Art of the American Indians Showcases Tradition

Each of the 135 masterworks included in Art of the American Indians: The Thaw Collection, which runs through May 30 at the Cleveland Museum of Art, has a story to tell. They are stories of tradition, of innovation, and of the continued vibrancy of American Indian culture and art.

Drawn from The Eugene and Clare Thaw Collection at the Fenimore Art Museum in Cooperstown, N.Y., the objects in the exhibition were carefully assembled over the past two decades by Eugene V. Thaw, one of the art world’s most distinguished connoisseurs and collectors. This is the first time the collection is being treated as a traveling exhibition, and several key objects will only be seen in Cleveland.

Visitors to the free exhibition will see works of breathtaking beauty and skill that span the North American continent, moving from the ancient ivories and ingenious modern masks of the Arctic to the beautiful and dramatic arts of the Pacific Northwest, one of the pillars of the Thaw Collection. The basketry of Native American weavers appears in a section devoted to California and the adjacent Great Basin, while the abstract art of the Southwest will be shown in both its ancient and modern manifestations.

From the Plains come outstanding examples of the colorfully beaded and painted works for which the region is most famous. Showcased as well are the Eastern Woodlands, including the Great Lakes, and their visually quieter and more contemplative arts, another of the collection’s great strengths.

While most of the works of art included in the exhibition date to the 1800s, they remain very much connected to the traditions of contemporary Native Americans, a fact that is evident within the diverse American Indian population of Cleveland. Helping to ensure this story is told are several representatives of the local Native American community who are serving on an advisory committee to the exhibition. In addition to helping with the development of an extensive schedule of programs that complements the exhibition, members of the committee also are acting as performers, artisans, and educators throughout the run of Art of the American Indians.

For example, Valerie J. Evans, a Delaware from the Six Nations Reserve, is lending her talents as an interpreter within the galleries. Also an artist, her prints will be available for sale in the museum’s gift shop. A resident of Westlake, she grew up in Fort Erie, Ontario, Canada.

Evans will greet and lead groups through the exhibition, as well as help to provide context for what they see there. “I am eager to meet visitors at the museum and to answer any questions regarding Native American culture and traditions,” Evans says.

Her own favorite tradition, shared with her husband and two young sons, is attending the annual Six Nations Powwow, held on the banks of the Grand River in Ontario. The event, which features music, dance, arts, and crafts, celebrated its 30th anniversary in 2009. “It’s a time to rekindle with family and friends, as well as my culture,” Evans says.

Evans hopes that visitors will put aside popular misconceptions and stereotypes, which tend to include highly romanticized images of Native princesses or brave warriors.  “I hope that visitors will leave with a greater understanding of North America's first people,” she says.

More information about Art of the American Indians can be found on the museum’s web site.


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