Artists Jessica Osceola (Seminole) and Velma Kee Craig (Diné) held a virtual conversation about their artwork Feb. 25. Hosted by the Museum of Fine Arts, St. Petersburg, the artists discussed the commonalities and differences of their work.
Both artists draw inspiration from their Native American traditions while incorporating contemporary materials and trends in their pieces. Osceola is a ceramist, sculptor and multimedia artist; Craig is a weaver and textile artist.
Osceola said she became an artist by watching members of her family create things in her great- grandmother’s camp in Naples.
“I was at my great-grandmother’s knee as she made things all day,” she said. “I learned from her. Everyone was always making something around me. Men made poles; my sisters and grandmother sewed.”
During college, Osceola stepped away from her culture but returned to it in graduate school by reintroducing herself to all the things she grew up with. Seminole culture remains an important component of her work.
Osceola showed images of the self-portraits she sculpted in clay highlighting facial expressions, muscle and bone structure. One shows her looking directly at the viewer.
“I wanted to touch on some taboos in my culture, like making eye contact,” she said. “I use bead necklaces to show my identity as a Seminole.”
A bronze piece “Mother?” was the result of Osceola’s five-day walk with her aunt Betty Osceola and others in 2015 to protest a potential project slated to be built across the Everglades. The project was never approved.
“That piece was part of a show “Return From Exile: Contemporary Southeastern Indian Art” and traveled around the country,” Osceola said. “It commemorated the 70-mile walk through the Everglades. It was a long, quiet walk where everyone reflected on what was going on around us. A lot of good came from the walk.”
Craig wrote poetry and short screenplays before she began weaving 10 years ago, but she continues to be a storyteller through her textile designs.
One of Craig’s pieces was featured in the Museum of Fine Arts’ recent exhibition “Color Riot! How Color Changed Navajo Textiles,” organized by the Heard Museum in Phoenix. Craig’s textile in the show is “Bar Code/QR Code,” which depicts an American flag whose stripes are represented by a bar code and stars by a QR code. The inspiration for the piece came from QR codes on signs for foreclosed homes.
“People were losing their homes,” Craig said. “I kept seeing them as I walked through my neighborhood. I decided to use it as the star portion of the flag textile.”
She sketched it out and worked out the math. It took a year to make the piece.
“I wanted viewers to understand experimentation and innovation in the designs is still going on,” Craig said. “I am a living Navajo and people are surprised to see Native people are still living. I understand that because we are written about in textbooks and we don’t have a presence in pop culture or media, people come away with the misunderstanding that we don’t exist anymore or aren’t thriving, which is not the case. We wanted to make sure people know Navajo weaving is still going on, but there is a wide spectrum of weavers. Not all are utilitarian textiles, people are making art.”
Another of Craig’s pieces was a collaboration between the Navajo Nation and Disney films, which translated “Finding Nemo” into the Navajo language. The piece shows a few tropical fish swimming around a sea anemone. “Sound and Creation” uses vibrant and muted colors in the shape of a DNA double helix and included audio tape as a textile in the weaving.
Craig believes the diversification in weaving styles will continue to grow.
“I see myself sticking with Navajo weaving,” she said. “I want to pass it along to my children and hope to be around to teach my grandchildren to weave. I have a lot of ideas for series and groupings of textiles. I want to make sure I get those ideas I have in my sketchbook done.”
Osceola started sewing shortly after giving birth because her son needed traditional clothing. She spends a lot of time in the Naples Community Center.
“The community center is a great place to walk in, have a cup of coffee and for hours on end sit around a circle of sewing machines,” Osceola said. “We bounce ideas around. But there is also a competitive aspect to it. I always want to be better than my sister but she’s a really great sewer.”
Osceola believes cultural appropriation is an issue of identity theft. When she saw a skirt by designer Donna Karan that looked like Seminole patchwork, she wrote to the company. Karan insisted the design was her own idea. Designer Ulla Johnson created a line of resort wear based on a book about Seminole patchwork.
“She admitted it and just took it line for line,” she said. “Our sewing is our identity and designs are handed down from generation to generation. Those things are very personal, it’s who we are. We have to push back against that, so I keep sewing more and more. I work with younger kids at the community center to teach others.”
Osceola said non-Seminoles often want to know what the patchwork designs mean.
“Fire, rain, man on horse, telephone poles are older style. New ones are chickees and corn on the cob, with tiny squares that look like pixels. They’re really fun,” she said.
One patchwork design Osceola created is known as “Biracial Man on Horse.”
“I’m from two different backgrounds: white and Native American,” she said. “I always like to use that in my work. The pattern is a play on those two things. But what remains the same is my identity, femininity and role as a Seminole and a mother in all of my work.”