Kricket Rhoads-Connywerdy and the Renaissance of a University's Native Art Center
Kricket Rhoads-Connywerdy’s affection for Norman, Oklahoma’s Jacobson House Native Art Center and the Kiowa Five artists does not just run deep. It runs in the family.
"My great-grandmother was first cousins to Stephen Mopope, who was a member of the Kiowa Five,” says Rhoads-Connywerdy, the first person of Kiowa descent to be the Jacobson House executive director. “He would be my ‘Big Brother.’ There’s that lineage there. It’s just important—I don’t want the place to suffer. I want it to be what it’s supposed to be for the community. It is a community place. It’s for the community. The Kiowa artists, their artwork really helped spark that Native American fine art movement. That is the part I want to continue.”
As Kricket Rhoads, from the Kiowa Tribe’s Keahbone family and an enrolled member of the Caddo Nation, she put down her own roots at the Jacobson House as a University of Oklahoma student in the late 1990s, studying classical and modern dance. For her, the Jacobson House—formerly the home of OU art department chair Oscar Jacobson, who died in 1966—was the place to get information on powwows and Native events. Her connection to the Jacobson House grew more personal when it became the site of her wedding to Comanche/Kiowa artist and fancy dancer Kevin Connywerdy.
In 2004, she was brought aboard as a part-time employee and stayed connected in various capacities since that time. But when she took over as interim director in February 2010, she says, it was not the same place she remembered as a student or as a part-time employee. “It was sad to come in,” she says. Of the gallery at Jacobson House, she recalls, “there was artwork on the floor. There wasn’t anything going on.”
When making the decision on whether to become the permanent executive director, she consulted with her husband. Both of them are professional Native dancers and storytellers, and much of their career as a family involves worldwide travel. But with her husband’s support, Rhoads-Connywerdy became permanent executive director in April 2010.
Although she states upfront that she doesn’t have an artist or art history background, Rhoads-Connywerdy is deeply rooted in the humanities. In addition to her family ties to Mopope (who died in 1974), she was a ballet student under noted Peoria prima ballerina Moscelyn Larkin, who is one of Oklahoma’s internationally known five Indian ballerinas. As a teenager, Rhoads-Connywerdy was a member of the Tulsa Ballet Theater Company and at OU studied under Denise Vale.
In the 1920s, when the Kiowa Five were art students on the OU campus, Professor Jacobson’s home was a refuge, where these young Kiowa men were free to sing, dance and be themselves, and Rhoads-Connywerdy wanted to continue the tradition of the Jacobson House being a community center for Native art, language and song. She doesn’t take credit for bringing this together, however, saying instead that powwow singers and Kiowa language teachers initiated contact with her once she became full-time director.
“I don’t think it’s any of my accomplishments,” she says. “It’s just what it’s supposed to be. What I see is that affinity that the community has always had for the Jacobson House. I see that affinity being shown through volunteer work. People stopping and eating meals here. People coming and making the walls sing. The House is happy again, because it has people in there. It has singing. It has activities. It has food. It’s a living place again.”
In addition to the cultural classes, Rhoads-Connywerdy has put together an art show and event themed the “Year of the Kiowa” to encapsulate an all-inclusive cultural program. She has also included Native foods into the Jacobson House, such as “Taco Tuesdays,” featuring traditional Indian tacos made from healthier ingredients, such as buffalo meat and whole wheat frybread.
Rhoads-Connywerdy said that her biggest challenge as director has been fund-raising. In the time before becoming interim director, there were many missed grant deadlines that have financially hurt the art center. According to Rhoads-Connywerdy, a last minute donation or help from volunteers makes a huge difference in operations.
“Everybody—me and everybody else—is really working hard to make sure the place stays open,” she said. “That’s why it’s really important for people to come and support the Jacobson House, so we can keep having these activities.”
The overall vision that Rhoads-Connywerdy has for the Jacobson House is that it isn’t just for Native people or only for the Norman, Oklahoma area. Instead, she sees it as a place of international renown that is shared by all. “Right now, my focus has been community,” said Rhoads-Connywerdy. “It’s going to take this whole community to pitch in and make the House work in this function. That’s to preserve and promote Native art and culture and share it with everybody, and show what a wonderful, breathing, alive culture we are. We’re not stagnant. We roll with the times, and we have our traditions we continue.”