Metaphysics and materiality: Landscape painting and the art of Kay WalkingStick

Lisa Ann Seppi
School of Art and Design, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
July, 2005


Although revisionist and interdisciplinary approaches in art history have worked towards displacing the universal western narrative of art with more numerous, overlapping local ones, the particularities of American Indian art, identity, and history continue to be generalized and translated into totalizing narratives of the marginalized, aboriginal 'Other' in America. Despite the more than 300 distinct Native American cultures residing in the United States today, there has arisen an homogenized identity and category of art referred to as American Indian, both are particularly problematic when dealing with representations of landscape. In an effort to animate and sustain polarized readings of cultural difference, recent depictions of land in Native American art have been compared to nineteenth century European- American traditions of landscape painting or consolidated under ethnic labels and historicized through an exclusive focus on cultural identity politics. Both have further codified American Indian art and identity through a larger cultural context that continues to obscure distinctions between tribal affiliations, social circumstances, and artistic experiences. As a result, there is an overall lack of serious critical discussion regarding Native American art aesthetics, and there are no scholarly monographs on the major Native American artists of the twentieth century, like Cherokee artist Kay WalkingStick. This dissertation, the first monographic treatment of WalkingStick's work, follows a chronology of her careertracing the growth and progression of WalkingStick's aesthetic and intellectual concerns as they have developed around three recurring elements: the body, abstraction, and landscape. In order to situate WalkingStick's work within a broader context of philosophical, social and psychological issues, her oeuvre is recontextualized in relation to the larger discourse of American art history, including feminist art history and representations of the female nude, the metaphysics of modernism and abstract art, and late twentieth century practices of landscape painting, and in a dialectic with artists, not restricted to those of Native American descent, whose work articulates physical, psychological, conceptual, and spiritual connections between personal identity and the land.