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Commentary: Art of the American Indian at the DMA

by Joan Davidow 1 Sep 2011 7:38 AM

“Art of the American Indian” at the Dallas Museum of Art leads commentator Joan Davidow, director emerita of the Dallas Contemporary, to reflect on how we’ve gotten away from work of the hand.


Art of the American Indian: the Thaw Collection, is on view through Labor Day at the Dallas Museum of Art.  The exhibition of 100 Native American works caused commentator Joan Davidow to contemplate how modern society has removed itself from the work of the hand. Davidow is director emerita of the Dallas Contemporary.

Listen to this piece from KERA radio:

Parka, Artic and Subarctic, ca. 1890-1910. Photo credit: John Bigelow Taylor.

When I saw a shiny white painted parka made out of the innards of a seal at the Art of the American Indian exhibition, it stopped me in my tracks.  I was dumbfounded.  First, who would even think of it; then, how would someone know how to use the intestinal linings in this way, and to boot, make something beautiful that would keep you warm in the coldest clime.
That’s the core of this exhibition, all the stunning handmade works by American Indians from as far north as Alaska and south to Florida.  The collection has a sensitivity way beyond the commonplace Native American art we regularly see in the southwest.

The eye of the collector makes The Thaw Collection an impactful treasure.  As an eclectic art dealer from New York City, Eugene Thaw handled everything from Renaissance prints to Impressionist paintings and European bronzes.  When he and his wife Clare moved to Santa Fe hired to evaluate Georgia O’Keefe’s estate in 1987, he became attracted to the native art of the area.  In just 25 years, they amassed a collection of over 800 pieces, each more spiritual than the next.

There are works that show porcupine quills imbedded in straight rows of embroidery, little tin cones smaller than a pencil that hang from the skirt and tingle while a dancer moves, wisps of horse hair on the tips of a long row of feathers along a chieftain’s mantle, and duck and goose feathers that adorn a woman’s fingers in puppetry.

This is handwork our hand cannot do in today’s time.  The work is so elegant, refined, and spiritual I felt as though I was the cavewoman, so raw and uncultured that hunting and gathering is all I can manage.  My world no longer takes precious time to sit still, patiently making something from nothing, using grass to weave, plants to dye cloth, animal hair to plait, and that intestine to create fabric.

What have we lost by moving so fast we miss the simple pleasures of creating, making treasures that get passed down from generation to generation.  What will I pass down? Certainly not my IT tools, my plastic Tupperware bowls, or my Target t-shirts.

Good art does leave a mark on me.  Though it doesn’t just have to be about handwork. But when I see handwork of the likes of The Thaw Collection, I realize we are losing a quality of life way beyond our own awareness.

  • Beautifully written. My best time in the studio has no time– no clocks,no watches,no end in sight until I lift up my head and walk out as many days later as necessary…and then walk back into the world of figuring out how to pay the bills with my art.

  • Karey

    Thanks for the commentary. I was able to visit the collection last weekend and was awe inspired. The sacred and spiritual works come alive as you enter the space, and I believe it is no doubt from the imprint left from the artists who created each and everyone. Their souls live on in their handiwork. Thank you DMA for such a well rounded and alive exhibit that allows us to explore the work from all across our nation’s native heritage.

  • SuzyQ

    You refer to the Thaw Collection as “elegant, refined, and spiritual” yet you say that you a feel like a “raw and uncultured” Hunter Gatherer for not being able to comprehend making such masterpieces. Ms. Davidow, the people in which you talk about who made the quillwork (Plains tribes), the parka (Arctic/Northwest Coast peoples) and doubtless hundreds of other pieces WERE hunter gatherers. In fact, many of the same tribes still preserve aspects of their hunting and gathering ways of life. These people did (and still do) make “something from nothing”.

    You perpetuate the long-held misconception that hunter-gatherers were unrefined and uncultured. Do your homework before you insult America’s native people.

  • JLee

    WOW! What a great response to one of the best exhibits to come through the DMA! Standing in the Plains Indians room was like standing in space. Time stopped. The tilt of the Earth shifted. There was so much power and beauty in one room. It was almost too much for the senses.
    And to SuzyQ, WOW, you really missed the whole point of the essay. Please go back and reread the passages that you have quoted out of context. Ms. Davidow is not promoting any misconceptions of Native American People, she taking deadly aim at a society that too soon will have nothing to leave to its heirs!
    Kudos to Ms. Davidow for her insight and passion for all kinds of art.