This article is part of the Fine Arts and Exhibitions special section for the art world’s expanded view of what art is and who can make it.
As an artist of the natural world for more than five decades, Kay Walkingstick says it’s impossible not to be influenced by the majestic depictions of the American landscape by the 19th-century Hudson River School. But she finds these lofty, monumental scenes of virgin wilderness by artists like Thomas Cole, Albert Bierstadt, and Asher B. Durand as problematic as they are inspiring.
“They were selling the American landscape as empty, and of course it wasn’t empty; it was populated,” said Ms. WalkingStick, who in her bold, restrained painting style revisits such views over which she overlays geometric patterns used by the local tribe associated with that particular land. “I think of it as a reminder that we all live on Indian Territory.”
The Kay WalkingStick/Hudson River School exhibit opens Friday at the New York Historical Society. It is the 88-year-old Cherokee artist’s largest museum show to date in New York, where she earned an MFA from the Pratt Institute in 1975 and has shown regularly in group and gallery shows until recently overlooked by its powerful institutions. With some 40 works, the exhibition places contemporary paintings from throughout Ms. WalkingStick’s career in direct and lively conversation with the museum’s signature landscapes by Cole, Bierstadt, Durand, Frederick A. Butman, John Frederick Kenseth, and Jesse Talbot, among others.
“I wanted to see our Hudson River School collection through Kay’s eyes and how her work helps us reinterpret the history of landscape painting in North America,” said Wendy Nalani E. Ikemoto, the museum’s senior curator of American art and a native Hawaiian.
In early 2022, she invited Ms. WalkingStick to view the museum’s collection of 19th-century landscapes in its vault, where the artist was almost immediately drawn to several paintings of Niagara Falls, including two rare works from 1818 of Louisa Davis Minot. “Kay started thinking out loud about how she would approach a topic like this because it’s so encompassing,” Dr. Ikemoto said.
That conversation precipitated the artist’s visit to the falls, where she made sketches and photographs that inform her dizzying perspective of the thundering, sparkling water in her 40-by-80-inch painting “Niagara,” marked at lower right with a Haudenosaunee motif design. That painting—acquired by the New York Historical Society, the first ever by a local artist—is now the centerpiece of the exhibit where it debuted, flanked by Minot’s canvases and others of Niagara Falls by Thomas Davis.
In her studio at the back of her Victorian-style home in Easton, Pennsylvania, where she lives with her husband, Dirk Bach, an artist and retired art historian, Ms. WalkingStick ponders the challenges presented by an enormous painting of the Grand Canyon’s North Rim. “The canyon pieces are so difficult, but they’re really interesting,” said the artist, who draws on her complex memory of being there as well as her drawings and photographs of the place as she paints.
“For many years I didn’t get much recognition, so I didn’t paint for clients, God knows,” she continued. “I painted to get excited about painting. I still am.”
Born in Syracuse, New York, during the Great Depression, Ms. WalkingStick was raised by her Scots-Irish mother and aunt and four older siblings. “My mother left my Indian father when she was pregnant with me,” said the artist, who was 8 before she first met her father, a geologist who went to Dartmouth but became an alcoholic, according to Ms. WalkingStick . Her mother, who often worked menial jobs but created a stable, happy family life, instilled in her children pride in their Cherokee heritage.
Mrs. WalkingStick worked as a telephone operator at Bell while studying art at Beaver College (now Arcadia University) in Glenside, Pennsylvania, and married her first husband, Robert Michael Echols, in 1959 right out of school. Living in Englewood, New Jersey, she raised their two children while painting often nude self-portraits and following what was happening in galleries in New York, where she had her first show in 1969 at the Cannabis Gallery.
In 1973, at the age of 38, she began commuting to graduate school at Pratt in Brooklyn, where she switched to abstract painting and also began to reconcile her queer identity. “I had to come to terms with the idea that I was as much my father’s daughter as my mother’s,” she said.
Her minimalist series Chief Joseph (1974-76) is painted with repeating straight and curved lines that form a procession of bow shapes, on 36 vertical canvases covered in a thick layer of ink, acrylic and wax. It was named after the Nez Perce chief who led his people across the Rockies in 1877 and was a man her father admired. “A lot of these paintings are about history and my acceptance of myself as a Native American,” she said.
In the 1980s, she found meaning in using the diptych form, juxtaposing textured abstractions reminiscent of geological strata directly with more representational paintings of the earth. Such duality and symbiosis persists in her paintings of the past two decades, which superimpose abstract vernacular patterns on illusionistic scenes.
Ms. WalkingStick recalls being advised by a dealer early in her career not to show with local artists. “I’ll be cheated and I won’t be able to present myself widely,” she said of the advice she ignored. “Maybe that’s what happened.”
The game changed in her eighth decade with the opening of her career retrospective in 2015 at the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, DC, organized by Kathleen Ash-Milby and David W. Penny. (Exhibition travels in 2018 to Phoenix; Dayton, Ohio; Kalamazoo, Michigan; Tulsa, Oklahoma; and Montclair, New Jersey)
“Kay is truly an icon in the field and recognized as an important figure among Native American contemporary artists since the 1980s,” said Ms. Ash-Milby, now curator of Native American art at the Portland Oregon Art Museum and commissioner of the American Pavilion at the 2024 Venice Biennale, where Jeffrey Gibson will be the first local artist to represent the country since a group exhibition in 1932.
“When I started as a student,” she added, “we weren’t able to get people to pay attention to what local artists were doing. We were banging on the door and no one would even look.
Institutions and collectors are now playing catch-up. Crystal Bridges in Arkansas recently acquired two large works by Ms. WalkingStick, and the Museum of Modern Art in New York bought seven of her works from various periods. “It was a very important thing for an artist like Kay, who has been working all this time, to come into MoMA’s collection,” said Stuart Morrison, managing director of the Hales Gallery, which had its first solo show of Ms. WalkingStick’s work in 2022. (the artist was previously represented by June Kelly for over two decades).
Mrs. WalkingStick is also supported by influential private collectors. The artist’s 1976 “Red Painting/Red Man” is included in an exhibit highlighting Komal Shah’s collection of women artists that opens Nov. 2 at 548 West 22nd in Chelsea, a gallery that is the former Dia Center space. Agnes Hsu-Tang, who chairs the board of the New York Historical Society, was the one who suggested that Ms. WalkingStick be invited to view the museum’s Hudson River School collection, and borrowed several of the artist’s works from her personal collection with Oscar Tang to the new exhibition.
For Dr. Ikemoto, the show’s curator, it’s an opportunity to bring new voices to the way the institution presents history. “The tendency still today is to assume that when someone says American art, they’re thinking of the art created by European American settlers,” she said. “To bring Kay’s work into this discussion and actually have it be the framework through which we look at older works, it allows Native art to stand on its own, but it also addresses its absolute vibrancy to American art history.”