When Kay WalkingStick, now 82, started trying to get her work shown by major New York galleries in the 1960s and 1970s, she had a hard time of it.
As Kathleen Ash-Milby — who co-curated “Kay WalkingStick: An American Artist,” the first major retrospective of WalkingStick’s work, which will be shown at the Montclair Art Museum through June 17 — recently explained while giving journalists a tour of the exhibition, most galleries at the time were not that enthusiastic about displaying the works of a woman. Let alone a woman with a Native American name.
Native Americans were “excluded from the discourse of contemporary art,” Ash-Milby said. And even when things began to change, they changed slowly.
“When there were (Native American) shows that started happening more and more frequently in the 1980s and 1990s, they were often large group shows,” Ash-Milby said. “And I think part of the motivation for that was this idea that, ‘Oh, well, we’re not going to have another opportunity. We’re starting to get everyone on the boat. Everyone on the boat!’ So everyone had that opportunity, and the exposure.”
But also as a result, she said, “We were gaining exposure for a lot of artists, but we were losing the opportunity to really understand an artist’s work in-depth.”
“Kay WalkingStick: An American Artist” — which was organized by the American Federation of Arts and the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian, and has been on a national tour (that ends in Montclair) since 2015 — gives us that opportunity, featuring more than 50 works by WalkingStick.
The works are arranged chronologically “so you can see how she is changing in her artistic practice, how she is evolving,” said Ash-Milby. “In later work, you can see how it reaches back, the themes and ideas and forms she explored earlier in her career.”
You see, for instance, her content reflect more of her Native American heritage as time went on, and she learned more about it. (Her father was Native American and her mother wasn’t; they split up before she was born, and she was mainly raised by her mother).
You see how her colors became darker, and her images more tumultuous, after her husband died of a heart attack in 1989.
And you see the development, over many years, of her diptych technique, where she would juxtapose a representational depiction of a place with an abstract image inspired by it.
“I do not see my paintings as landscapes, per se, but rather as paintings that describe two kinds of perception of the earth,” she once said. “One view is visual and fleeting and the other is abstract and everlasting. These paintings are my attempt to express the mythically inexpressible and to unify the present with eternity.”
The exhibition is actually in two spaces, separated by the museum’s permanent George Inness installation.
“I am a great admirer of George Inness and his work will serve as an introduction to my late paintings,” said Walkingstick in a press release. “In fact, I see myself as part of the long tradition of American landscape painters including Asher B. Durand, Albert Bierstadt, Thomas Moran, and George Inness. In their work, especially Inness’ paintings of Montclair, there is a sense of his closeness to home. I am from the tristate area and I love New Jersey’s landscape. I see this area as our place.”
WalkingStick was born in Syracuse and now lives in Easton, Pa., but she has lived in Palisades Park and Englewood, and taught at the Montclair Art Museum, Fairleigh Dickinson University in Teaneck, Upsala College in East Orange, the Art Center of Northern New Jersey in New Milford. She was also on the Montclair Art Museum’s board of trustees in the early 2000s.
Ash-Milby called Kay “iconic” and “incredibly influential” in the Native American field, and someone who has inspired future generations of artists.
“Even though there have been some smaller scale solo exhibitions of Kay’s work in university museums and smaller venues,” Ash-Milby said, “she definitely was deserving of something that looked at her entire career.”
“Kay WalkingStick: An American Artist” will be at the Montclair Art Museum through June 17. Visit montclairartmuseum.org.
April 9: Start of a 8-week “Studio Explorers” class, for ages 4-8, which will use the WalkingStick exhibition and the museum’s Native American collection to inspire original works of art.
April 12: Start of 8-week class “Exploring Kay WalkingStick Through Watercolor” for intermediate watercolor students.
April 14: “Parent/Child Painting Side by Side” workshop exploring landscape painting and abstraction.
April 15: “Linocuts Explored Through Native American Design” adult art workshop featuring design patterns in “Kay WalkingStick: An American Artist” and the museum’s Rand Gallery of Native American Art.
April 26: The third annual Gaelen Family Artist Lecture will feature WalkingStick in conversation with the exhibition’s co-curator, Kathleen Ash-Milby.
For information about the museum’s Rand Forum, a museum members group founded “with a vision to curate, promote, and educate around American and Native American art,” visit montclairartmuseum.org/rand.