Kay WalkingStick. You’re an Indian? 1995. Lithograph, composition: 20 × 40" (50.8 × 101.6 cm); sheet: 30 × 48" (76.2 × 121.9 cm). Publisher: Robert Blackburn Printmaking Workshop, New York. Printer: Devraj Dakoji. Edition: 50 planned, 42 printed. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Acquired through the generosity of the Contemporary Drawing and Print Associates

Kay WalkingStick has made art for over 60 years, embracing different mediums, visual modes, and subject matter. A constant in that work has been a focus on personal experience—as a woman, a Cherokee, and an artist. “It was always important to me to be recognized as a Native person,” she has said. “It was also important to be understood as a New York artist, one who was working in the mainstream.” Her embrace of these dual roles, and her refusal to accept an “either/or” designation, has made her uniquely qualified to navigate identity politics over the course of five decades. On a recent trip to MoMA to see her sculpture Tears, on view in Gallery 208: History into Being, Kay spoke to us about that work, as well as other recent acquisitions of paintings, drawings, and prints that represent her in MoMA’s collection. Even while addressing difficult and painful topics, she leavened the conversation with warmth and humor. Her openness to talking, teaching, and learning extends to everyone who views her work.
—Esther Adler, Curator, Department of Drawings and Prints, and Paulina Pobocha, Associate Curator, Department of Painting and Sculpture

On Tears (1990)

The sculpture is called Tears. It includes a poem, embossed in copper: “In 1492, we were 20 million. Now, we are 2 million. Where are the generations? Where are the children? Never born.” It’s signed “Kay WalkingStick” in Cherokee.

It was made in the period that the Christopher Columbus quincentenary was being celebrated. And I can’t possibly celebrate Columbus. He’s not somebody to honor in any way for me.

Tears is really about the genocide that occurred in the area that we now call the United States. And the genocide took place in various ways. There were states that said, “If you see an Indian, shoot him.” There was killing, but there were also other ways to destroy people. Part of it was to move people away from their traditional homes. How do you function in a place that’s totally different? Disease also killed a huge number of native people. Whole tribes. There was an absolute decimation of the Native people in this country.

Kay WalkingStick. Tears. 1990. Deer hide, cow hide, copper, wood, feathers, bone, beads, corn, stones, turquoise, and Anasazi pot sherds

Kay WalkingStick. Tears. 1990. Deer hide, cow hide, copper, wood, feathers, bone, beads, corn, stones, turquoise, and Anasazi pot sherds

“This is about Native people and Native grief, but also my own personal grief. And it’s amazing how little rituals like this help one deal with things.”

The work is a model of a funerary scaffold, and funerary scaffolds have been used all over the world. I made Tears from natural things. I used deer hide and cowhide: the black is cowhide and the brown is deer hide in that bundle. And the bundle is meant to look like a figure, a human. Within the bundle is a corn husk, some turquoise, and lithic stones. There are black chicken feathers on it. There are some bone beads. And the only thing that I would consider unnatural is the paint, which is acrylic. I painted the little dowels. The copper is the kind of copper they have children work with in craft classes, to do repoussé (embossing). And it’s a simple repoussé that I used a liver of sulfur on to darken.

The leather was from a shirt that I made for my first husband; it was black cowhide. My husband liked the shirt but he didn’t wear it very often because it was so heavy. He died young, and so I used his shirt in this artwork. And I think part of Tears was also my own grief. I wanted to memorialize him in a way that I thought he would like, and he would’ve liked this. This is about Native people and Native grief, but also my own personal grief. And it’s amazing how little rituals like this help one deal with things.

One of the things that’s done at death in certain tribes is that the women will embroider the soles of a moccasin with beads, so that the dead walk in beauty. And it’s that kind of thing, this ritual act is very healing. This piece is part of my personal healing.

On Identity in the 1990s

I had a teacher I respected, and still respect, who said, “Well, that’s very interesting, Kay, but nobody’s buying ethnic.” And I think that was a common view—that what I was doing was a little too ethnic. I had a dealer tell me that he thought the paintings looked like something that should be shown at a whistle stop on a train going to Santa Fe.

The idea of doing Native-related work was discouraged, and it wasn’t respected. The whole idea of doing work that had to do with one’s ethnicity was discouraged and frowned upon. And in New York, it didn’t sell. I was told not to show with Indians. I ignored this, of course. One dealer said, “You don’t want to show with Indians. Because then you pigeonhole yourself into an ethnic artist.” And I felt that, besides the “screw you” attitude, I was raised to think of myself as a Cherokee. Now, I look like a white girl to most people. But if you put me in a crowd of Cherokees, I look just like the Cherokees, of course. This notion of being proud of who you are, which I was raised to be, was rather unusual in the 1930s and ’40s, when I was a kid.

These days more people are saying, “Yes, I really am part Indian.” For a long time, people simply didn’t. In my parents’ generation, for instance, people really didn’t talk about it. Which is part of the reason why this whole thing about proving oneself to be a Native person, in order to exhibit one’s work as a Native, is frustrating.

On All Good Things (1970)

Kay WalkingStick. All Good Things (Version I). 1970. Acrylic on canvas

Kay WalkingStick. All Good Things (Version I). 1970. Acrylic on canvas

It’s important to recognize that I was dealing not only with these ideas about my heritage, but also with how to make paintings that I thought were new looking, and were totally mine. This idea of making something that’s totally mine was always important to me. I’m not sure why, but it is the truth. I wanted them to be individual things.

When I went to graduate school, I realized that I had to deal with my Indian identity. I think many people come to a point in their life when they have to recognize a part of themselves that they’ve avoided. I’d come to terms with the feminist movement, my femininity, and my sexual needs through these paintings. This happened at the height of the second feminist movement in the late 1960s and early 1970s. That movement was about being frank about sexuality and recognizing my female selfhood. It was very blatant. And I like the idea of being blatant. I was raised to be subtle about sexuality. Things were not spoken of. And so I made these paintings that were very outspoken.

The negative spaces in this painting are important. They go back and then they come forward, which is funny. The color palette in that series goes from very pale, which I suppose comes from this notion of being subtle, to stronger and stronger colors. The last ones I did were bright colors.

On You’re an Indian? (1995)

Kay WalkingStick. You’re an Indian? 1995. Lithograph

Kay WalkingStick. You’re an Indian? 1995. Lithograph

I went in to see a dealer who was always friendly to artists, and always willing to talk about work. He was just a good guy. I went to see him all dolled up in my white cowboy hat, which I eventually wore out. And he looked at me, and I said something about my work and what I was doing, and then he said, “You’re an Indian? I thought you were a Jewish girl from Queens who changed her name.” I thought it was a very funny comment. I actually was a girl from Queens later on, and it was common at the time for artists to change their names, like Judy Chicago. I always felt that I wasn’t smart enough to think of changing my name to WalkingStick. I mean, come on! So this painting is about that. I ended up making a book of the funny things that people have said to me, and people would say really stupid things. One woman said, “Oh, say something in Indian. What can you say in Indian?" Like there’s one language. Yeah. Many of them were funny, but this was one of the best, so I made a print of it.

Each part of the print has a specific meaning. The crosses are my two kids. The rainbow you see in a lot of Southwestern art. The rainbow represents not only rain, but blessing—the rain is a great blessing when you live in dry country. And, of course, the corn is the staple food of Native Americans, but it’s also a great gift to the world, because a lot of people depend on corn around the world for nutrition. And there I am, all dressed up in my little red leather outfit and my white cowboy hat. Which I made blue because the color just worked better.

My look is of tolerance. Because I really got very bored with the things people said, and some of them were really annoying and rude. And eventually I said “enough.” Enough nonsense. I’m sick of laughing at your stupid jokes. One of the reasons that I have done what I’ve done is I wanted to make strong art that really spoke to people, but I wanted to educate people a little bit, too. And I think that’s part of what Tears is about, it’s about educating people. I’m trying not to be too didactic. On the other hand, I would like to give people something to think about in relation to Native people on the planet.