Soda Pop Art: Elk Woman Makes Award-winning Sculptures Out of Cans
“All the work I do stems from caring for Mother Earth,” says Kathy Whitman (Elk Woman), an artist who channels her inspiration from all of nature, her ancestors, and her children and grandchildren. “From them comes happiness and love, and my art echoes that.”
One of the most recent such echoes came in the form of Blessings of Motherhood, a mother and child made from recycled aluminum cans that took first place in the bronze and other metals category at the 2013 Heard Museum Guild Indian Art Fair & Market. For those with a deep appreciation for art and an even deeper pocketbook, the 45” x 26” x 21” eco-sculpture is priced at $10,000.
An accomplished painter, jeweler, fashion/furniture designer, stone and metal sculptor, Elk Woman has made recycling materials her latest endeavor. It’s also an ancient practice she feels needs to be rekindled. “I want to inspire people to reuse, reduce, and recycle as well as being proactive in taking care of the sacred Mother Earth.”
That passion apparently resonated with the judges, who awarded a blue ribbon. "This piece is not only about the unconditional love a mother has for her child, but Mother Earth’s unconditional love for us—how she takes care of us," she says. "We eat and drink and breathe the air created by her and it's up to us to provide for nature in the same reciprocal way a mother and child bond works. You treat them good, so they will treat you good."
A "use it up, wear it out, make it do" concept of frugality permeates her work. “The reason I started using recycled materials was because it’s an ancient way, like using every part of the buffalo," she says. "Everything else is a byproduct of the meat that sustained us, so it’s the same idea by using cans for a byproduct … it’s old, but it’s new.”
By creating art with the discarded materials, she's also keeping them from ending up in a landfill, or a ditch by the roadside. She has created numerous unique aluminum can artworks that includes bears, wolves, eagles, horses, and buffalo, particularly Warrior Horse, a running equine with eagle feathers in its mane and Sacred White Buffalo, both award-winning creations recognized at the 2012 Santa Fe Indian Market.
Whitman received her Indian name, Elk Woman, at a 1977 Sun Dance Ceremony in South Dakota, an event that transformed her life by reconnecting her with traditional spiritual ways that have helped guide her on a stronger path. As staten in her biography at elkwoman.com, “the elk is an animal with great endurance and grace, and among Northern Plains tribes, is associated with love—Elk Woman’s art captures the healing power of that love."
The artist is as unique as the pieces she creates. “My art is one-of-a-kind and each piece will be distinctive—no two are alike. Because I create intuitively, every piece has its own design and spirit.”
Indian Country Today asked Elk Woman about her level of artistic satisfaction when a work was finally declared ‘finished.’ “You’re never done, never completely satisfied because you keep wanting to go back and tweak it a bit here and there. Every good artist is like that and it’s a good thing to a certain point because you just keep striving for perfection.
“Sometimes I just have to force myself to stop because of deadlines. It’s crazy, but when I’m getting closer to a show, I have the feeling I want to make more and more because more ideas start coming and if I’m working on something major, it just seems it will never get done.”
And now the pressure is on again to be ready for upcoming shows—like Santa Fe Indian Market, which takes place August 17-18. “I’ll probably be hammering out a lot of soda cans," she said. "I’m gearing up for [Indian Market] and trying to decide what I do next, what project in what media will call to me? Some people call me a Renaissance Woman and I’ll take that title. Artists have an innate ability to inspire people and sometimes we need to stir the pot in order to do so.”