A Wyoming artist selected for a national exhibit hopes her art will bring back humanity and family relationships

Last year, a group of Wyoming women passionate about art came together and formed the Wyoming Committee of the National Museum of Women in the Arts. By creating this committee, the group can nominate one future Wyoming artist for the 2024 Women to Watch exhibit at the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington, DC, Sarah Ortegon High Walking will be that artist. Wyoming Public Radio’s Kamila Kudelska spoke with Ortegon High Walking about what this nomination means to her and what she hopes her art expresses. First they dived into her childhood.

Editor’s Note: This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

Sarah Ortegon High Walking: I was born in a family of 12 people. My mother had six boys and six girls. I was born in Denver, Colorado. And my parents, from the age of three, took me to [Wind River Reservation]. And we spent our summers there. And maybe from when I was 11 or 12, they would actually leave me with my aunt and uncle George and Shirley Enos. They would just let me play outside at the residence, with my aunt and uncle, and we would stay with them for a few months in the summer.

Kamila Kudelska: Can you tell me a little bit about how you got into art and how it worked out for you?

SOHW: I don’t really know why I got into art. It was just part of something I believe I always needed to express myself. And I don’t always have the resources to have to express my emotions. I always say that art is silent expression. But sometimes it can be the loudest because they say our pictures are sometimes worth 1000 words. I was more of a quiet person growing up. And since my father was a preacher, I needed to be seen, not heard. And so that made me express myself through art.

QC: What does it mean to you to be selected as the Wyoming Woman Representative in the National Museum of Women in the Arts exhibit?

SOHW: It is a great honor to be selected. It’s also very nerve-wracking because I feel like there’s a reason I’m being chosen and I want to live up to the artist that I can be. I just had a baby. And so my art production slowed down. But that doesn’t make me any less of an artist. So I think it’s going to have a profound impact on my future, not just my present, because I think it’s going to solidify me in the art world. It’s really hard for me sometimes for women to be taken seriously as artists because we have to be so versatile. We have to work and it’s the same for men, but in our capacity of being needed as mothers and as sisters, there’s just a lot that’s required of us. And so even throughout history, there aren’t many women artists who are recognized. But the women who were recognized were very strong artists. And that just means a lot to me. And frankly, I think it’s going to change the trajectory of my life.

QC: As far as I understand, you already have an idea of ​​the work you will present at the exhibition. Could you describe it?

SOHW: In 2013 I went and competed in Miss Native American USA. And I didn’t believe I would win the title. But I won the title. I practiced in the first jingle dress they gave me. And at that time I was already 23. And we usually start dancing when we’re two or three years old and we’re already in the powwow circle. For me to be 23 and take my first steps in a jingle dress, and I used that jingle dress to compete, it was just…it was also a very life-changing time in my life. So I depicted the jingle dress and got inspiration from Frida Kahlo and how she portrayed herself in two separate perspectives. But I removed my physical self and just drew the dresses and it looked like they were moving, they were just floating in motion. And the background was white. I added beading on the belt areas of the two dresses that I placed next to each other on the painting. The dress was red and I called it my first steps. And so I wanted to replicate this on four different panels in a circular motion. The panels will be square, but will be hung in a circular motion. I will draw different dresses and they will be representative of the different seasons of our lives, the different seasons of the world…winter, summer, autumn and spring. I plan to photograph Wyoming in its various seasons and overlay these videos onto the paintings I paint. So it will show the transition of different seasons on the paintings.

QC: I love that. Can you talk about what a jingle dress is?

SOHW: So the jingle dress comes from the Anishinaabe people, who are also known as the Ojibwe people. This was a dream that came to an elder whose daughter was sick. And there are different versions of the story, but this is the version I was told. So I will share this. And so through his vision he saw the dress. And initially, tobacco box caps were used for the jingles. We use tobacco to pray, so it’s a prayer dance, basically. So the dress can have up to 365 jingles representing each day of the year. Not every jingle dress is like this. Now there are contemporary dancers in daring dresses. And it’s much more elegant than it was. So basically this is the dress. It’s a dress you dance in and it has bells that sound like rain when you dance. If you were to dance without a drum, it sounds like rain on a tin roof.

QC: The DC exhibit has a theme that is “New, Future, and Alternate Worlds.” So I’m wondering if you could describe how this theme fits into the work you just described?

SOHW: What I associate with the new and alternate worlds is the fact that we as human beings need to get back to helping each other. And as always when we talk about praying about things or supporting each other, I think that’s something that’s been lost in the digital age. Right now, I feel like when you lose contact in the physical realm of another’s presence, it kind of separates people from each other. I feel like if you want to go back in time and see how the Shoshone people and the Arapaho people were… they used to be on the same reservation, but traditionally, you know, enemies. But that’s not what I want to focus on. What I want to focus on is even as a separate people, there has always been a home for our people. There wasn’t this concept of money, it was all more natural living. And so I feel like that’s what I want to bring back into the future of who we are. Not even just local people, but people in general. Sometimes nature can be very cruel. But it’s also there to help each other, like water supports trees, supports birds, helps feed our predators. So it’s a continuous cycle of regeneration. And that’s one thing I want to bring back through my artwork is to come back to the humanity of who we are, to come back to our family relationships and pray for each other.

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