Posts Tagged 'Arts of the Americas'

Artist Interview: Chase Kahwinhut Earles

After recently acquiring a piece of Caddo pottery by Chase Kahwinhut Earles, we reached out to the artist at his home in Oklahoma to hear about his practice and process. Listen to his introductory message and read his Q&A conversation with Dr. Michelle Rich,The Ellen and Harry S. Parker III Assistant Curator of the Arts of the Americas at the DMA.

Chase: Kuha-ahat [Hello]. Kumbahkeehah Kahwinhut [My name is Kahwinhut]. Hello my name is Chase Kahwinhut Earles, and I’m a member of the Caddo Nation. I make traditional pottery and also contemporary pieces incorporating modern interpretations of our culture.

Chase Kahwinhut Earles, 2019. Photo by Travis Caperton, University of Oklahoma

Michelle: Can you describe the process by which you make your pottery?

Chase: I make pottery the ancestral, or traditional, Caddo way. I dig the clay myself from the banks of different rivers, mostly the Red River between Texas and Oklahoma. I process it to dry it and break it down into usable material. I collect and crush freshwater mussel shell to mix with the clay as a temper, which helps strengthen it so the vessels survive through the pit-firing process. All of my pieces are hand built using the coil method. I don’t use a wheel. After a piece dries, I burnish it with smooth stones to make it shiny. There’s no glaze. Then I pit fire the vessels. The final step is to engrave the design into the carbonized surface of the pots.

Photo by Travis Caperton, University of Oklahoma

Michelle: Pit firing is very different from kiln firing. Will you talk about that a little bit?

Chase: I fire my pots in a traditional pit fire. This is different than the modern kiln, which slowly heats the pottery until it gets to high temperatures. Our pit firing is started by stacking sticks and lighting an open ground fire. First, we heat the pottery near the fire to drive out moisture, and then they go right into the fire. I’ll add more wood, and the larger fire will get to a high enough temperature to vitrify the clay. You can see the pots start glowing! Sometimes things can go wrong, and if a pot gets overfired it will become fragile or might even spawl or crack. Large pieces, such as the Alligator Gar, can be fired in sections or with multiple fires.

Michelle: What inspired you to make Caddo pottery?

Chase: My parents took us to the Southwest when we were young. I loved and was inspired by the beautiful Pueblo pottery and wanted to make those beautiful pots. And I did learn how, but realized there was something not right about that, and I came to understand the difference between cultural appreciation and cultural appropriation. That pointed me in the right direction—to look at my own tribe. I mean, why wouldn’t I have? But I didn’t expect to find anything. Lo and behold, we have one of the biggest pottery traditions in the country, but not many people know about it! Then my purpose was obvious. I dove in, obsessively learning everything about our tribe, our pottery tradition, and our techniques. Jeri Redcorn, a Caddo elder who revived Caddo pottery, helped me get started.

Photo by Travis Caperton, University of Oklahoma

Michelle: The words “contemporary” and “traditional” carry a lot of weight when describing Indigenous arts made in a customary fashion. Where do you situate your work?

Chase: The question of contemporary and traditional is complicated with Native American art, where these words are used to describe the difference between something that’s made in a modern manner or something that’s made exactly how we’ve made things forever. My work up to this point has been primarily trying to save our ancestral and traditional ways of making pottery, so it’s a very ancient style, method, and technique. The present-day definition of “contemporary” is that you’re a living artist. So, in fact, we can be contemporary and traditional at the same time—I’m a living artist producing fine art. But I thought it was important to learn and reestablish our ancestral way in order to have a base to move forward, evolve our work, contribute to Caddo culture, and develop a modern narrative.

Chase Kahwinhut Earles, Batah Kuhuh Alligator Gar Fish Effigy Bottle, 2018, Caddo, ceramic, Dallas Museum of Art, The Otis and Velma Davis Dozier Fund, 2020.9

Michelle: What does it mean to you to have the DMA acquire your work?

Chase: It means the world to me. When I set out to make pottery and art, specifically our tribal art, it was clear that not many people knew about the Caddo, even though we were once a huge, great society. And no one knew about the pottery, and the tradition kind of got forgotten. Having my work in institutions and museums like this is the ultimate goal—to share our beautiful artistic traditions with people and educate them about our identity, our culture, and our continued presence. So, on the scale of importance, it’s up there at the top!

Also, I can’t thank the DMA enough, especially for this opportunity. It goes a long way to educate people about the importance of Native American artwork in the context of American art. I applaud that effort and am very thankful for it.

Teaching with Modern American Art

Last week, Amy W. blogged about a training session on Colonial American art that she and Jenny led for our docents.  Melissa and I recently led a follow-up session for the docents on teaching with Modern American art.  

Arts of the Americas and Colonial to Modern American Art are two of the most popular topics for docent-guided visits at the DMA.  Melissa and I deliberately selected artworks from the first half of the 20th century that docents don’t typically use on their tours.  It was our hope that by learning more about these paintings and artists, docents will have even more flexibility in selecting stops for their tours.

I started off training by looking at two American artists who were influenced by the Dutch artist Piet Mondrian: Leon Polk Smith and Ilya Bolotowsky

  • We discussed what “Boogie Woogie” means and how boogie woogie music might sound.  I even played a short clip of boogie woogie music for the docents and had them dancing in the galleries!
  • Leon Polk Smith’s painting Homage to Victory Boogie Woogie #1 is a direct reference to Mondrian’s final painting (Victory Boogie Woogie). There is an Homage to Victory Boogie Woogie #2, which is in the collection of the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth.
  • Ilya Bolotowsky knew Piet Mondrian.  They were both members of American Abstract Artists, which was founded in New York City in 1936.  In fact, Bolotowsky was one of the founding members of the group.

Melissa invited the docents to complete a Venn Diagram comparing and contrasting two still life paintings: Survival of the Fittest by Fred Darge and On the Ranch by Jerry Bywaters.

  • This is an easy exercise to do in the Museum or in your classroom.  Encourage your students to look closely at images of these paintings and make notes about what they see in a Venn Diagram.  This resulted in a great conversation with our docents, and we think the same thing can happen in your classroom.
  • There are many similarities in the lives of Fred Darge and Jerry Bywaters as well.  Both artists lived and worked in Dallas most of their lives.  They also both took sketching trips to West Texas, where they were inspired by the vast landscape.
  • Jerry Bywaters was actually the director of the Dallas Museum of Fine Arts when Fred Darge’s Survival of the Fittest came into the collection in 1944.

We hope you’ll visit the Museum this spring to see these paintings in person.

Shannon Karol
Manager of Docent Programs and Gallery Teaching

Mesquite Week Visits

For the past two weeks, we have been welcoming 5th graders from Mesquite ISD for docent-guided visits.  This isn’t a new program, though.  For the past twenty-five years, students from Mesquite ISD have been coming to the DMA for docent-guided visits of our collection.  When this partnership began in 1985, each 5th and 6th grade student received a tour that aligned with their classroom curriculum.  Over 2,100 Mesquite students toured the DMA that first year.  Since then, this partnership (and the district) have continued to grow.

Today, we see every 5th and 6th grade student, as well as every 7th and 8th grade art student, for a docent-guided visit that aligns with their curriculum.  For the 2009-2010 school year, that totals almost 6,800 students!  This partnership is affectionately known as Mesquite Week because in 1985 the visits did only last for one week.  It now takes five weeks for the Museum to be able to tour that many students. 

DMA Docent Susan Cuellar talks about The Icebergs with 5th graders from J.H. Florence Elementary

Mesquite ISD has a wonderful Fine Arts Coordinator, Debi Waltz, who makes these visits a success year after year.  Debi schedules each school’s visit, orders the buses, and works with us to decide which works of art students will see while they’re at the Museum.  She’s one of the most organized people I have ever met, and I don’t think Mesquite Week could happen without her. 

I recently learned that it was one of our docents, Susan Cuellar, who took on the task of coordinating Mesquite Week visits in 1985.  The district wanted students to have the same types of experiences with art that they were having with music, and they decided that they wanted their students to visit the DMA each year.  Susan wrote the tour outlines for that first year, and she continues to give Mesquite Week tours today.  She says that starting the Mesquite Week program is “one of the most exciting things I have ever done.”  We’re excited that this program is still going strong twenty-five years later.

Shannon Karol
Tour Coordinator


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