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'Shape of Things': Indigenous artists team up with museum, press for new work

'Shape of Things': Indigenous artists team up with museum, press for new work


To take a look at how indigenous artists in the United States are approaching their work, the Missoula Art Museum didn't put out an open call.

Instead, they brought the artists to Missoula, where they created new work at the University of Montana's Matrix Press.

The collaborative exhibition, "The Shape of Things: New Approaches to Indigenous Abstraction," shows the breadth of work.

MAM senior curator Brandon Reintjes said the idea of focusing on indigenous abstract artists came from a quote from Gail Tremblay, a Onondaga/Mi'Kmaq artist and scholar:

“Historically, Indigenous peoples have well-established traditions of both abstract and highly stylized representational design. Some visual symbols people use are mnemonic and make knowledgeable viewers who see them and think of stories associated with them. Contemporary Native artists are influenced by such aesthetic traditions and at the same time they are trained to use a wide variety of media and styles used by contemporary artists around the world.”

Reintjes noted that the exhibition isn't limited to a strict interpretation of abstraction as non-objective art, but instead art that focuses on emphasizing certain features rather than masking them.

More broadly, he said the idea of abstraction is somewhat problematic. "It's inherited all these agendas: modernist utopian ideas and ideological overlays that are really tainted with a lot of colonial histories. Progress, 'the new,' it all sounds very great. When you look at what progress and newness mean, there's this whole history of modernism that includes displacement and subjugation and genocide for indigenous people," he said. What's more, "historically indigenous people have long traditions of abstraction and stylized representations of design."


The MAM wanted to expand its artist residencies, but lacking space on its own building, reached out to Matrix. The project was funded thanks to a $100,000 grant from the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, in addition to money contributed by the press.

Matrix and the MAM worked together to pick the artists: Sara Siestreem, Molly Murphy-Adams, John Hitchcock and Duane Slick, who visited Missoula between late 2016 and early 2018 for weeklong residencies.

James Bailey, the head of Matrix Press and a UM professor, said they discussed in advance ideas for prints.

"It always comes from the artist first," Bailey said. "As a printmaker, I'm always looking at their body of work and what we can conceivably do and what would translate into print."

Since the 1950s and '60s, the role of master printer has developed into a more collaborative one with artists.

"I made it clear with all of the artists, that at the end of the day, I want them to do things that are authentic to themselves."

Once the artists arrived, they would set up a game plan to execute with Bailey and Jason Clark, the Matrix 2D technician. For instance, Slick is primarily a painter, so he and Bailey discussed ways to make the prints spontaneous and unique — they produced 110 total, and no two are the same.

The relatively short visits meant long days. For Slick's project, UM student volunteers spent seven hours cutting stencils of animals and plants for a series of monotypes. Once they were complete, Slick could freely create with them.

"He would stand at the press and start composing each one as he went," Bailey said.

That spontaneity of the process was the most enjoyable aspect to Clark, an adjunct who's been with Matrix on and off for 20 years.

"As the prints are coming together, they're looking at things and evaluating them halfway through and maybe taking a different direction than they thought," he said.

The students volunteered their time for the printing sessions, which could stretch from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., or 9 a.m. to 6 p.m.

Darla Pienciak, a first-year MFA student, volunteered to work on prints with Slick and Hitchcock. She said she feels somewhat rigid in her own techniques, and that it was beneficial to see how you can "change up the layers and the colors, and it doesn't have to be so strict, from point A to point B."

Often, the residencies pushed up until the last minute. In Hitchcock's case, he produced more prints in the shortened time frame than he ever had before.

"On the final day he was here, he came in and we started working at 8 in the morning and finished up around close to midnight," Bailey said.

The work on display in the MAM is only a small fraction of what was created. Matrix and the artist split prints, roughly in half. Each of the students who volunteered gets a to pick a print. Then Matrix donates some to the MAM's permanent collection, and saves some for its own collection, now 20 years deep.

John Hitchcock


John Hitchcock, an art professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, said that when he was a kid his parents bought him drawing tools because he was running around drawing on the walls.

Now, one of his prints fills an entire wall in the gallery. "Protectors" comprises paper buffalo skulls set against organic shapes clustered with X's. He likes the historical, protest roots of prints: They're cheap and easy to mass-produce and disseminate. A piece like "Protectors" can cover a wall, but he can ship it across the country in a tube.

Here in Missoula, Hitchcock brought a boisterous, improvisational energy to the press headquarters, where he was overseeing silkscreen on one table while finishing off other prints with layer upon layer of hand drawing, ensuring each print is unique.

Hitchcock first learned to draw from his grandmother, a beadwork artist who would give him projects, such as re-creating the geometric and floral patterns.

When he traveled to Missoula last fall, he brought a pocket-sized sketchbook that he filled during a residency at the Buffalo Bill Center for the West. He combed through their archives and sketched moccasins and other artifacts. He took pictures of the sketches, enlarged them on the computer and made them into transparencies for his prints.

Once they were silk-screened, the handwork came in. The resulting pieces have bright intersecting layers that draw the eye around the paper over and over, wondering what was printed and what could've been added by hand.

In his gallery talk, he told a story about his grandmother making him a guitar strap. Some of the beads weren't in line, and it took him some time to work up the courage to ask her about it.

He said her reply was, “With beads it’s important to have one missing or the coloration not in sequence, because that’s the space in between for you to go to the other side — the space for knowledge to be accessed, the opening for things to go back and forth, for the spirits to go back and forth, beliefs to go back and forth, for culture to move back and forth.”

Sara Siestreem

(Hanis Coos)

Sara Siestreem visited in the fall of 2016, when protests over the Dakota Access Pipeline and institutional racism dominated news.

The Portland, Oregon-based artist meticulously planned editions of three lithographs for a series called "Thanks Giving / Giving Thanks."

Siestreem, who is primarily a painter, used a repeated red dot motif, drawn in circle with a gestural form.

In an essay she wrote for the Matrix site, she said, "these circles are included to universalize the message; they occur in all cultures and all through nature, holding varied significance. I invite all people in through this symbol. Red represents power and Indigeneity, pointing to Indigenous strategies of land management and leadership." The matrix form, and its seven rows of 13 each, have a personal set of symbols referencing her mother's birthdate, feminity, and the number of generations of Indian people since the disastrous arrival of Europeans.

The prints each have a different image she created with the low-tech means of a Xerox. She positioned her hands with traditional red cedar bark in poses that reflect the titles: "Prayer," "Non-Violent," and "Unarmed."

Duane Slick

(Meskwaki, Nebraska Ho Chunk)

The coyote, a trickster figure, recurs again and again in Slick's paintings and prints.

The number of variations he's found is more startling considering they're drawn from a single mask, with open eyes and an open mouth, that he bought in Mexico.

For a time after the death of his father and sister, Slick emptied out his palette, leaving only spare black and white. The color slowly re-emerged with blue and then burst into a wider range inspired by Andy Warhol's technicolor screen-prints. Both themes are on view in the MAM exhibition.

Slick traveled to Missoula from Providence, where he's taught painting at the Rhode Island School of Design since 1995. While here, his work included a series of three Coyote prints. In his paintings, Slick would trace a shadow of the mask that he had projected onto his surfaces. In the prints, he used a brush and black ink on a transparency for use in the silkscreens. The shape of the coyote's head is now more raw, he said, and more like an inked illustration.

In "Mizz-Zoo: The CMYK Coyote from Missoula," the super-imposed heads feel almost anthropomorphic. In the two other prints, they've created a ghostly, carefully calibrated series of tints and tones of a deep blue.

Molly Murphy-Adams

(Oglala Sioux)

Murphy-Adams grew up doing beadwork both in Great Falls and Missoula, and began incorporating into her artwork back when she was an undergrad at UM.

Her prints might have a geometric design from a pair of Crow moccasins. She mixes and matches, though, too. She could pair a traditional palette with her own design.

Several of her monotypes merge both traditional etching and drypoint with her beading, the latter of which is so labor intensive that she took the prints home to Tulsa, Oklahoma, to complete and shipped them back to Missoula.

She began printing with rubber blocks after she'd finished college, no longer had access to a press, and investigated ways to make work at home with nontoxic processes.

"We're making complex designs by ​printing the same image multiple times on the same page so they start to multiply and create a larger graphic pattern," she said.

The prints were painstaking to create, as she and Clark carefully pressed them down and removed each section of the design by hand. Clark said it could be "nerve-wracking."

Naturally, none of that is obvious from the serene finished prints and their surprising palettes, such as a lime and melon set against near-black shades of green and blue.

The joy of printmaking, she said, comes in the big reveal at the end, "the moment when the material gets transformed into something else."

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