America Meredith, Cherokee, already an established artist in her own right, became a publisher in the Spring of 2013 with the launch of First American Art Magazine, a publication dedicated to Indigenous art. In our interview I ask her about this unique position in the Indian art world, among other things.
What was the impetus to start First American Art Magazine?
Many things—mainly seeing a real need for a common platform to discuss Native art in depth that isn’t academic, but accessible to any interested adult. I taught early Native American art history at Institute of American Indian Arts, and I was absolutely hooked on Native American art history. So much fascinating Indigenous art remains relatively unknown. Writing reaches a larger audience than teaching, so I launched a blog, Ahalenia.blogspot.com, to discuss “Native American Art History, Writing, Theory, and Practice.” The blog was a proving ground for the magazine. Prior to launching First American Art Magazine, we conducted an online survey to find out what people wanted and the resounding answer was for fresh artists from diverse regions.
So much is going on in contemporary Native art, we help make sense of it all. Our writers, whether Native artists or art historians, are some of the leaders in their field. We work with the idea that our audience is either familiar with Indigenous art or a quick learn, so we don’t have to keep starting at square one. We can delve into complex issues.
It’s likely you could have saved a lot of money by going purely digital, what made you decide to go with print?
To truly concentrate while reading, unplug. The written page invites reflection. The quality of images is vastly superior in print than at 72 dpi on a computer screen. Whenever I fly somewhere, I always look around to see what passengers are reading. People might read books on digital tablets, but they tend to read magazines in print form. Visually dazzling magazines are thriving—travel, food, photography, and visual arts magazines. Plus the printed magazine will last decades. First American Art Magazine is printed on high quality paper and the images and writing are meant to have lasting value through the years.
FAAM is digital too, particularly to make it affordable to international readers.
You’re in a unique position in that not only are you a publisher, you are an established artist, as well as an art scholar. What are some of the challenges wearing each hat? Are there similarities or differences?
Being a publisher makes me look at the big picture and consider what’s good for Native American art as a whole, not just my career, my friends, or my tribe. We have a responsibility to all the writers and the artists we cover to keep First American Art Magazine growing and improving. Professional art historians have an advantage in that they look at the finished artwork. As an artist, I often think like in a critique—what else could they have done, how could they improve?
My personal art practice has slowed down, because you really have to clear your head and slip into a completely different way of thinking to create art—and you need large amounts of time. I don’t feel as okay in promoting my own work. Luckily I already was involved with some major exhibits before launching the magazine.
Since my master’s degree is in studio art, I have some gaps in the terminology and methodologies of professional art historians, so I read all the time. I’m constantly driving back and forth from New Mexico to Oklahoma, so I load up on audiobooks about critical theory, globalization, history writing, and related fields.
It’s no secret that there’s a little mutual snobbery between certain Native academics and certain Native artists who participate in art markets. There’s value in both worlds, and First American Art Magazine is dedicated to bringing together different enclaves within the Native art world. But being a market artist, I have an advantage of personally knowing hundreds of fantastic Native artists active today—many of whom have yet to be written about in depth.
Who are some of your favorite Indigenous artists?
Many of my favorite living Indigenous artists have been or will be written about in First American Art Magazine. To temper my own preferences, the artists we interview are chosen by our advisory board, writers, and friends of the magazine. Last winter, 20 of us spent two weeks ranking 70 different living Native artists to determine whom we should profile.
Some of my favorite historical Native artists include Charles Edenshaw (Haida), who helped change the face of Northwest Coast carving, and Bill Reid (Haida), who took Edenshaw’s teachings to the next level with his monumental sculptures. Edmonia Lewis (Mississauga Ojibwe), a Neo-Classicist sculptor working in Rome, is a personal hero. Norval Morrisseau (Bingwi Neyaashi Anishinaabe) and T. C. Cannon (Kiowa-Caddo), both visionary painters, were consummate colorists. I think Harrison Begay (Navajo) most successfully painted in the Studio Flatstyle painting, and Woody Crumbo (Potawatomi) was one of the best Bacone style painters. The watercolors of Aron of Kangeq (Kalaaleq) remain fresh and even shocking today. The paintings of Alejandro Mario Yllanes (Aymara) are powerful and haunting. The birch-bark biting of Angelique Merasty (Cree) remains unparalleled. Of course, Sequoyah (Cherokee) is the greatest American Indian calligrapher, although my brother was pretty good too.
How important is the study of art history to an artist?
Since most of our tribes did not traditionally have writing, our art history is our history. Our ancestors speak to us through their art. Each generation encapsulated their worldviews and their times in their artworks. Art is our map. Young artists should definitely study recent art history, because odds are any issue they are dealing with, another artist dealt with in the past. It’s important to know what’s been done, so you can offer something different. Lastly, seeing great art is the best inspiration for making new art.
What would you tell younger Indigenous artists, and what lessons you have learned thus far?
Try different approaches. Find mentors you respect. If you can’t attend art school, read and check out art shows and artist talks. Ask questions. Find allies with whom you can collaborate. Find new ways you can work with your tribal or home community. Once you begin showing, don’t worry about selling at first, just worry about being visible. Don’t aim low; don’t cater to the lowest denominator. Travel. If you want an art career, be reliable, answer your emails or voicemails, and get your work in by deadline. Curators and collectors all talk among themselves. This is still a small community, but if you are reliable, people will appreciate it and remember you. Seize opportunities! Many grants and residencies have surprisingly few applicants, so take some risks. Maybe no art is truly original, but the most honest you are with yourself, the more unique your work will be.
Would you have done anything differently in your journey as an artist?
I wish I experimented a lot more in school. People used to tell me not be “precious” with my work in school, which annoyed the heck out of me, but they were right. School, especially undergrad, is for going crazy and experimenting, not for producing a few good pieces of work. Process can be far more important than the finished product. I’m glad to take a hiatus with my artwork, because when I return, I’ll have a completely new direction.