Who Gets to Tell the Story: The Ethics of Art

In the age of “fake news” and “alternative facts,” more and more, I find myself contemplating the notion, who gets to tell the story. Because, whether we’re talking literature, painting, sculpture, photography, or any other form of art, the artist is telling a story; he or she is recording that moment in time and communicating a version of events. And I don’t mean documenting. I mean, the finished work shares some inner truth of the artist’s life, if it’s truly art. 

I recently ran across The New Yorker staff writer, Louis Menand‘s 2018 article, “Literary Hoaxes and the Ethics of Authorship,” and was struck by how much of what he was discussing had parallels in the art world. In particular, his suggestion that there is an “autobiographical pact” between writer and reader. He explained:

“This is the tacit understanding that the person whose name is on the cover is identical to the narrator, the “I,” of the text. [I]f the name on the cover seriously misleads us about the identity of the author, we can feel we have been taken in.” 

Interestingly, Menand went on to say that “the distinction between fact and fiction, although it may appear fundamental, is a fairly recent development in the history of writing, only two or three centuries old. Along with that distinction came the practice of putting the author’s name on a book, and along with both of those came the ideology of authenticity—the belief that literary expression must be genuine and original.”

When it comes to breaking the “pact,” James Frey‘s 2003 book, “A Million Little Pieces,” popped into my to mind immediately. Released as a memoir about recovering from alcohol and drug addiction, it was later revealed that parts were fabricated. 

People, Oprah was pissed! She had included him in her book club!! She loved his publication…until she learned she’d been duped. Yikes! Frey soon felt the wrath of Oprah. She publicly shamed him on her show for betraying her. She has since apologized to him, but, honestly, there’s a lot of gray area here; I’m not really sure whose side I’m on. (Not that anyone is asking.)

Neal Ambrose Smith, The Weight of Truth

A Million Little Pieces” was made into a movie by director Sam Taylor-Jackson who said that the controversy “didn’t affect my experience of the book. I enjoyed the creative spirit in which he wrote it.”

(For Frey’s side of the story, check out the video short posted here and let me know what you think about his take on it.)

But I digress.

Drawing the Authenticity line: Cultural Appropriation

OK, so, Frey exaggerated a bit. Maybe a lot. But he was still writing a story that was his, for the most part: white guy with substance abuse issues who did some jail time then straightened out his shit. 

What he didn’t do was appropriate another culture for dramatic effect or to sell books. Menand mentions several famous literary hoaxers, including Cyril Henry Hoskin, a British plumber, who wrote “The Third Eye,” which was published as the autobiography of a Tibetan monk named Lobsang Rampa. And, of course, Asa Carter, the former KKK member and speechwriter for George Wallace who, using the pseudonym Forrest Carter, wrote “The Education of Little Tree,” a memoir of a young Cherokee orphan. Not only was that book a best seller and praised by critics, but it was sold in reservation gift stores and taught at high schools and colleges. 


I first heard the word “Prentendians”–people so enamored with Native American culture they claim it as their own–from a Native American woman with whom I was discussing a sticky situation I’d gotten into when curating an exhibition of contemporary works by Indigenous artists. In my enthusiasm to create a show I’d been contemplating for years, I neglected to thoroughly vet each artist and, inadvertently, invited a “Pretendian.” 

Yes, I’m only human. Everyone makes mistakes, but this one really shook me deeply. I had an Oprah moment: I felt betrayed. Duped. I was angry and embarrassed, but even worse, my lack of awareness betrayed the authentic artists I had set out to honor.

Cara Romero, Wakeah

Why are we so eager to accept fakers?

Looking back, I realize I never questioned the “Pretendian” artist’s heritage. I loved the work, believed what I’d read, and called it good.

Menand suggests the reason we readily believe fake claims of cultural identity might be that “Intercultural hoaxes are aimed at [people] who are curious about worlds they have little contact with, and who are therefore easily duped.”

Guilty as charged. Lesson learned. I won’t let it happen again.

Identity Theft: reducing culture to a cliche

Jaune Quick-to-See Smith, Celebrate 40,000 Years of American Art

There is yet another kind of appropriation that happens all the time in the Western art genre: white artists whose oeuvre is depicting romanticized images of Indigenous people.

In Western art, this type of cultural appropriation has been widely accepted. It is, I believe, the reason representational art of the western states has long been marginalized in the eyes of the art world.

Dakota Hoska, assistant curator of Native American Art at the Denver Art Museum, has been a gentle but firm voice on the topic of cultural appropriation of this kind. She is quick to say she doesn’t speak for all Indigenous people, but she personally finds it to be a kind of identity theft.

“It’s reductive,” she said. “They want to paint our culture but only the part before someone tried to destroy us. Our people were here 13,000 to 50,000 years before white people showed up; we never got to see how our society would have ended up.”

And, worse still, she went on to say, “Romanticized art has the effect of flattening the Native American experience.  By romanticizing Indigenous past, we forget about the Indigenous people who lived in each moment in time. This romanticizes an image of an idealized Native person and discounts or devalues the real Indigenous experience at every moment in time.”

"Writing is a weak medium. It has to rely on readers bringing a lot of preconceptions to the encounter, which is why it is so easily exploited."

In the above quote, Menand is referring to literary hoaxes, but art, in many ways, relies on patrons bringing their imaginations to the table, as well.

I’m not saying nostalgic depictions of Native life (that are not even close to how Indigenous people live today) are hoaxes. Well, not exactly. What I am saying is that they do a disservice to Indigenous people by whitewashing a horrific era in our country’s history. 

Hoska suggests that perhaps artists who create images of Native people in romanticized scenes are actually searching for meaning in their own life; they want to find connection and think it can be found in an idealized remaking of the past.

But, at the end of the day, it’s still taking someone else’s identity, and, in the process, marginalizing their story. “These artists don’t understand our culture. And, they can’t help but interpret it through their own experience,” she said, and added, “Why don’t they paint what life was like for white people back then? Really, I would like to know why they don’t do that.”

In a video short I’ve included here, Hoska talks with Donna Chrisjohn, co-chair of the Denver American Indian Commission, to share the lens through which many Native American thinkers view Fredric Remington’s stereotypical portrayals of Native people that, as Chrisjohn puts it, “leaves us frozen in time and largely contributes to our invisibility today.” 

Sharing responsibility, affecting change

Hoska does see contemporary Indigenous artists making headway, receiving more critical reviews and representation in the market and in museums. “Maybe at one time we needed help telling our story, but now we don’t need Edward Curtis,” she said. “It’s really important that we tell our own story now.”

In her curatorial work, Hoska looks for parody as a way to bring non-Native people into the conversation and facilitate an integrated understanding history and culture with art exhibitions that elucidate through authentic, contemporary images of Indigenous people.

In my work as curator for the Coors Show, I believe it is my responsibility to present contemporary artists of all walks of life and allow them to hold the stage and tell their story. I am consistently buoyed by the support of collectors, especially younger collectors, who seek out contemporary, authentic voices.

As for artists, I agree with Hoska when she expressed her belief that their role in society is to seek truth and, as they do so, to continually reflect on the question, “Why do I need to do this work?”  

And, more importantly, to ask themselves: Am I making the world a better place?

Steven Yazzie’s Upside Down World

Navajo artist Steve Yazzie is circling back to painting after year of exploring video and film and installation art. I first saw Steven’s work at the museum at the Institute of American Indian Art. He was part of the show curated for Crystal Bridges by Mindy Besaw, Candice Hopkins and Manuela Well-Off-Man, called Art for a New Understanding, Native Voices, 1950 to Now.

The work they had was an installation of his Drawing and Driving project. He had built a cart and attached a small easel to the steering wheel and frame. The idea was to hop on and set off down a hill and at the same time, start sketching what you saw flying by at ever increasing speeds. Fun. Harrowing. But, yeah, fun!

As part of the project, which began at a residency at Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture. It grew into a larger venture when he took his vehicle to other sites in the West and invited fellow artists and friends to hop on board and give it a go. And though the idea may seem absurd–attempting to draw while steering a cart down a hill–it’s kind of how we’re seeing the land, whistling down the highway and top speed, glimpsing bits and pieces out of the corner of an eye. We take it all for granted, so why not draw and drive, if only to scare the bejesus out of yourself and, maybe, snap yourself out of the trance of modern life if only for a short, rough ride?

The painting in Allegories of Transformation is part of Steven’s return to the studio to paint. Check out his website for his many videos and other paintings. And, of course, to read more about Steven, go to his site and ours at the PACE Center.

Diego Romero, Pop-Native-Fiction

Diego Romero’s work does this crazy thing: it draws you in because it looks like very old, traditional pottery but then, when you get up close, it’s like a little kid jumped out from a closet and shouted BOO!

Lest Tyranny Reign, 7.5×17 inches, ceramic

He’s clearly having way too much fun.

Diego’s pottery is based on techniques that are thousands of years old. Holding his work in your hands is surprising. It feels like touching an egg. It’s lighter than it looks and, as he points out, incredibly durable. And yet, if you drop it, it will shatter.

American Diastrophism, 30 x 27.7 inches, lithograph

One of his newest pieces, Lest Tyranny Reigns, is based on the story of the great Pueblo leader Pope who held off the Spanish invasion for a hot second. And because of his bravery and cunning, he has become a folk hero, the story of which lends itself beautifully to Diego’s work which gives a nod to the comic book illustrators he loved to read since childhood and still collects to this day.

Comic books, American films and pop art also influence his print work, which he creates with Black Rock Press in New Mexico. He loves appropriating cultures–after all, he’s seen plenty of people appropriate his culture. But it’s such a wonderful way to start a conversation: draw people in with something that is known and comfortable, then add the twist, the thing that makes you stop and think and ask questions.

To learn more about Diego, visit his gallery, Shiprock and check out our site, PACE Arts.

Joe Feddersen, Bring Awareness Through Connection

Oh, Joe Feddersen. What a beautiful soul. To hear him tell the journey from his home in Omak to college in Wisconsin to teaching at Evergreen College in Washington and then back home, to Omak, back to the place where he is surrounded by his family and friends, members of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai tribes, is so centering. Home is where you find your people, the ones who know your stories and share them.

Freeway with HOV Lanes, 6.75×6.5 inches, waxed linen

Over the course of his career, Joe has eloquently kept his vision and his voice to the fore. And, equally as important, he has recognized that when things become easy or feel repetitive, he has, without regret, moved on to explore new and different ideas. Take for example, his weaving. They are all based on traditional weaving techniques and patterned work of his ancestors but with a twist. The traditional idea of patterning was based on things like crops and animal shapes. Joe takes that concept and bases his work on the patterns he sees every day: HOV lanes and parking lots.

In our conversation, we talked mostly about the weaving and his work bringing his Native American community together–young and old–to create a book on print work. But, if you have the time, check out some of Joe’s other works at Froelick Gallery. And to read more about Joe, go to his page on our PACE Center site.

Norman Akers, Looking to the Future

I took title for the PACE Center exhibit, Allegories of Transformation, from an essay Norman Akers wrote. The full quote is:

The use of narrative in my work acts as a continuation of the Native American storytelling tradition. Ancestral tribal stories and sayings explained the world in which we lived. New and emerging stories serve as allegories of transformation in an ever-changing world.

Alien Conquest, 20.5×15 inches, lithograph

Norman is Osage and teaches at University of Kansas. Throughout our conversation, two clear ideas remained ever-present: where he finds himself in the land is directly influenced by his deep sense of home. And, as an Osage, he is constantly looking to the future; the idea of looking back in time and painting that version of reality is an anathema to Norman.

Dark Reign, 18.75×15 inches, lithograph

It was interesting to dig into this idea of home, especially with someone like Norman whose ancestors have had a very different experience with the concept, from being migratory to being removed from their lands. For Norman, home is a vast place that reaches from the prairie lands his ancestors roamed and hunted t, the small town he grew up in. His sense of home, then, is not necessarily attached to specific objects–a mailbox, an easy chair, pots and pans in a kitchen, but is instead a more conceptual idea with a broader reach.

Uneasy Welcome, 20.75×16.5 inches, lithograph

And, being forward facing, there is an optimism Norman brings to his work. He was, early on, a plein air painter. He still considers himself to be a painter of landscapes but these landscapes are the interior spaces in his mind, his heart and his soul. The paintings and print work he does now sheds light on his travels and speaks to his ancestors, but is decidedly contemporary in every way possible from subject matter to technique. His work truly embodies the notion of allegories and how important they are to tell stories and help society through vital and ongoing transformations.

To learn more about the Allegories of Transformation exhibition, please go to PACE Center.

Neal Ambrose-Smith, Seeing Through the Noise

The Weight of Thought, 30×22 inches, Xerox tone ink on paper

I thoroughly enjoyed this conversation with Neal Ambrose-Smith, in advance of the Allegories of Transformation exhibit at the PACE Center. We had never met–never even talked to each other, but in this time of COVID, we just jumped in. We had set a time to talk for an hour, if need be. Two hours later, we were still talking and laughing and having a great time.

Do Fish Dream? 30×22 inches. graphite, India ink, house paint

The amazing things I learned about Neal that didn’t make it on the video are that he is keeping the archive of all his mother, Jaune Quick-to-See Smith’s work. The two of them often critic each other’s work and freely admit that they borrow ideas, an exchange that has made for a dynamic explosion of work, thoughts and ideas.

The other incredible aspect to Neal’s life and work is his commit to youth and teaching at the Institute of American Indian Art. I was able to leave in part of that conversation–incredible, truly, the issues he and his team deal with on a day-to-day basis.

Visit the Allegories of Transformation exhibit online at The PACE Center.

Linley Logan: The Art of Transformation

When curating Allegories of Transformation for the PACE Center, I was amazed and delighted by Linley Logan’s work for the show. His ingenious way of seeing the world around us and presenting alternative ways of thinking about life and…the detritus surrounding us.

Linley’s life and art revolve around family, culture and heritage. In his art, he freely uses everything and anything he can get his hands on–a skill he learned out of the necessity to complete projects in college on a meager budget. The beauty in his work lies in the humous way he uses new and discarded materials to form a bridge between his culture and heritage to the modern world.

About Linley Logan

Multidisciplinary artist, curator and author, Linley Logan grew up in the Tonawanda Seneca Nation. He attended the Institute of American Indian Arts, Santa Fe, New Mexico where he earned an AFA in Two Dimensional Arts and another AFA in Three Dimensional Arts and engaged museum studies. He went on to study ceramics at the Haystack Mountain School of Crafts, Deer Isle Main, then earned a degree in Industrial Design from the Rochester Institute of Technology for a BFA.

He has curated and co-curated contemporary Haudenosaunee (Six Nations Iroquois Confederacy) art exhibits, including “Iroquois Art in the Age of Casino’s,” Iroquois Indian Museum. He authored articles and presented cultural programing for the Smithsonian Institution. He has been a participating artist in International Indigenous Visual Artists’ Gatherings in Hawaii and New Zealand. He believes strongly in serving on local and regional arts boards and working with youth to maintain traditional language studies. His own work is rooted in the traditional art forms—printmaking, painting, carving, silver jewelry, pottery and found art creations—but is conveyed through contemporary artistic expression.

His writing extends to traditional dance and indigenous internet implications. “Native American Dance, Ceremonies and Social Dance Traditions,” was published by the National Museum of the American Indian, Smithsonian Institution, and “Dancing the Cycles of Life” published by the Festival of American Folklife was part of the social dance in the America’s program for the Center for Folklife and Cultural Studies, Smithsonian Institution.

Anna Hoover, a Multi-faceted Life

What a thrill to meet such a talented artist approaching social and environmental issues facing her community in Alaska with poignant work and new mediums. I did know of Anna’s work before curating Allegories of Transformation. Since her thesis project that brought Indigenous artists together in an exhibition featuring imagery that was used to create t-shirt designs creating awareness around the Pebble Mining project that would severely impact the salmon industry and the environment.

Anna is the daughter of John Hoover, the renown sculptor who passed away in 2011. She does not, however, lean on her father’s fame but has instead carved her own path. In a way, this has given her a certain freedom to explore different topics such as her outrage to mining operations threatening the pristine lands she knows and loves, and the ever present fact of suicide among Alaskan natives and the toll is takes on families. Following this path has lead her into film making, printmaking, script writing, and administration of a non-profit group that brings art into underserved communities in Alaska.

Mapping Qayaq, 8 x 20 inches, serigraph

About Anna Hoover

Oral history is integral to our being; it molds our foundation of history, genealogy, utilitarian skills, and ongoing life lessons. Through storytelling, we learn how to behave and interpret good reasons to continue sustainable life-practices. Narrative forms of knowledge entertain us in ways that help us to laugh, cry, heal and grow. Demonstration and interactive learning are a function of storytelling and knowledge sharing. For millennia, these deep pools of empowering knowledge have solely been documented through the reciting of collective memories by orators; expressed live and in person.

Word from Our Mother, 18 x 12 inches, Photocorrect

The harsh reality is that many of these important people work within imposed economies that relegate traditional cultural roles to the wayside. In turn, I observe within my region of the Alaska Peninsula and the eastern Aleutian Islands, many of our stories and age-old memories are being forgotten, to only exist within the silent cosmos. With another generation of elders passing away, we are losing our tangible connection to ancient ways and it is a crucial time to record these respected people in video and audio recordings.

Cinematic storytelling that inspires our young people and reminds them how amazing their relatives are imparts a sense of potentiality; it shows us ways these instructions on balanced and healthy ways of living can be celebrated and nurtured into the future. I am passionate about bringing Alaskan perspectives and stories to the mainstream and am enjoying finding my voice in this important conversation that shapes our international culture.

Check out more of Anna’s work on her website, annahoover.net. And, check out my interview with Anna here.

Jaune Quick-to-See Smith

Untitled, 24 x 15.5 inches, monotype
Untitled, 24 x 15.5 inches, monotype
Untitled, 24 x 15.5 inches, monotype
Untitled, 24 x 15.5 inches, monotype

Pinning down Jaune Quick-to-See Smith for an hour is no easy feat. At 80, Smith is actively making art that responds to social, environmental, and political issues–subject matter that is not short on these days–she is lecturing, teaching and curating, connecting her fellow Indigenous artist with each other to find opportunities. And, if all that wasn’t enough, she’s raising her young granddaughters.

For this interview, her son, a well-respected artist in his own right, as well as a professor at the Institute of American Indian Arts, Neal Ambrose Smith, orchestrated our call on Zoom. While most interviews have been edited down to seven to eight minutes, I decided to let this one ride. Partly because talking to Smith is a bit like getting an audience with the Oracle, but also because one hour turned into nearly three; every bit of which was full of her forthright and learned insights into her work and the Native American way of life.

And, I loved the crazy thing that happened as we were starting the conversation–talk about an icebreaker. Something popped in front of her camera and blurred her image then, just as quickly, darted away. Her reaction to that was priceless and a great way to kick things off.

To download a copy of the article I wrote on Smith for Western Art & Architecture, CLICK here. Also, to read my full interview with Jaune, CLICK here.

And so, without further ado, Jaune Quick-to-See Smith.

Chewz: Corwin “Corky” Clairmont

Corky Clairmont was one of the first artists I interviewed for the Allegories of Transformation exhibition I curated for the PACE Center, which opened in Parker, CO, September 18 and runs through November 18.

I Had This Idea

When my team at the PACE won a National Endowment for the Arts grant to put on a show of Indigenous artists work, I planned to fly artists in for a series of lectures and panel discussions and to introduce them to schools in the state to talk to kids and…then COVID hit.

OK, change of plans. My next great idea was to conduct interviews that I would edit down to, I don’t know, five minutes for so, and have those available online. Zoom was the technology of choice but it didn’t always cooperate, which made the editing process a bit tedious.

Here’s the amazing thing that happened though. As I was editing interviews that were, in some cases, an hour and a half long, I started to hear a much deeper dialogue that I somehow missed when I was talking to each artist in the moment. I was so consumed in making the tech work and asking the right questions that I wasn’t listening as closely as I should have.

Corky’s interview is a case in point. Listening to it a second time, I was totally caught off guard by a long silence as he searched for words to explain the devastation he witnessed at Fort McMurray, part of the Alberta Tar Sands Mining operation, which is the subject of a major installation piece we have in the show.

The World’s Most Destructive Oil Operation

I am embarrassed to say I’d never heard of Fort McMurray and the Alberta tar sands. A quick search brought up many terrifying reports. If you’ve never heard of this mining operation, here’s a brief overview as gleaned from a concise and damning article in National Geographic that calls Fort McMurray the “world’s most destructive oil operation.”

  • Fort McMurray in Alberta, Canada is the world’s largest industrial project. North of Fort McMurray, the boreal forest has been razed and bitumen mined from the ground in immense open pits.
  • According to a government report, Canada is warming twice as fast as the rest of the world.
  • A study published in April in Nature Communications found that emissions from the Canadian oil sands, measured directly from aircraft, are about 30 percent higher than the figures reported by the industry.
  • Bitumen, which is mined and then transformed into light crude is normally found deep below the surface. However, the bitumen found north of Fort McMurray is in a layer shallow enough that it can be strip mined in huge open pits…once the boreal forest covering it is destroyed.
  • The world’s largest collections of tailings waste ponds—able to fill more than 500,000 Olympic swimming pools—line the banks of the Athabasca River and are so toxic, they have had to set up scarecrow like object and set off sound cannons to prevent birds from going near them.
  • Some of the ponds filled with tailing are leaking into the Athabaskan River, and air pollution and acid rain, one study found, will eventually damage an area o Canada the size of Germany.
  • The impact on the Indigenous communities who once roamed this land has been devastating. The destruction of pristine lands and wildlife and the increase in cancer and other debilitating diseases caused, it is believed, by the pollution from the mining operations has robbed them of their traditions and ability to hunt and grow food.

The Impact of Art: We All Have to Chewz

Listening to Corky, and taking in the shattering silence of those long seconds he took to compose his thoughts, I found myself reduced to tears.

Reflecting on this show and the conversations I have had with these eleven amazingly generous and insightful men and women hailing from various tribes across the western United States, I can honestly say I’ve never been so deeply moved by works of art and the stories behind them. I am so very grateful for their trust in me to present this body of work and them as best I can.

About Corky Clairmont

Hailing from Ronan, Montana, Corky Clairmont is a celebrated visual and conceptual artist whose decades of work have included printmaking, mixed media, sculpture and installation. He’s also a professor and former fine arts department director at Salish Kootenai College.

Raven Speaks to Friends: “The DJ Trump Virus is More Menacing and Deadlier than Smallpox Blankets or the Covid19 Virus” (Your Vote is the Cure), 22 x 30 inches,
Collagraph, Silkscreen, Relief, Collage, Stencils, Rit Dye

After earning an undergraduate degree from the University of Montana, Clairmont continued his graduate studies with a fellowship at San Fernando State University and in 1971 completed his education with a Master of Arts degree from the California State University in Los Angeles. He spent the next 14 years within the Los Angeles art scene and worked as the printmaking department head at the Otis/Parsons Art Institute. During this period, he received visual arts grants from the Ford Foundation (1971) and the National Endowment for the Arts (1979).

In 1984 Clairmont returned to Montana, where he developed close personal ties both to the fledgling tribal college and the reservation community. Clairmont’s works of art continued to challenge the cultural and ecological effects of European settlement upon the land previously inhabited by his indigenous ancestors for thousands of years. From Salish Kootenai treaty rights to Montana highway development, Clairmont has addressed both deep-seated and contemporary issues.