The Canadian Art Database

Robert Houle

Kay WalkingStick

(from the catalogue for Land, Spirit, Power, The National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa, 1992)
[ 943 words ]

It is not at all surprising that this New York-based artist would take abstract painting, a white male middle-class bastion of Platonic sensibility, as a way to express herself, because Kay WalkingStick is of Cherokee heritage, a matrilineal one. Thus, she is comfortable adopting the vocabulary of the dominant force of whichever society she works within at any given time. The Cherokee refer to themselves as the 'principal people'. They viewed their lands as the centre of the Earth; and they adopted, in July 1827, at New Echota, their ancient capital, a constitution which acknowledged with humility and gratitude the goodness of the sovereign 'Rule of the Universe'.

WalkingStick has the distinction of having the same dignified and circumspect deportment as her ancestors, and her abstract paintings are emblems of native subjectivity, their surfaces having many variables, which may retain or reject space. Density, opacity or lucidity is constructed into the history of each work. Often this is about overcoming the expectations of culture, of family, and of gender. She scratches away at her surfaces to reveal the encrustations of a history of painting that shows itself through a personal system of locators. Through this process, WalkingStick is not seeking an alluring surface, but an evocative one, filled with angst and controlled aggression. Her abstract landscapes, especially the earlier ones, have the strength and inner calm of a warrior combined with passionate execution and an aggressive stance. This emotional intensity directs the viewer to feel the subcutaneous layer of pain of someone who is preoccupied with the land in the way that only a member of a nation that has been dispossessed can be. One only has to remember the Cherokee 'roundup and removal' which ended on 26 March 1839, leaving a tragic legacy of 4,000 silent graves lining the 'trail of tears'.

The cruciform shape sliced into Cryptochroma reveals a hidden layer of red beneath the blue-grey surface, and then a lovely yellow further down; this ritualistic gesture of intimacy presents a philosophical position consonant with a world view governed by an essensualist philosophy and practice, where tension is produced as a way of making a transcendental absolute appear materially. In this work, the pictographic vocabulary of geometric forms and linear markings invents a type of image that is mental, because it has immateriality as its teleology, while creating perception and presence through its physicality and ideology. WalkingStick's visual language explores a cosmology whose mnemonic imprints view land as the centre of the Earth, a pre-Renaissance pictorial rendition of a visual experience.

WalkingStick's early paintings had the effect of coarse, dark animal hide scored with lines and one or two slits. However, her most recent multi-panelled pieces have acquired a more mysterious power, a discordant note. Both the autobiographical works The Abyss and Letting Go, from Chaos to Calm are metaphysical constructs of landscape where one is directed by a long-term memory of a place previously seen — that quality of momentariness. In them, the natural imagery not only appears in full force, but concentrates around a single reiterated image, which seems to embody the emotional tension implicit in the work. To her, the abstract half of each painting is more real because its internal qualities are more universal; while the realistic side: a rushing, turbulent fall of water which fills the pictorial space with the quality of illusion, has a power heightened by the dizzying overhead perspective from which it is viewed. The red colouration of The Abyss passionately depicts raw images of the land on one panel with a fully gestural organicity, expressed on the other panel through a singular geometric form: a fanlike, pyramidal shape that WalkingStick began using more than a decade ago. In Letting Go, from Chaos to Calm, her still-pounding stream is lighter, with its green palette becoming a beacon of hope, expressing the kind of inner strength that can be found when one feels abandoned after the loss of a life-long partner and friend.

In defiance of Renaissance perspective and its enthusiasm for new perspectives, WalkingStick has turned landscape into land — opening the site wherein the interpretation of land is a political statement. Her spiritual intervention refutes the Western notion that landscape implies either a visual experience of a place, or a Christian metaphor for one's relationship with God.

In summary, her paintings show two different perceptions of the world, Cherokee and Anglo-American, in two different methods of painting: abstract and realistic. To some, these may seem diametrically opposed, but for WalkingStick the juxtaposition allows her to make meaningful, intuitive connections through complexity. WalkingStick examines and questions some of the underlying principles of the Earth: the nurturing power of nature, the spirit. The tension she creates by combining naturalistic and non-objective modes of painting makes her work at once materially dense and conceptually lucid, aggressive and calm, despairing and resurrectional. WalkingStick is firmly grounded in her inner life and that of the life beyond her — culture, history, and family.

Cherokee-Winnebago, born 1935 in Syracuse, New York. Lives in Long Island City, New York. Studied at Beaver College, Glenside, Pennsylvania and the Pratt Institute, Brooklyn, New York. Painter. Has exhibited widely in the United States. Recent solo exhibitions include Kay Waking-Stick — Paintings: 1974-1990, Hillwood Art Museum of Long Island University, 1991, and Kay WalkingStick: Works on Paper, Morris Museum, Morristown, New Jersey. Represented by M-13 Gallery, New York.


Holland Cotter, Kay WalkingStick — Paintings: 1974-1990, Brookville, New York: Hillwood Art Museum, Long Island University, 1991.

Robert Houle. 'Sovereignty over Subjectivity,' C Magazine #30 (Summer 1991), p. 28-35.

(from the catalogue for Land, Spirit, Power, The National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa, 1992)

Text: © Robert Houle. All rights reserved.

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