August 2014

Harvesting Traditions: A One-Woman Show by Kathleen Wall


Matthew J. Martínez


The Pablita Velarde Museum of Indian Women in the Arts’ (PVMIWA) mission is to educate, preserve, exhibit and promote the work and achievements of Native women artists throughout North America across all art forms and genres. For the next six months at the new museum in downtown Santa Fe, Kathleen Wall (Jémez Pueblo) is featured in “Harvesting Tradition,” an exhibition that focuses on the beauty and artistry of traditional knowledge in food ways expressed in her clay sculptures and paintings.


Expressions of historical knowledge and food ways embedded in Wall’s artwork convey a larger message of what it means to live healthy. She states, “My husband had just recently been diagnosed with diabetes. This was a big eye-opener to the way he ate and his perception of food. My husband, now aware of the food he eats, says, ‘Our bodies were created hundreds, thousands or even millions years ago, and the food we had during that time was gathered or hunted. Our bodies have not changed much since then, but our environment has changed immensely.’ I needed to explore the possibility of a show that reflected the Native American culture and its relationship with the food we eat.”


There are eight art pieces in the exhibit, including a variety of traditional, processed clay and acrylic paints with earth pigments. A unique approach in Kathleen’s work is the relationship of her clay sculptures alongside the backdrop of her paintings. In “Corn Grinders,” two clay-figured women are side by side, kneeling, grinding corn. During such an activity, men sing to keep the rhythm of grinding. The women are wearing black manta dresses and are engaged in traditional grinding, as this was (and still is) a time for families to gather and work. The accompanying painting includes the inside of a home with a fireplace and an opening to view the cornfields in the background. The interconnections of cornfields, grinding and women exude an energy of coming to life, as conveyed in their smiling faces. In a sense, women are corn; corn gives life, and without women there would be no life.


Wall’s artwork not only includes Pueblo life and customs but also presents other indigenous peoples and their food ways. As examples, “Harvesting Wild Onions” is made of traditional, processed Oklahoma clay that includes Cherokee families gathering onions; “Winnowing Wild Rice,” a painting of an Ojibwe woman harvesting rice, includes a traditional canoe that is used to gather mahnoomin in the Great Lakes region; “Saguaro Picker” includes a clay figure of a Tohono O’odham woman reaching out to the painting of a saguaro cactus, using a saguaro rib pole to pull down or knock down the fruit. There are other examples of indigenous food ways in the exhibit. The common theme in Wall’s work centers on relations between families and communities, traditional practices of hunting and planting, and stories of clay sculptures and painted histories, which all serve as an action call to embody a healthy and balanced life.


In Wall’s words, her hope “is to start a discussion that will help us find ways to bring together our past knowledge with our food practice today. Maybe in this discussion we can come up with ideas of reintroducing our traditional foods to be a healthier people.”


Harvesting Tradition” will run through Jan. 5, 2015. As part of this exhibit, PVMIWA is hosting Noonday Dialogues, from 1 to 3 p.m., that feature the following topics:


Aug. 28, Harvesting Tradition by Kathleen Wall, Jémez

Sept. 25, Jémez Farming by Justin Casiquito, Jémez

Oct. 23, Corn Grinding by Lois Ellen Frank, Kiowa

Nov. 28, Indigenous Diet


For more information visit or 505.988.8900




Matthew J. Martínez, Ph.D., is an associate professor of Pueblo Indian Studies and director of the Northern Pueblos Institute at Northern New Mexico College in Española.




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