May 25, 2018
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Abbe Museum exhibit of native art challenges viewers

By Nell Gluckman, BDN Staff

BAR HARBOR, Maine — At a new exhibit that opened at the Abbe Museum on Thursday, works by 10 Native American artists challenge viewers’ understanding of what native art is supposed to be.

A garment created by fashion designer Patricia Michaels of Taos Pueblo, N.M., incorporates an eclectic assortment of materials, including marigolds and roses strung together and hung from the shoulders and arms of a mannequin, screen door mesh, Rocky Mountain driftwood, string, leather, brass and 8-inch nails that stick out of the top of the mannequin’s headpiece like a crown.

Michaels told a group of about 30 who gathered at the Abbe Museum for the exhibit’s opening on Thursday night that inspiration came to her from growing up in Taos Pueblo, where tourists come from miles around to see how natives live.

“People come to visit us like we’re a zoo — a native zoo,” she said. “It was coming from a place of, ‘OK, can I make natives look different?’”

Michaels was a finalist on the Lifetime cable television program “ Project Runway” in 2013 and was the first Native American to show her work during New York Fashion Week. But she explained to the crowd that her success was not immediate.

“I was not allowed to be in very many art shows because my work is not native enough,” she said of the early part of her career.

“Because I’m using silk and I’m printing designs on it, it’s not native,” she told the audience.

“Who are you to tell me what’s not native?” she asked rhetorically.

All four of Michaels’ works for the exhibit were displayed on mannequins. They included a piece made mostly of driftwood, a blue silk outfit and one work where the mannequin, wearing a full skirt made from newsprint, is reading a newspaper that features an article about Michaels herself.

The exhibit called “Twisted Path III: Questions of Balance,” explores environmental and cultural themes through multiple media.

A series of baskets woven by Vera Longtoe Sheehan, an Abenaki of Vermont, uses varying materials to map the artist’s culture changing over time.

One piece is woven from milkweed, a material the artist said her ancestors used to make baskets centuries ago. Another piece, which Sheehan referred to as transitional, was woven with silk, T-shirt threads and hemp, a material she said was brought to New England by colonists. The final piece in the series is made of Tyvek strips, plastic bags and silk chiffon.

“By the time we get to these last pieces, there’s nothing traditional left,” Sheehan said. “These pieces are how I’m envisioning the future.”

A piece by the show’s curator, Rick Hunt, an Abenaki of Littleton, N.H., shows an image of a face bordered by a halo of syringes, which the artist said was a reference to his struggle with diabetes.

Hunt told the crowd at the opening that the idea for the show came to him in a dream in 2006. In the dream he was walking in a gallery filled with contemporary art created by Native American artists. Within a week he and then-curator Raney Bench were setting the plan in motion. The first “Twisted Path” show opened in 2008 and the second in 2011.

“It was the first foray into having a conversation about contemporary art and about how natives have to walk two worlds,” said Abbe Museum president and CEO Cinnamon Catlin-Legutko.

“We’re looking for ways to be a catalyst for contemporary art in Maine,” she said.

Clean white walls, plenty of open space and sleek graphics designed by Allison Shank, the museum’s manager of guests and creative services, added to the contemporary feeling of “Twisted Path III.”

Catlin-Legutko said the show will be open through December 2014 and the museum hopes to host programs throughout the year to deepen the conversation about topics that the works bring up. Admission to the exhibit will be free through the end of April and in November and December. There will be an admission fee from May 1 to Oct. 31.

The Bangor Daily News is among the corporate sponsors of the Abbe Museum exhibit, “Twisted Path III: Questions of Balance.”


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