Kay WalkingStick: An American Artist

Through June 17

Montclair Art Museum
3 S. Mountain Ave.
montclairartmuseum.org, 973-746-5555.

Some relevant events: Third annual Gaelen family artist lecture on Thursday, April 26, with Kathleen Ash-Milby, Art classes, including Parent/Child Diptychs on Saturday, March 10, and “Exploring Kay WalkingStick through Watercolor,” an eight-week class beginning April 12


Kay WalkingStick told herself that she would never do a painting about the Trail of Tears. The subject had been addressed, and it was too much of a cliché, said National Museum of the American Indian’s Kathleen Ash-Milby, who co-curated a retrospective of WalkingStick’s work (with David W. Penney), on a walk-through of the exhibition at the Montclair Art Museum on Thursday, Feb. 1.

Kathleen Ash-Milby at Kay WalkingStick exhibition

Then WalkingStick spent time in the Smoky Mountains, and was overcome with the beauty of the region. Imagining that if the area were her home and she were forced to leave it, “she really understood the loss,” Ash-Milby said.

Her 2007 painting, “Farewell to the Smokies,” on two wood panels, shows the mountains in two different color casts, with small people walking along the bottom. Including 60 works, this is the first large retrospective for the artist, who was born in 1935. The exhibition was organized by the American Federation of Arts and the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian, and will be at MAM through June 17. MAM is the exhibition’s final stop, after appearing at the National Museum of the American Indian, Heard Museum, Dayton Art Institute, Kalamazoo Institute of Arts and Gilcrease Art Museum.

WalkingStick, of Cherokee descent on her father’s side, draws on her Native American culture, and is also influenced by modernism and feminism of the 1960s and 1970s.

The artist grew up in Syracuse, the youngest of four siblings, after her parents had separated. She began painting professionally in the 1970s.

Many of the paintings come from private collections and museums, and many are on loan from the artist. “She has a huge corpus,” Ash-Milby said. “She’s a very prolific artist.”

MAM curator Gail Stavistsky pointed out that WalkingStick has Montclair connections, too: the artist taught at the Yard school at MAM for many years.

Native American art was often excluded from the discourse on modern art, Ash-Milby said. When shows began to be made in the 1980s and ’90s, they were often group shows. And while they gained exposure for a lot of artists, “we were losing the opportunity to really understand an artist’s work in depth,” she said.

The retrospective is a walk-through of WalkingStick’s different styles: modernist and minimalist early on, then gradually becoming more abstract, before turning to landscapes and then diptychs, or two-paneled work. Following her husband’s death in 1989, her work takes a darker turn. From 1996 to 2005, WalkingStick was a professor at Cornell University, and taught abroad, leading her to create Italian-influenced work, some with gold leaf. Her later work includes Indian decorative styles in her painting.

The exhibition is divided into periods and themes: “The Sensual Body: Early 1970s,” minimalist modern paintings with flat silhouettes and reflections of liberated female sexuality; “Material and Meaning: 1974-75,” WalkingStick’s exploration of paintings as objects rather than representations, and some homage to Native American leaders; “Two Views: Diptychs,” two-paneled depictions of landscapes and “mythic”memories; “Chaos to Calm: 1989-95,” drawings and paintings of the gorges of Fall and Enfield creeks in Ithaca, reflecting WalkingStick’s grief over the death of her husband and awareness of the fragility of life; “Landscape: The Power of Native Place,” incorporating designs made by Native artists of each region to Native identity and specific landscapes, and “Heroic Landscapes,” the artist’s work since 2012, which use the horizontal diptych format but have imagery that continues from one panel to another. MAM writes in a release, “Rather than separating the abstract designs that link these places to the Native people who have inhabited them, her patterns now float across the entire diptych surface, foregrounding an inseparable relationship.”

“Night” (1991) was borrowed from MAM for the national tour. The portions of the diptych “represent two kinds of knowledge of the earth,” Stavitsky said in a release. “One is visual, a memory of a stream bed near Tucson, Arizona, and the other is more spiritual.”

WalkingStick, Ash-Milby said, is an “iconic artist who has really changed the field, and inspired the following generations of artists.”

The "Chief Joseph" panels in the Montclair Art Museum. NEIL GRABOWSKY/FOR MONTCLAIR LOCAL
The "Chief Joseph" panels in the Montclair Art Museum. NEIL GRABOWSKY/FOR MONTCLAIR LOCAL

The artist’s “Chief Joseph Series,” panels created from 1974 to 1976, were a result of her asking her father, not long before he died, to name an important Native American leader. He answered Chief Joseph, who led the Nez Perce in their battles with the U.S. Army. A later painting, “Howitzer Hill Fusillade” (2008), commemorates the U.S. Cavalry’s dawn raid on a sleeping tribe at the Battle of the Big Hole.

Ash-Milby and Penney write in a note, that WalkingStick’s work combines “a passion for landscape painting with the pursuit of spiritual truths about our shared human condition.”

Asserting Native American identity, they write, is “a process that continues to this day.” Their essay quotes the artist saying: “This is who we Americans really are. All different, all the same, all in it together, making art.”