When Dr. Denene De Quintal arrived at the Denver Art Museum as a curatorial fellow in 2016, one of her first assignments was to dig into the extensive, old-school card catalog that documents objects in the museum’s Native Arts department—a seemingly ordinary task.
But De Quintal was greeted by something she describes as both unusual and fascinating. On the backs of the cards were small, exquisitely-detailed watercolor paintings of native objects—baskets, spears, shoes, clothes and more, all rendered in painstaking realism down to the pattern and texture. The volume of the card catalog is staggering: There are over 20,000 artworks in the Native Arts department; of those, 15,000 have illustrated cards. The dates on the illustrations begin in the mid 1920s and continue, astoundingly, until the 1970s. “I couldn’t believe people took the time and effort to make the drawings,” says De Quintal.
Little is known about the artists who rendered these paintings over the decades, but what is known is that for a period during the 1930s and 1940s, many of the illustrations were completed by artists hired by the Works Progress Administration. During the Great Depression, the Federal Art Project (FAP) was created as part of the WPA to provide jobs for artists, most of whom were out-of-work commercial illustrators. After providing a portfolio of work to prove their talent, some of these artists were assigned to the Museum Extension Project, which dispatched workers to assist as needed in museums around the country.
The work produced by the Museum Extension Project is so wide-ranging it borders on the bizarre. In Pennsylvania, artists made scale models of historic buildings and steamboats as well as puppets of dinosaurs, cows, and carrots to for educational plays; in Connecticut, they made tiny figurines in period costumes; in Wisconsin, miniature stage coaches. At the Denver Art Museum, the artists not only helped maintain the unique card catalog, they also built dioramas, crafted paper maché models of tribal dwellings and learned how to weave so that they could repair blankets. A 1946 government report detailing the accomplishments of the WPA boasted that in addition to making this artwork, Federal Art Project artists also helped modernize exhibits and classify and index collections.
The Denver Art Museum wasn’t isolated in its practice of documenting historical artifacts with paintings instead of photos. During his tenure as the director of the Federal Art Project, Holger Cahill, a curator and folklore expert, conceived of a program to train and dispatch artists around the country to create a body of work he called the Index of American Design. Produced between 1936 and 1942, the project would ultimately document nearly 18,000 folk and decorative objects via precise watercolor paintings. Index artists worked fifteen to forty hours a week, and it usually took between two and six weeks to complete a painting. The goal was to make sure there was a singular style to the work, that no character of the artist showed through, only the meticulous detail of the object at hand. Paintings, Cahill explained, captured an object’s “essential character” far better than photos.
Over a five-month period spanning 2016 and 2017, I worked as the Native Artist-in-Residence at the Denver Art Museum. During my time there I focused my research on objects from my own tribe, the Crow Nation, including such items as clothing, moccasins, leggings, belts, and elk tooth dresses. I asked the researchers in the Native Art department to print out images of items in the Native American Collections database. They told me that anything that wasn’t digitized could be found in the Native Art department’s old card catalog system.
What I saw there stunned me. On one side of each 5x8-inch ochre yellow card was a beautiful watercolor illustration of the object; on the other, a description of the object, the date it was added to the collection, how much it cost, and other details. I soon learned that these remarkable but unsigned drawings, carefully crafted with detail and intimacy, had been commissioned by Denver Art Museum in the 1930s and 40s and executed by artists working for the Works Progress Administration.
I felt I had to use the cards in my work for this project in order to add context to the objects they depict and to honor them as works of art in their own right. I felt a connection with the artists who created the work, and I was jealous of the time they got to spend with my ancestors’ materials.
Last summer, I decided to take digital copies of forty of these cards to my reservation in Montana during the Crow Nation’s annual Crow Fair, held every third week in August since 1904 along the Little Bighorn River. Nearly 50,000 people attend the fair, including around 11,000 enrolled tribal members, almost 80 percent of the Crow tribe. Every family constructs a camp, and members of the Apsáalooke—the name of the tribe in our own language—gather every morning during the weeklong celebration for a parade symbolizing the moving of camp, an action that expresses the deep-rooted cultural tradition of movement in Apsáalooke society. Families put on traditional dress and display their horses during rituals that recall the nineteenth-century migrations from summer to winter camps. These parades pass on traditions from horse culture to car culture, from buffalo days to reservation life—weaving each generation into the fabric of a living, resilient tribal Nation.
Using the objects depicted on the catalog cards as points of reference, I took snapshots of similar Crow material worn during the parades. Waiting at the gathering place for the parade to begin, I identified individual parade goers and paired them with the most appropriate item cataloged on the cards, isolating intimate moments in the photographs and removing the backgrounds. In doing so, the subjects, the detail of their outfits, their facial expressions, and their finely-adorned horses came into sharper focus, highlighting the richness of Crow culture and giving context to the catalog cards themselves.
Items once draped on horses, cars, or the arms and bodies of Apsáalooke women, men, boys, and girls are linked to each of the illustrations on the catalog cards. I am amazed by the similarities in the coupling of a photograph of a martingale on my daughter's parade horse with a WPA artist’s brilliantly-crafted drawing of a beaded geometric martingale from the 1930s. Sweat stains from the horses and grass stains from playful children offer insights into the utilitarian beauty of objects meant to be in motion. This is a work in progress that will eventually be turned into a print series. It demonstrates the strong cultural connection that the Crow community maintains through the generations.
Wendy Red Star was raised on the Apsáalooke (Crow) reservation in Montana.
Her work is informed both by her cultural heritage and her engagement with many forms of creative expression, including photography, sculpture, video, fiber arts, and performance. Red Star has exhibited at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Fondation Cartier pour l’ Art Contemporain, Portland Art Museum, Hood Art Museum, St. Louis Art Museum, and the Minneapolis Institute of Art, among others. She lives in Portland, Oregon.
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