Scarritte-Bennett Center of Nashville hosts 1st Native art show

By Albert Bender
Nashville, Tennessee (NFIC) July 2010

Earlier the year the Scarritt-Bennett Center of Nashville hosted its first ever American Indian art show. By way of painting, sculpture, performance video and indoor and outdoor installation various artists exhibited both traditional and non-traditional innovative expressions of their diverse perspectives. Present were featured artists Ronald Anderson, Sara Estes and Brandon Donohue.

The format was that of an “artist talk.” Each artist in turn talked about  their work, their background and what inspired them. The foremost of the three was Oklahoma Indian artist, Ronald Anderson, /Choctaw/ Cherokee Chickasaw, who has been painting for decades.

“I had a vision in the late 60’s to change the trend of American Indian art history” said Anderson. “I wanted to record our history through Indian art.”

Anderson’s interest started with the study of American Indian art history.  Later, he  pursued graduate studies in the same field at the University of New Mexico. But, he felt that what he found in the books missed the “essence” or  the soul of Indian art.”

Now, Anderson paints only what he personally knows or has observed about Native American life. He has painted the ceremonies of many different tribes in Oklahoma and California. These painting odysseys came about when he was invited by various tribes to paint their ceremonies. These he always painted in abstract. 

In 2000, he began to ponder the movement and accomplishments of American Indian art for the last quarter century beginning in 1975 and decided to, in his words, “add economics” to Native painting by putting more non-Indians in his renderings. In 2002, New York  beckoned and he put on a show in that metropolis and later at the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C. The New York show sold out.

His work has been exhibited in numerous group shows in Oklahoma, Arizona and New Mexico; and in solo exhibitions at various museums, including the Gilcrease Museum, in Tulsa, Oklahoma; the Colorado Historical Museum, Bullhead City, Arizona  and the Albuquerque Museum of Arts and History. Anderson has become known for his mixed-media paintings and his large scale sculptural installations.

Anderson grew up in Oklahoma Indian boarding schools that were run by Indians. He had many positive comments about his boarding school experiences. His fondest memories were of Jones Academy, a Choctaw boarding school. This school was established in 1891, and at one time enrolled students from 29 different tribes.

“I learned a lot of Indian stuff at boarding schools. Most of the boarding school kids at that time were fullbloods and my schoolmates were mostly Choctaw and Chickasaw” recounted  Anderson. “But there was not much emphasis on art in the boarding schools.”

It was his grandmother who encouraged him to take up art. He now frequently incorporates music into his art. Anderson currently lives  in Nashville and the Northern Route of the Trail of Tears runs through his front  yard. A half mile down the road from his house is a Native American burial ground. Several months ago he executed a Trail Tears sculpture in his front yard.                      
Neighbors complained and the police came by three times in response to their complaints. Eventually, his landlord asked him to take it down. During the exhibit this sculpture stood outside the Scarritt-Bennett gallery. Anderson said he was just seeking closure, but didn’t find it.

“My conclusion is that there will never be a closure for the Indians whose ancestors were forced to make the journey. We’ll just think of it less in time.”  reflected Anderson.

The next artist was Sara Estes , who hailed from the north and now resides in Nashville. Her origins are from the Wisconsin Ojibwa reservation of the Lac Courte Oreilles. Estes focused on the phenomena  of weight in her art: the weight of regalia; the weight of tradition.

“The last time I went to the reservation I felt there was a great weight on all the people to keep tradition  going” said Estes.

She analogized the weight of regalia on the dresses in her exhibit  to the weight carried by Native people in maintaining traditions.

Following was artist  Brandon Donohue who now lives in Nashville. He is originally from Memphis, Tennessee. He is of Native and African American  descent. His involvement in Indian art was the result of having Native ancestry in his” family  tree.” His exhibit was an indoor installation sculpture dedicated to his family.

“Researching my Indian roots brought all of my family together” said Donohue. “I will be incorporating more Indian themes into my future art work.”             
The Scarritt-Bennett Center’s mission at its founding in 1924, was to promote and advocate social justice, diversity awareness and multi-cultural outreach.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was once hosted by the Center as a keynote speaker at the height of the civil rights movement.

The art show was curated by Sabine Schlunk, Scarritt-Bennett gallery director.

“The Center was founded to promote the struggle for social justice, the rights of women and spirituality and we felt that an American Indian art show would fit right into this theme, so I  searched around for Indian artists in the area and things developed from there” said Schlunk. “ It would be nice at least once a year to have more shows about Native Americans and more arts and crafts” added Schlunk.