Thursday, December 8, 2016

Six Minutes with Native Artist Leah Yellowbird

I'm uncertain as to when I first saw Leah Yellowbird's work but it was most likely at an exhibition at the American Indian Community Housing Organization (AICHO). The AICHO has been strongly supportive of the arts in various ways, and I've attended as many events as possible in the past beginning with Al Hunter's poetry reading, Beautiful Razor in 2013.

Ms. Yellowbird's beadwork was not only striking in its beauty, the rich meaning behind the work was even more profound. Most recently she has begun working in acrylic paint, but with a near-stipple technique that emulates the beadwork. It breaks new territory, as I have never seen anything like it. Her painting titled Otters earned an honorable mention in this year's Duluth Art Institute Biennial.

EN: Your painting of otters in the DAI Biennial is astonishing for its detail. Even more remarkable is how it initially appears to be actual beads. What prompted you to work in acrylics these past several years after decades of bead-work?

Leah Yellowbird: We went away for the winter and I didn't want to drag all my beads with me and when we arrived in Arizona I was lost without the beads... beads are so expensive.. so paint was the alternative.. and once I started I couldn't stop. I took over the living room in our rental and I haven't stopped.

EN: You clearly honor your native roots. What are some of the things that you have drawn from your First Nations heritage?

LY: I can't say it's one thing more then another... it's an inner feeling that is not explainable for me ...and I'm ok with that. The ancestors have really blessed me and keep blessing me.

EN: I can't help but think that doing bead-work for a few decades would teach you patience and attention to detail. What other qualities come from that discipline and experience that you apply to your current work?

LY: To trust my instincts with color combinations... If I like looking at it then I go with it.. I don't really look at the painting as a whole.. each component stands alone. Each being in the painting has the same value: a plant, a flower, a frog. It's harmony from my eyes

EN: Do peoples' reactions to your work surprise you?

LY: Yes.. very much. I'm never sure if I should call myself an artist. What does that really mean? I do enjoy watching the reactions of people when being told that they can touch the paintings.. it's part of the interaction of understanding of each painting. Without that touch I think you lose an integral part of what the ancestors are saying.

EN: I understand that some of your pieces are available as giclee reproductions. How did that come about?

LY: AICHO and Michelle Lebeau. Without the support from the organization and Michelle, I would be a beader who painted one winter, not a beader and a painter etc...

With Michelle's help and encouragement and the AICHO community I felt brave enough to try painting number two, then three.... etc.

EN: How long does it take to produce a painting like Otters? What do you call this technique, which appears to be a form of pointillism? How do you make each point so perfect?

LY: The Otters is a smaller painting. It took about a month of working on it everyday. Some days I paint for 12 hours ..I get in a zone n it's like it just flows out of me. Bead painting pointillism... maybe it's called history... I have an incredible sense of urgency to get it out. I feel like I need to keep working as hard as I can to honor what the ancestors are giving me.. I feel like if I let up even a little they may stop. I'm a conduit, nothing else. The real magic lives all around us.

EN: Where can people see more of your work, or purchase prints?

LY: AICHO is my home.. and that's the place where all the prints or originals can be bought and seen.

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If you are out and about Friday evening for the Friday Night Art Crawl here in the Twin Ports, be sure to visit the AICHO-hosted Standing Strong for Our Precious Water, an art opening and benefit concert. Ask someone on staff to show you Leah Yellowbird's paintings there. Engage deeply.

To purchase prints of Leah Yellowbird's work, visit

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REMINDER: Tonight is the Brian Barber opening reception for his new "Wild Kingdom" on display at Beaner's Central this month. Woodblind is on the docket for a fab backdrop.  And the opening reception for Chris Monroe's 'north of Superior" will be on Monday at the Zeitgeist. Details here.

Meantime, art goes on all around you. Get into it.

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