The paintings in Karen Clarkson’s series Today’s Native Women: Portraits of Celebration radiate with the beauty, confidence and unique strength of the subjects. As she finished each painting, they sat in her studio empowering her to keep going. For Clarkson, art is a vehicle for empathy and a tool to draw attention to social injustice, and this particular series focuses on the plight of murdered and missing Native American women. One image, We Rise, actually includes an interactive element that leads viewers to resources, videos, and photos on missing and murdered indigenous women with the use of the viewer’s smart phone.
As Clarkson was working on the series, Deb Haaland made history as the first Native American to serve as a cabinet secretary when she was appointed appointed Secretary of the Interior. Haaland had long championed artists as agents of social change, and now as Secretary of the Interior, she announced the formation of a unit to investigate the epidemic of murdered and missing women, providing a sense of hope and relief to communities who have suffered decades of frustration and hopelessness. In the context of this progress, Clarkson’s paintings become more vital than ever. We welcomed the opportunity to speak to Clarkson about the power of art and empathy to change the world.
I love how you speak about shifting the narrative in this series. Can you speak in more detail about how you do that and the effect it achieves?
We have known for some time how misperceptions due to negative stereotypes and invisibility keep ideas of Native Americans tied to the past. Biases hold us back from political, economic and social equity as well as respectful representation. Change must come through shifting the narrative of these long-held social beliefs, for the current narrative has deep roots. Indeed, the United States as a nation has used this false narrative to justify the creation of laws and historic policies that have stripped our nations of their inherent right to protect their citizens and their lands.
Holding to these negative stereotypes allows others to see our women as victims in their own quest for survival. They fail to see us as individual human beings with deeply held values that not only nurture us but propel us into contributing and excelling in today’s society.
How does this affect my art? What I can say is that as an artist I am deeply moved by observing the world through the reflection of others. I paint the faces of those who influence how I move in the world, and I aspire to reflect this back to the viewer. Imagine seeing your first portrait of a Native Women showing strength and courage. She is striving for the same things you are. She wants to be a role model to and for her people. She is educated and full of hope and exudes a will to make a difference in this world. But she is also steeped in the culture of her people. A culture that has sustained and guided her ancestors for thousands of years. A culture of matriarchal wisdom and harmony.
Your artwork seems to have a perfect balance between beauty and power as a political tool. Do you think about that balance? Do you feel that art has a duty or calling to explore societal issues?
Art is a deeply personal thing. In my opinion, there is no right and wrong and certainly no road map. My desire to communicate what is important to me remains the most important component. To sense the humanity in another person and to be able to convey it through art opens up a whole other world and mode of communication. It is bringing the intangible into focus and makes room for change.
Universal respect and understanding may be considered political but to me it is all-encompassing. If you understand what the artist is trying to convey, and it makes a difference in your life even for a moment then it is worth the time and energy of the artist and it could be argued that it is right. Whether or not art is considered expedient begins first with the artist, but ultimately rests in the hands of the audience.
You speak of the subjects of your portraits as having “agency.” How did you choose the subjects? To me they almost seem like characters or even heroines in their own story. Is that something that you considered while you were painting them?
In choosing my subjects I first consider what the subject should convey. I am not interested in painting beautiful women just to show how attractive they can be. I am extremely interested in painting women who show their beauty through determination, culture and sense of purpose. Culture, tradition, strength and empathy all are recurring themes in my paintings. Getting to know my subjects has increased my own determination to continue in this way. These are contemporary women living in today’s world.
I’ve read that when Haaland announced the formation of a unit to investigate the epidemic of missing and murdered Native Americans, it came as a massive sense of relief and renewed hope. Have you met or worked with Haaland? Have you discussed with her the role of art in calling attention to vital issues?
According to Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, far too often, murders and missing persons cases in Indian country go unsolved and unaddressed, leaving families and communities devastated.
This could not be more true. Although I have not spoken personally with Haaland, I know many mothers, daughters, and sisters who are suffering from the loss of a loved one. The hardest part is accepting they may never know what has happened and may never see justice. To be sure, a disproportionate number of missing women are native, some estimates as high as 10 times the national average.
Some years ago, I too lost my daughter through the negligence of an impaired driver. I know first-hand how devastating a loss like this can be. Emotional devastation can lead to empathy, which is a great motivational teacher. It can change your life forever in ways that cannot be underestimated or understood.
We need to fight with every tool available to us. Showing we care is one way to stop the cycle.
These incidents are not random but form a pattern of women as prey. Let’s start looking at Indigenous Woman as the leaders and matriarchs they have always been. According to a recent report in High Country News: “Violence against Indigenous women is inextricably linked to the colonization and genocide of Indigenous people.”
I’m fascinated by the interactive mixed media portrait inspired by Ruth Bader Ginsberg, which has tiles that are individual scan codes that will lead the viewer to articles, resources, videos and photos on missing and murdered indigenous women. All you have to do is point your smart phone at the codes while using your camera and you will be directed to the information contained on each one. How did you come up with this ingenious method? Was it difficult to execute?
About a year ago while doing my series on strong native women Ruth Bader Ginsberg passed away. I will always look up to her as a woman of strong conviction and courage. Her voice on the Supreme Court was legendary. She became a woman lawyer during a time when she was not accepted into a single law firm by virtue of her sex. Her lifelong ambition was to see equal rights for women in every way imaginable. She had a tireless ambition and voice on the Supreme Court and whether or not you agreed with her, you took notice.
My focus in the piece Sacred Voices was based upon RBG’s determination to speak truth to power. It has its roots in a past portrait I painted of Erin Lewis Johns, a young 19-year-old Dinè woman. This young woman was raised on the Navajo Reservation and had a powerful story. In her own words: “As I got older my elders have always pushed education, because it’s our weapon in this western world we live in. They say we go to school to help ourselves and also our people. Once my grandmother passed, I wanted to pursue something bigger, I want to go to medical school so one day you’ll hear my name doing something big in the field of medicine. As you see this painting you will see a girl who has her life ahead of her, an individual who takes pride in her Navajo way of life, that has big dreams and expectations to fulfill, and a future doctor.”
Sacred Voices resulted in combining Erin’s portrait and the dissent collar of RBG. This particular dissent collar was based upon Native American symbols. The idea for the QR codes came from my obsession to document my art. Initially the codes were used to trace the origin of art pieces for my own cataloging. One day it dawned on me the power of this little square. If it was being used not only for information but in advertising, why couldn’t it be incorporated into art! The idea hit me like a ton of bricks.
Embedding a QR code with information is a step-by-step process, but once learned it is easy to achieve using software readily available online. The hardest part is deciding which resource link to use within the code. Once I got the hang of it there was no turning back. A few weeks earlier I had completed We Rise which was dedicated specifically to MMIW issues. It has 22 different QR Codes.
To date I have done 4 pieces using embedded codes. I can now see many ways to use them in the design process as well as an educational tool. Using this tool to impart information gives my art a way to achieve more than what is seems on the surface. If you chose you can dive below the surface and you can become part of it.
A note about the source photographs: Many of the photographs were taken by Matt Toledo, who is a Navajo photographer who lives and works in the Navajo nation. Clarkson also acquires photos from relatives and women she knows via Social Media.