the Northern Cheyenne and Siouan peoples, as well as some from tribes that no longer exist. (There are 574 federally recognized Native tribes in the United States, according to the U.S. Department of the Interior.) WalkingStick studies patterns on pouches, baskets, rugs, beadwork or pottery. “I do change the colors … but not the shapes,” she says.

In addition to conveying Native Americans’ relation to the land, WalkingStick wants viewers “to see that our world is a beautiful place. It’s a treasure. This is our place in the cosmos, and we have to take care of it, because we can’t live anywhere else.”

Painting of canyon (Courtesy of Kay WalkingStick)
The Canyon, 2016 (Courtesy of Kay WalkingStick)

One of WalkingStick’s paintings is currently being shown at the David C. Driskell Center’s American Landscapes exhibition in College Park, Maryland, on the University of Maryland campus, and an exhibition of her works is planned for February 2022 at Hales Gallery in New York City.

Of these works, she says, “I think my paintings today are clearer and more direct than any I’ve made in my entire life.”