Flag during conservation

Flag during conservation

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Reflecting on Native American traditions painted by Ernest Smith

by Gwen Spicer

Thanksgiving is fast approaching, and for me, I cannot help but think of corn.  While corn may not have been what you would have thought of, let me explain why it's on my mind.  Corn is everywhere.  Corn is a symbol of the autumnal season.  "Indian corn" with it's beautiful brilliant colors are seen in decorations and corn stalks are tied together and grace lampposts everywhere.  The corn that grows at some of the farms near our studio is used to feed livestock and some cobs are harvested to be used as a fuel source.  And let us not forget corn kernnels, whether creamed or simply buttered, will undoubtedly appear on your Thanksgiving table, I know they will be on mine.

"Woman Preparing Corn" by Ernest Smith
Besides preparing for a big dinner with family, much of my time these days is spent working on items which will be included in an exhibit, "On the Trails of the Iroquois," which will take place in Germany next year.  Having the opportunity to treat such a wide array of Native American ethnology has been a tremendous experience.  I have also read a tremendous amount about the various collections, most notably those at the Rochester Museum and Science Center (RMSC) and the New York State Museum.  Collections of Iroquois ethnology exist due to a huge effort that went into capturing the true essence of daily life in the various tribes through actual objects, garments, illustrations and daguerroetypes by people such as Lewis Henry Morgan, and later by William Stiles.

Another important figure in the preservation of authentic Haudenosaunee (term used by the Iroquois to refer to themselves) was Arthur C. Parker, great-nephew of Caroline and Ely Parker (see blog post for 10/19/12) and director of the Rochester Museum of Arts and Sciences from 1924-1945.  In 1934, Arthur Parker initiated a program, The Works Progress Administration (WPA), to essentially rescue the native arts and crafts of the New York Indians before they were lost.

Washing corn after leaching by Ernest Smith
Parker sees that the world perceives American Indian art as nothing more than a souvenir industry dictated by Victorian tastes, which has caused it to be devoid of ethnological value.  He feared the extinction of traditional artistic methods and wanted to save as much as could be preserved.  However, Parker's vision was not just for preservation,  he also thought that a resurgence of true Indian art, and the instruction of these traditional styles to the next generation, would produce new art that may also offer a method of self-support to a financially struggling population.

Through the WPA, artists were provided with all the tools and materials they would need to create art.  This included access to photographs, illustrations, patterns, and tribal elders to provide oral history and folklore.  Most notably used are some of the original illustrations from Morgan.  In fact, if you look at the leggings and underskirt in the painting above, you will see that the woman pictured is "wearing" some of Caroline Parker's clothes.  Arthur Parker is clear however, that there is never any direction of what to create.  Instead, once the artists had been trained, they were encouraged to spontaneously produce their own original art.

Ernest Smith (1907-75), a Tonawanda Seneca, is one of these artists.  In the six years he spends with Arthur Parker and the WPA project, Smith produces 240 watercolor and oil paintings, each one capturing a moment of daily life or illustrating Native American mythology.  Smith's work is wonderful, and clearly some is more simplistic with the image centrally located in the painting, and the background is simply left in the color of the original board.  Other paintings (his "Sky Woman", for example) are the opposite: the paint covers every inch, the images have depth, light, shadow, and movement.  Smith's paintings are filled with symbolism and knowing what the symbols represent makes his work even that much more beautiful and complex.  It is in this way that Smith is truly able to "speak" through his paintings...if you know how to listen to his language.  Visit this link to RMSC: http://www3.rmsc.org/museum/exhibits/online/lhm/IAPpaintings.htm, here you will find beautiful photographs of their collection of Ernest Smith's paintings, plus an in-depth description of the story being told in each painting.

The Three Sisters and the Jo'ka:o turning the squash to ripen
Reverse side of the board that Ernest Smith used.





















Ernest Smith, despite his incredible collection of work, remains virtually unknown.  His work survives at both RMSC and the NYS Museum as well as a small collection at the Iroquois Museum and the Smithsonian.  

The WPA ended in 1942 when funding dried up and a fire destroyed the building used by the artists.  For all his efforts, Parker's vision was only partially fulfilled.  Art was produced and traditions were recorded.  But the artisans never quite experienced an appreciation for their own unique style and therefore never were successful in selling "real" native art.  The outside world had too strong of an influence and sadly the demand for Indian art reinterpreted into "souvenir style" was what sold, and so that is what artists produced if they wanted to sell their work and therefore survive.


If you would like to read more about the trade industry of the American Indian at this time and how it was effected by not only cultural influence, you must read, "Trading Identities - the Souvenir in Native American Art from the Northeast 1700-1900" by Ruth B. Phillips.  Also interesting is James Gifford's "The Predicament of Culture".  Both of these authors discuss the influence of culture on art and present the inevitable outcome when cultures clash.  It begs the question: is there really "pure" cultural art, or is art evolutionary as cultures develop?


While I ponder that question, I will be treating and cleaning the ethnology of the Haudenosaunee, thinking about Ernest Smith and how I wish he had painted on better archival quality board, and making corn bread for tomorrow's feast.  Ernest Smith's images of early Native American life is humbling and leaves me with an appreciation of how challenging life was for the subjects in his paintings.  It makes me especially thankful for family and traditions, no matter how they have changed.  












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