Artist Kevin Smith Puts a Postmodern Spin on Native Subjects

Artist Kevin Smith Puts a Postmodern Spin on Native Subjects

Wilhelm Murg

Tulsa, OKLA - Kevin Smith’s earliest childhood memories are of looking up at the Art Deco inspired sculptures of Willard Stone and the ground breaking paintings of Jerome Tiger in the Gilcrease Museum in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Though he was too young to think about what an artist is, or even what an Indian is, for that matter, seeing Gilcrease’s Native American collection numerous times affected him. “I found a part of me when I saw that,” Smith said.

As an adult, Smith would return to the Gilcrease as its Curator of Education in 1993 and he also taught Native American Art History at The University of Tulsa during the same period.  He got to know the collection thoroughly. 

“I did an article or two about Willard Stone and I made that conscious connection between when I was young, looking up at his sculptures, and now when I’m actually  studying them, and I’m writing about them ,and I’m holding them in my hands,” Smith said.

Like many Native artists, Smith’s work is a continuation of the tradition of Stone and Tiger.  His pieces are a mixture of pointed commentary on the image of Native Americans in the mainstream culture, such as his collage of a Plains Indian and Marilyn Monroe entitled “Indian with Squaw,” to his own images of Native Americans, where he freely mixes Native and non-Native art concepts to convey more traditional subject matter, such as the expressionistic smear of the woods to represent the portal between here and the world beyond in “Blue Eagle Entering Heaven.”

Smith first discovered contemporary Native American art, which is heavily influenced by Pop and Post-Modern art, through the works of T.C. Cannon and Fritz Scholder in the 1970s.

“It really matched my excitement about modern art in general,” Smith said.  “It expressed things in ways that did not necessarily have to be literal, but told more about what’s going on inside of us, or between us; the invisible things that we know are real. That dovetails well with Native American ideas and worldviews.”

To explain this juncture between Native American and post-modern art Smith contrasted the difference between painting the “spirit” of a Redbird, which is something important to his tribe, the Cherokee, to the realism of the 19th century ornithologist, naturalist, and painter John James Audubon, who painted technically accurate images of birds by killing them and poising them in a natural setting for his paintings.

“I’m more interested in the Redbird is in terms of its flight, its spirit, its sounds; everything it can mean internally to you.  And it can be any bird; it doesn’t have to be something attached to your tribal stories,” Smith said. “The thing about modern art that was always expressing something beyond the literal capabilities of our eyes really fit well with what I knew about a lot of native traditions. I think people assumed early on that Indians were not really good artists, but part of that was that they saw no reason to reproduce things literally.”

Smith spent a lot of his time as an arts administrator.  He is particularly proud of restarting workshops at the Gilcrease where people rekindled their creativity and made art. He pushed his charges to draw the spirit of things rather than the actual object.

“I’ve always believed everybody has all the talent they need, it’s just a matter of how much effort and time you put into your own creativity.

“These programs are about becoming a kid again, loving having clay in your hands and just doing something with it, or smearing it. I loved all those kinds of workshops, but the more I did it the more I realized I had less and less time for my own art. So here I’m preaching about maintaining your creativity all through life and I have less time to do what I’m preaching,” Smith laughed. “On the other hand I was outside of the studio: I wasn’t doing art, but I was absorbing so much.”

Before starting a 20 year-plus career in the museum world and academia, Smith was a professional musician; he is a violinist and percussionist.  Now that only one of his four daughters is still living at home, he has more financial freedom, and he is taking time to get back in touch with both his art and his music.

“Now that I’m starting to give more attention to music, and my own painting again, I see the time away was not just being a hypocritical creativity teacher: you have to have time away from the studio.”

“Creativity is the closest thing you can get to understanding creation. I think that’s why we are artists.”

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