An Interview with Kay WalkingStick

Erin Kelly: I’ve read in interviews that you grew up around art, so it was always a part of your life, but was there a specific point where you knew you were an artist?

Kay WalkingStick: I always thought I was going to be an artist. I just loved to make art when I was a little kid. I had two uncles who were artists, one was an art teacher and the other was a painter. My brother was a wonderful craftsman. He made his career as an artist. The other side of the family was the Indian side and they all thought they were artists.

Kelly: You were raised by a single mother. You’ve said she was very supportive of women, and that carries through in your work. How has that experience played a role in your art?

WalkingStick: I think we all live off that in part. You learn your language from your mother. Those early years shape us. She was the one who gave me pencils and paper to draw at church; she always encouraged me. I don’t think she was surprised when I went to school for art.

Kelly: What was it like being a Native American woman artist at a suburban Pennsylvania college in the 1950’s?

WalkingStick: I don’t think being Native was a problem. I was going to school in the 50’s. I graduated high school in 1952 and took off to work a couple of years before I went to college, and it was discrimination of gender, not being Native. I don’t particularly look like a Cherokee. Though if you put me with a group of Cherokee women I’d get lost in them because I look exactly like everybody else, but my coloring is so light. I have my mother’s coloring. The discrimination was about being a female, less was expected “because we couldn’t do anything.” I mean, we were thought of as not being able to do things and there was this idea that you really had to be able to grow a mustache to be an artist.

There were women artists. There was Louise Nevelson, and Helen Frankenthaler, who were gaining prominence in the 50’s. There were women role models, like Georgia O’Keefe. I thought Georgia O’Keefe was a marvel when I was twenty. I was at Beaver/Arcadia University. It was a women’s college, and they really had this view that they were preparing women to go out in the world and make a living. The school had the same kind of approach that my mother did – you can do anything if you put your mind to it and work hard enough. I was lucky enough to be in a school that supported women and not just having that from my home life.

Kelly: Then how was it going to Pratt for your MFA at 38 years old during the 70’s? Did the classroom dynamic as an artist change from when you were in school previously?

WalkingStick: Well the women’s movement really started big in the late 60’s, along with the end to racial discrimination that was being fought for with Blacks and Indians about that same time. There was a lot of women in the streets marching as well, people like Gloria Steinmen and Bella Abzug, all these women filled with energy.

There was a certain kind of support for women. I went to school on a Danforth Foundation Graduate Fellowship for Women in 1972, and they no longer do this for women who were returning to college for graduate school. They paid for tuition and expenses. It was a very big deal, a very prestigious award to get this full scholarship to go to grad school, but it was because I was a woman who had been out of school for a certain amount of time. It was about 10 years, and I wanted to return to school to get a professional graduate degree. So there was support like that, which had just started, I think a year or two before I applied. There were things like that developing to support women in their quest to get out into the world and participate.

The discrimination as an Indian has been about the work because I have a very Indian name, and I’ve used it on purpose. I was married early on, I was 24 years old, so I had a married name I could’ve used and chose not to, which in itself was kind of a big deal at the time. It was sort of not acceptable. A lot of people wouldn’t accept my maiden name, which I thought was stupid, but I continued to use my Indian name and consequently I was expected to do Indian paintings, paintings that had to do with Indianness, or preferably that were in an Indian style. Everything I did, whether it was about being an Indian or not, was expected or understood as that. If I did a simple geometric painting, it would be read as something that was related to being Indian, even if it didn’t. So there was that kind of discrimination… is that discrimination or is it just stupidity on people’s part? I don’t know, but I have had people say stupid things, like they didn’t want to show my paintings of mountains because they’re “obviously about the southwest,” and the paintings were actually about Italy. They were Italian Alps. So things are assumed because of my name, which still happens.

Kelly: Midway through your career you became famous for painting diptychs that you called “two perceptions,” one half being abstract, the other being realistic. Can you explain this connection between abstraction and realism, and why do you think it was so successful?

WalkingStick: Well at first it wasn’t successful. I got a lot of criticism for it, actually. It took years before people wanted to show them or buy them for god’s sake. All painting is abstraction, everything you look at you can reduce it to an abstract thing. All painting is based on abstraction, all well designed painting has a support system of abstraction. So I don’t think of them as different. One is dependant on the other, one is related to the other, one is an extension of the other. Those paintings are related to one another closely. Often times one is not the same thing, but it is related as in a diptych of an annunciation of a mother and child; they’re just related. It’s an extension, like the stanzas of a poem.

Kelly: Is there a reason why you’ve changed to what you now call a “single viewpoint landscape?”

WalkingStick: I was in Rome, looking at a lot of old paintings, a lot of figurative paintings, so I decided to try to reintroduce figures into the painting. I used one side to depict the figures and the other to depict a landscape. At that time it was mostly the Alps because I was in Italy and I went into extending the landscape across the painting and including the figures, mostly silhouettes of the figure. From there I took out the figure. It was a relatively slow evolution from one kind of interest on my part to another.

Then I started using patterns in one side of the diptych, usually just on one side. The reason for not putting it across the whole painting was a technical thing. If you put a border around a whole painting it becomes a barrier, a visual barrier. It’s like putting a line, a line of type even, across it. It acts as a barrier. So I was doing it across half of it, and the patterns were patterns based on Native patterns, usually the Natives that had lived in that place, at one time even if not now. So depending on where I was the pattern changed, tribally, they looked different. It was an evolution of the paintings from just one side being an abstraction, the other being a landscape, to using figures on one side, or patterns on one side. Today I’m certainly filling the whole canvas with a landscape, but still using a pattern on one side of it. The patterns are directly related to the people who inhabited that place.

Kelly: Your most recent artist statement seems to show some antipathy towards what’s popular right now in the art world. You say that you “care about the craft of painting.” Do you think many contemporary artists do not put enough effort into their projects?

WalkingStick: I don’t know what’s popular in the art world right now, I really don’t. I don’t think a lot of young people care about the craft. It’s because they’ve been encouraged to think about the concept of the art, and as long as the concept is somehow portrayed or somehow displayed that they’ve done enough. And people are just not painting. It’s not popular today, although people like to look at a painting. They go to galleries and love to look at paintings. Young people seem to not want to take the time and learn how to do it, how to really paint.

Kelly: In relation to this, do you feel that post-modernism has made contemporary art too stagnant or meaningless?

WalkingStick: I don’t think art will ever be meaningless, I think art is how we express meaning. I think that is probably the definition of art. You know, I don’t go to galleries anymore, because I got really disturbed. It just doesn’t interest me anymore. For one thing, I like to look at paintings, but there’s very little painting being done. I think photography is a craft, it’s interesting, but I don’t think it speaks to me the way painting does. There’s a lot of performances being done, but I miss paintings. I like to look at paintings.

I’m not enthralled by going to galleries, now of course, I’m old, so that may have something to do with it. I’ve seen a lot, I’ve been looking at art for 60 years, so that may have a lot to do with it. But it does seem to me that there’s not an interest in craft, there’s not the interest in actually making something beautiful. You look back over art history, and even the most recent art history, Pop Art, or the 70’s and 80’s, and before. There was a kind of beauty there, even though it wasn’t a traditional beauty, there was beauty, and to me it seems that has been lost. And I’m kind of in love with our beautiful world, and of course I’m in love with painting as well. So what I want in art, and what I want to convey in art, but also what I want to see in art, isn’t something that’s really being done today, and that’s ok, things change.


An Interview with Karina Puente

(This interview was conducted for Whirlwind #3, Winter 2015.)

Melissa Rothman: You began showing your work in California in your mid-teens. How would you say getting such an early start has influenced the trajectory of your work?

Karina Puente: I was blessed at an early age with recognition and gallery support for my art making practice. My work did very well in the California gallery circuit.  By selling my work, I was able to put myself through college at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston and Tufts University, and I helped my family financially. The immediacy of my success fortified my belief in following a life – path filled with passion, heart, and purpose. I follow my work around the world. When a painting sells or when a piece is in an exhibition in another city or country it affords me the opportunity to visit a new place and delve into viable conversations about social issues.

Achieving success as a young artist gave me the confidence to make a positive impact on the lives of others. By aligning my work with charitable organizations, I could offer a portion of my proceeds to vineyard workers and their families, visually impaired women, and survivors of domestic violence, while at the same time supporting myself. I learned how to extend my platform to other artists by introducing my contemporaries to collectors and venues where they could also show and sell their work. Having an early start in my career now gives me something to look back on when I temporarily lose sight of my inner strength, and it reminds me of the accomplishments I’ve achieved so far. My art keeps my eyes focused on the present moment and the horizon; my art urges me to appreciate what I have and it keeps my goals refreshed. Currently, I am looking for a wall in Philadelphia to install a mermaid mural that can symbolize the empowerment of women and raise awareness about clean water access.

Rothman: A big theme as far as the subject in your paintings seems to be the image of lone females, some of which gaze directly at the viewer. Who are these women to you and where would you say that your interest in the female portrait originated?

Puente: I paint brave women as an invitation for the viewer to find bravery within herself. When a woman feels brave, real work can get done and the healing of the world can begin.

I paint people as ancestors, as a coming of age story, and as a figure who has yet to be represented in an art historical context. The figures I paint look directly into the viewer’s eyes – unafraid of intimacy- as a way of teaching the power of unwavering connection and self-esteem. I paint the archetypal feminine: the queen, mother, warrior.  My interest in portrait painting originated from my desire to show people how truly beautiful they are. After I paint a person, there is an energetic shift in the way she perceives herself and her memories. I paint to uncover wholeness.

Rothman: It has been my experience that women are often uncomfortable with looking at their own likeness. I imagine allowing someone to see themselves through the eyes of someone who holds them in high regard is a both a powerful and intimate thing. Your figures often exist on an abstract, almost dreamlike plane, what goes into conceptualizing these spaces?

Puente: Self-perception is similar to artististic process. There are blocks and there are breakthroughs. When a person is uncomfortable with her likeness, it may be that she has yet to touch her invincibility and magnetism. When an artist is blocked creatively, she has yet to access the deep creator within. When I draw a person’s portrait -the process is intimate and validating- because I hold physical and psychological space for the sitter to feel whole and for “her eyes to dance with mine.” I borrowed that last bit from an incredible writer named Judith Zuckerman who looked into my eyes as I drew her portrait and she noticed that my eyes light on fire when my hands touch the page. And yet it’s my curiosity that burns because I ask questions and pull apart pomegranate stories until I arrive at the core of what a person truly wants. I then paint that person in a realm surrounded by symbols of her deepest longing. When the artwork is personal, I aim to give vocabulary to my own journey and to articulate that vision.

Rothman: Now that your journey has brought you to Philadelphia, how has the city been influencing your work? What is your next step? You spoke briefly about your mural project, tell us a little bit about that.

Puente: I am influenced by the murals in Philadelphia and by people who make them. Behind each mural lives a story about effective community engagement and social change. Can you imagine being able to move the needle on how people talk about issues of domestic and global violence, clean water access, and self-worth? I want to use muralism and mythology as tools to address concerns that are often left in the shadows. My current mural project consists of painting a Mermaid who refuses the advances of a soldier’s attack, while simultaneously remaining calm and transcendent. The scales of the mermaid’s tail can be fabricated by the stories of community members who are survivors, who practice non-violence and who choose activism as a form of healing. The mural can therefore teach us how to care for each other better, locally and globally.  

I’d like to connect with people who want to support this project.


An Interview with Lamont b. Steptoe

(This interview was conducted for Whirlwind #1, Summer of 2014.)

Sean Lynch: What year, and under what circumstances was Whirlwind Press founded?

Lamont Steptoe: Whirlwind Press was founded in 1987. I founded Whirlwind in order to publish Dennis Brutus’ Airs and Tributes, which came out in 1989. Before that, my broadside, Refugee, which is situated on the Brooklyn Bridge, was the first publication of the press in 1987. I wanted to be able to publish Dennis Brutus in America; he needed to reach a wider audience here, and once I did publish him it was just a matter of going forward from there. I published my own work, and that of other poets, because I didn’t want to play the game with university presses and commercial presses. Being a publisher is a powerful position. Not only are you able to empower poets who are emerging writers and help them become established writers, you become more than just a poet. You can give something back, and I wanted to become someone who could give something back to poetry. The reason why it’s called Whirlwind Press is because I was influenced by a quote from Marcus Garvey, this is from his Philosophy and Opinion, “Look for me in the whirlwind or the storm. Look for me all around you, for with God’s grace I shall come and bring with me countless millions of black slaves who have died in America and the West Indies, and the millions in Africa to aid you in the fight for Liberty, Freedom, and Life.” It also was a way for me to bring together my two mentors, Sam Allen whom I met in 1985, as he wrote the introduction for Dennis Brutus’ Airs and Tributes. It’s very rare now. However, Amiri Baraka wrote a negative review of Airs and Tributes, because he felt that Brutus’ poetry wasn’t militant enough because of what was happening in South Africa at the time. Brutus became upset with Baraka and they had a rift for awhile. It was published in the African American Review. I was at Baraka’s house one night and he said, “oh you were responsible for that book?” Dennis felt like: Who was Baraka to tell me what to write about? [In regard to Apartheid in South Africa.]

Lynch: What authors have been published under Whirlwind Press? 

Steptoe: The late Dennis Brutus, Bea Joiner, Aaren Yeatts Perry, the late poet Justin Vitiello, Askia M. Toure, Seneca Turner, Quincy Scott Jones, Dr. Keith Gilyard, Dr. Tony Medina, and you. Forthcoming from Whirlwind Press is the professor Nzadi Keita, Rocky Wilson, and three more books by me.


Lynch: What sets Whirlwind Press apart from other Publishing houses? 

Steptoe: It gives poets the opportunity to have another book out there that maybe otherwise wouldn’t be published. Since A Long Movie of Shadows won the American Book Award it’s been a press that has the reputation of winning a major national award, which gives exposure to poets which would be harder for them to get otherwise. 

Lynch: Where can Whirlwind Press Books be found? 

Steptoe: Most of the books are distributed by the poet. The books are published in editions of a thousand. It’s up to the poet. Robin’s Bookstore [on 13th and Locust in Philadelphia] carried Whirlwind Press’s books. Since it shut down, the books can be found on Amazon. Although a lot of the books are expensive because they are so rare and signed by the poet. However, Penn Book Center [in West Philly], and La Unique Bookstore in Camden still carry some of the press’s books. Giovanni’s Room carried them, because of my homoerotic material, but it’s been shut down recently. 

Lynch: What was the significance of publishing Brutus’ poetry in relation to what was happening in the 80′s?

Steptoe: South Africa was still in the throes of achieving liberation. Anything published by Brutus was of importance because of his activism and his struggle against the apartheid regime in South Africa. So I know I must have gotten onto some government lists because of what I was doing for Dennis Brutus. The premise was that it would be an underground press. If you knew about it you knew about it. If you didn’t you didn’t. It was like how if you showed up at Baraka’s house he would say that “you must be one of the advanced,” because if you believed in all the institutions that were already out there then you wouldn’t be at his house. He pushed the idea that if you were progressive you would have to set up alternative structures in order to fight the empire. And that was the theory keeping Whirlwind Press alive; it was to keep something alive that countered the empire. 

Lynch: Why Camden?

Steptoe: Because it’s the place where Walt Whitman rests eternally. I wanted Whirlwind Press to be based in that city because as a teenager Whitman influenced me. He also influenced Brutus in South Africa. So I figured yeah, Whirlwind Press needs to be based in Camden. One time I told Gwen Brooks that I’m leaving Philly, she said “no you’re not,” I said “why not?” She said “because you founded that press.” Once I told Ishmael Reed I’m moving to San Francisco, he said “no you’re not.” I said “why not?” He said “because I need you right where you are.”

Lynch: What are Whirlwind Press’s goals for the future?

Steptoe: I hope that after I’m gone it will last. I founded it for my daughter La Mer. I still have dreams of her keeping it alive.