Smithsonian Institution Hosts Retrospective Exhibition of Kay WalkingStick ’59, ’11H

By Farrah Bradley | October 18, 2016

The colors have changed over the years. Just like everything else, we change all the time. We’re different people. So my affection for different colors changes.

Artist Kay WalkingStick ’59, ’11H led alumni through a journey of art discovery in her retrospective, Kay WalkingStick: An American Artist, at the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C., on April 5. Beginning with her art from the 1970s, the retrospective guided visitors through more than four decades of WalkingStick’s work.

Throughout the afternoon, WalkingStick discussed the art movements and personal experiences that impacted her work, including the waterfalls of Ithaca that she painted when her first husband unexpectedly died in the late 1980s. Recurring themes include feminism, nature, and experimentation with paint techniques.

“I don’t know how other people get through life without painting,” said WalkingStick. “I’m a healthy old girl, and a lot of it is because I’m a painter. I’ve depended on that to get me through an awful lot, and it has.”

WalkingStick’s early work explored the human figure, from close-up studies of feet to her own profile painted in neon colors. The paintings transition into darker colors throughout the exhibition, leading up to WalkingStick’s unique diptychs.

“The colors have changed over the years,” WalkingStick said. “Just like everything else, we change all the time. We’re different people. So my affection for different colors changes.”

Many of the diptychs were made with over 30 layers of wax, water, emulsifiers, and acrylic paint. Though WalkingStick considers these to be her most accomplished pieces, she was often criticized for creating work that was not expected to have long canvas lives.

Yet, while critics predicted that her diptychs would fall apart within 10 years, WalkingStick explained: “This was the ’70s, and they’re not sliding off the canvas today.”

A member of the Cherokee nation, WalkingStick drew inspiration for her most recent work from mountainous, Southwestern landscapes and American Indian patterns. Through these pieces, she hopes to remind viewers that “the spirit of the native people” still exists in the Southwest.

“Today, Los Pecos is my favorite,” said WalkingStick, emphasizing the Navajo patterns. “But my favorite changes from day-to-day. Tomorrow, it might be another.”

Kay WalkingStick: An American Artist was on display through Sept. 18. It will travel to the Heard Museum in Phoenix, where another gathering of alumni will get together with WalkingStick on Oct. 21 and 22.