First Light, Winter Solstice

Back in the summer of 2007 I made a collaborative print with Brooke Steiger titled "First Light, Winter Solstice." Brooke did a beautiful job and I really love this print, especially now at First Light, on Winter Solstice.

Raven steals everything that isn't nailed down. Heck, even some stuff that is nailed down, so it was perfectly natural that I in turn "borrowed" Edward Curtis' flagship photograph that he dubiously titled "The Vanishing Race." Sorry Curtis, it’s mine now. Only it is changed to reflect a scene more grounded in reality. Rez cars.

Curtis made a high art out of constructing inane stereotypical scenes about Indians, such as this one with them riding into the sunset as a poetic farewell. The photographic scenes were a mix between what appeared to be museum dioramas and staged photo sets, complete with actors, costumes, makeup, and of course fine photography and lighting. In the midst of his photographic project on Indians, Curtis did in fact work for Cecil B. Demille as a Hollywood cameraman.

At any rate, Curtis passed his Vanishing Race photographs off as truth and did it with a flourish, because after all, he was a highly trained photographer; certainly good enough to get J.P. Morgan to provide seed money, to have President Theodore Roosevelt to write the forward to his books and have Cecil B. Demille hire him as a part of his own Hollywood myth making team. See the pattern here with myth making? I would put forth the assertion that Curtis’ work is ultimately about White Man, not indigenous people. Curtis’ photographs are telling a story strictly from the standpoint of White Man, plain and simple. It’s a romanticized Western story that has little to do with reality.

Curtis was indeed a very talented photographer who made beautiful work about real people too though; the photographs were just not very honest much of the time, that’s all. I would have liked his work a lot better if he photographed the indigenous people as he actually found them, like in front of their cars, talking on the telephone or studying with electric light bulbs. Or better yet, with them riding by an old Rez car that was fading back into the landscape.

This takes us to First Light Winter Solstice, where I wanted to make the characters more grounded in reality, like them going to a Winter Solstice ceremony at first light, passing an old beat up pickup truck along the way. It’s about continuing ancient ceremonies, not fading into the sunset. Raven transformed the scene with a bit of magic, digital tools and good old artistry with a master Tamarind lithography printer. We had to solve a lot of very challenging creative and technical tasks too, and even had to recruit master printer Bill Lagattuta to help solve some of the more extraordinary technical roadblocks we encountered.

It is only here at the first light of the new winter solstice that I again fully appreciate the teamwork that allowed us to make the lithograph I had envisioned at the beginning of our collaboration at the Tamarind Art Institute. It also took an entire team of organizations to make this project a reality, starting with the State Department, where the Arts in Embassies program resides. It also took the National Museum of the American Indian, the Tamarind Art Institute and many other key people behind the scenes to make it a reality. I send my heartfelt thank you to them all, including the other artists who participated at the time: Jaune Quick-to See Smith, Norman Aikers, Marie Watt, and Mario Martinez.

I love the idea of making art that was designed to act so specifically as an ambassador for our people. I was thinking of who we really are as Americans, both Indigenous and the proverbial 'melting pot' that forms our collective identity. I was thinking of early Cowboy and Indian films that formed the world's perception of who we are, especially as a mythical place.

I wanted a heroic Raven pictograph for the background because he is from our own creation story and frequently amuses himself with the often-subliminal nature of a quasi-educator, a poetic rascal. By using a sepia toned photograph I played with the perception that Indians were and are only in the past, and brought them into the present and did it with a bit of a sly joke that we can chuckle about. If we can take outdated stereotypical ideas and laugh about them, we acknowledge that they were indeed a bit absurd and we can move on in a good way. Especially at the first light of the winter solstice, which is also about transformation and continual shifts everywhere.

Story Copyright Larry McNeil, All Rights Reserved, 2011

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