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Seminole art exhibition opens at Ringling

Alongside fellow artists, Pedro Zepeda speaks to the audience at the opening of “Reclaiming Home: Contemporary Seminole Art” on March 18, 2023, at the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art in Sarasota. (Photo Beverly Bidney)

SARASOTA — “Reclaiming Home: Contemporary Seminole Art,” a groundbreaking art exhibition of more than 100 pieces by contemporary Native American artists, including the work of seven members of the Seminole Tribe of Florida, opened at the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art in Sarasota on March. 18.

Hundreds of art patrons turned out for the opening to view the art of Seminole Tribe of Florida artists Noah Billie, Wilson Bowers, Alyssa Osceola, Jessica Osceola, Brian Zepeda, Corinne Zepeda and Pedro Zepeda. Other artists in the show include Houston Cypress (Miccosukee) and Elisa Harkins (Cherokee/Muscogee [Creek]), C. Maxx Stevens (Seminole/Muscogee [Creek]), Tony Tiger (Sac and Fox/Seminole/Muscogee [Creek]), and Hulleah J. Tsinhnahjinnie (Taskigi/Diné [Navajo]/Seminole).

“Thank you for allowing us to indigenize your space,” Corinne Zepeda said during the opening day ceremony. “Congratulations to all of our artists. We did it; we made it. I’m really proud of all of us.”
Families and friends of the artists also attended the opening.

“This is part of our strategic plan to get out of our comfort zone and off the reservation to tell our stories,” said Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum director Gordon Ollie Wareham. “For an institution like this to want to collaborate with us validates all the work we are doing. The expectation of our leadership and responsibility is paying off.”

This was the first time the Ringling has collaborated with Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki. The opening day celebration included a land acknowledgement and remarks from Ola Wlusek, curator of modern and contemporary art. Ringling executive director Steven High announced the acquisition of three ceramic portraits from Jessica Osceola, the first Seminole art in the museum’s collection.

Artist Corinne Zepeda with two of her social justice inspired pieces, a beaded pandemic mask and a recycled jean jacket adorned with beads and acrylic. (Photo Beverly Bidney)

“It’s good for the community,” Osceola said. “Ola elevated what Seminoles can do. This is a beautiful exhibition of arts, culture and identity.”

The artists mingled with guests in a large space dedicated to the exhibition. The show was comprised of paintings, patchwork, beadwork, bandolier bags and sashes, wood carvings, a large dugout canoe, ceramic sculptures, video presentations, multimedia pieces, ceramics, skateboard decks and a mural.

“It’s incredible that I got a chance to share this before I even graduated college,” said Alyssa Osceola, who is on track to graduate from the Ringling College of Art and Design in May. “This is such a major exhibition at a major institution. I’m very proud and I’m glad my family is here to see it.”

“It’s really awesome that Indigenous artists are being recognized and acknowledged beyond the reservation walls,” said Allison Osceola, Alyssa’s cousin.

The late Noah Billie, who was a prolific artist and Vietnam War veteran, had about a dozen pieces in the show, many of which were loaned to the Ringling by Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki.

Jessica Osceola’s patchwork skirt and cape, titled “Night at the Ringling”, were inspired by the past glamour Ringling home on the museum grounds. The traditional patchwork was given a more glamorous spin with richer colors and might have fit right in to a festive evening. (Photo Beverly BIdney)

“He painted what he saw over there and did paintings of warriors,” said President Mitchell Cypress. “That’s something that he left that reminds us of him.”

Artists spent time in the exhibition space discussing their work with local guests and those from out of town. Some asked about the artists’ inspiration.

“I’m glad that people who wouldn’t normally view our work are able to see it on a large stage,” Zepeda said. “It’s the first show of its kind in Florida. Being able to educate others about our art and that we are still here is important.”

Natalie Sandy and Matt Spelich, from Los Angeles, were visiting family in Sarasota when they heard about the exhibit.

“It’s so cool to be able to connect with the artists and talk about their concepts,” Spelich said.

“It’s a really powerful show,” Sandy added.

Gordon “Ollie” Wareham plays the traditional Native flute as the audience at The Ringling listens March 18, 2023, in Sarasota. (Photo Beverly Bidney)

Visitors spent about an hour taking in the artwork before attending a panel discussion by the artists, who discussed the inspiration for their art.

Jessica Osceola, who has a few ceramic relief sculptures in the exhibition, explained that she chose to work in clay because it can be so lifelike and can be manipulated to have fleshy, human qualities. She also talked about her patchwork piece – “Night at the Ringling” – which was inspired by Ca’ d’Zan, the Ringling’s 1920s-era mansion located on the museum grounds.

“It is a reflection of the fancy parties that went on there,” Osceola said. “I was inspired by the colors, richness and textures of the house. I used more rich, dark colors than I usually do; it’s very luxe.”

Osceola’s patchwork on the skirt resembles a ball gown’s shape. It was inspired by circus tents, stripes, pinwheels and Seminole designs which were adapted for the skirt.

Pedro Zepeda talked about cultural etiquette and protocol of who is allowed to make certain items and when.

“Non-Natives don’t tend to think about that,” said Zepeda, who carves wood into sculptures and canoes. “For a lot of traditional Native artists, etiquette and protocol is a big part of it. They aren’t just objects, they are carriers of culture, stories and language.”

He also talked about cultural proprietary knowledge.

“What parts of our culture do we want to share with the outside world,” Zepeda said. “Some things we hold sacred to us because so much has been taken from us.”

Guests look at paintings by Noah Billie. (Photo Beverly Bidney)

Brian Zepeda creates bandolier bags and sashes that sometimes reflect pop culture. He described his best piece as a bandolier bag he made for his son, who wore it and showed it to the audience.

“Most Eastern tribes made bandolier bags,” Zepeda said. “Native Americans across North America traded with Europeans for beads, needles, wool, sewing machines and metal tools. We adapted them to our creative processes.”

Corinne Zepeda describes her work as “radical stitching.” One of her pieces is a pandemic mask beaded with a red hand symbolic of murdered and missing Indigenous women and a Black Lives Matter fist.

“It’s a little bit of activism, civic issues and social justice,” she said. “I was always taught to speak my mind and follow my heart. During the pandemic I felt a sense of community with the Black Lives Matter issue. We face a lot of things they face.”

Alyssa Osceola spoke about her paintings, a series of portraits of Seminole women, including Polly Parker. There is only one photograph of Polly Parker, who escaped in the Florida panhandle while being sent from Egmont Key to Oklahoma. She said the photo was probably taken in the early 1900s when she was an old woman.

“The painting is a fictional depiction,” Osceola said. “She was probably in her 30s or 40s when she escaped so I imagined what she would have looked like. The painting is life-sized to address the viewer directly.”

“Reclaiming Home: Contemporary Seminole Art” runs through Sept. 4 at the Ringling Museum, located at 5401 Bay Shore Road in Sarasota.

Artist Wilson Bowers, center, answers questions about his work from two art enthusiasts during opening day. (Photo Beverly Bidney)
From left to right are Pedro Zepeda, Angelina Osceola, Karie Osceola, Brian Zepeda and Jessica Osceola. Pedro, Brian and Jessica are featured artists in the show. (Photo Beverly Bidney)
Ringling curator Ola Wlusek moderates a panel discussion with ten of the artists in the exhibit. (Photo Beverly Bidney)
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