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Jessica Osceola featured in major Native exhibition

Jessica Osceola stands among artwork created by Native American artists for the ‘Return from Exile: Contemporary Southeastern Indian Art’ exhibition on display at the Collier County Museum in Naples through Jan. 15, 2016.
Jessica Osceola stands among artwork created by Native American artists for the ‘Return from Exile: Contemporary Southeastern Indian Art’ exhibition on display at the Collier County Museum in Naples through Jan. 15, 2016.

NAPLES — A 75-mile walk to protest the possible construction of a bicycle path through the Everglades inspired Jessica Osceola to create a work of art currently part of a Native American contemporary art exhibit.

“Return from Exile: Contemporary Southeastern Indian Art,” which features Osceola and 17 other Native American artists with ties to the Southeast, opened Oct. 16 at the Collier County Museum in Naples and will run through Jan. 15, 2016.

“The name of the show came from the point of view that we are still fighting for our culture and way of life,” Osceola said. “Although we were never exiled, we are still fighting for our land, culture and family.”

In March, Osceola joined the five-day Walk for Mother Earth along the Tamiami Trail from Naples to Miami to protest the River of Grass Greenway project proposed to run adjacent to the Trail through the Everglades. The resulting artwork is an 11.5-inch-by-8.5-inch-by-1-inch bronze relief sculpture titled “Mother.”

“Mothers are the keepers of everything,” Osceola said. “It’s up to us to teach our youth to protect and preserve everything. Now that I have a son, I understand that.”

With the exception of Osceola, the other artists in the exhibition are from Oklahoma but have roots in the Southeast. Their ancestors were forced into exile after the Indian Removal Act of 1830. “Return from Exile” opened in August at the Lyndon House Arts Center in Athens, Georgia and will travel the country through 2017.

The show’s curators – artists Tony Tiger and Bobby C. Martin, and Jace Weaver, director of the Institute of Native American Studies at the University of Georgia – asked the artists to create work to fit the theme of the show: removal, return and resilience. Museum curators usually create exhibitions based on existing work and create a theme around it.

“We went out on a limb and hoped the artists would catch the vision of the show, which they all did,” said Martin, of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation. “This show was powerful in that it felt like the artists invested so much into the theme, which was very gratifying as the curator.”

The 24-piece show includes paintings, printmaking, drawings, sculpture, ceramics, basketry and jewelry. Most of the artists are well established in their careers and have won prestigious awards for their work. Four of the top 11 major awards at the Santa Fe Indian Market in August 2013 were won by Southeastern Tribal members from Oklahoma, and all are featured in the exhibition.

“This is a departure for us, doing a more contemporary modern exhibit,” said Jennifer Guida, curator of collections at Collier County Museum. “It’s nice to feature living and established artists and to have Jessica, who was born and raised in Naples, as part of the show.”

Osceola was delighted to have been asked by Tiger and Martin to participate in the show with more experienced artists.

“This is a huge honor,” said Osceola, who at 30 is the youngest artist in the show. “They are at the top of their game and represent the best of contemporary Native American art. The depth of their work is inspiring.”

Osceola is working on her Master of Fine Arts (MFA) degree at the Academy of Art University in San Francisco. She has been studying the work of these other artists for her master’s thesis – which is a personal narrative of identity. Identity is the foundation of her work.

“My work, life and identity as an artist are defined but not limited by the decisions of my ancestors. This body of work bridges the gap between past, present and future. I blend traditional craft passed down to me with contemporary process and experimentation. A central theme to all of my artwork is identity and in this body of sculpture it is narrated by combining symbols with perspective. The use of cultural symbols in a modern context creates a visual language that says, ‘I am not just a part of history, I am here now!’ Seminoles existed then and they are still alive today,” wrote Osceola in her artist statement in the “Return from Exile” catalog.

Martin said her work is impressive.

“She’s taking traditional ideas and reimagining them in contemporary directions. Her work is definitely not traditional, but it still speaks to tribal unity and family,” Martin said.

Southeastern Native American artists rarely receive the same recognition or exposure for their art compared to counterparts in the Southwest and Plains, Tiger said.

“We have tremendous artists in our midst and felt this exhibition was really important to explore their art,” he said. “In the last 10 years, they’ve won just about every award in Native art exhibitions, most have MFAs and many have been featured in First American Art magazine.”

Tiger met Osceola about eight years ago at the Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum. While looking for a contemporary Florida Seminole artist for this exhibition, he reached out to her after viewing the work on her website.

During the opening of “Return from Exile” in Georgia, Osceola met other female Native American artists.

“She realized there is a place for her in the art world,” Tiger said. “It’s exciting to see what she’s going to do in the next few years. I’m very excited for her.”

Raising her 2-year-old son Joaquin McKinley Velasco-Osceola consumes much of Osceola’s time, forcing her to make time for art between family obligations. In Georgia, she bonded with other working mother artists who create art after their children have gone to bed.

“Speaking to them pushed me to keep on and keep going,” she said. “The other females gave some encouragement that it’s challenging to have a career and children but with persistence, it is possible. The message in my work has become so much more important since the birth of my son. There is little time to create something without a deeper message. This makes the work all that much more worth doing.”


Beverly Bidney
Beverly Bidney has been a reporter and photographer for The Seminole Tribune since 2012. During her career, she has worked at various newspapers around the country including the Muskogee Phoenix in Oklahoma, Miami Herald, Associated Press, USA Today and other publications nationwide. A NAJA award winning journalist, she has covered just about everything over the years and is an advocate for a strong press. Contact her at