Kay WalkingStick: The Cherokee Painter

Kay WalkingStick is a Native American landscape artist and a member of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma. Her later landscape paintings, executed in oil paint on wood panels often include patterns based on American Indian rugs, pottery and other artifacts.

Kay WalkingStick was born on March 2, 1935 in Syracuse New York to S. Ralph WalkingStick and Emma McKaig WalkingStick. Her Scottish-Irish mother had left Oklahoma and Kay’s father, who worked as a geologist in the oil fields and who had become an alcoholic. Her pregnant mother moved with their children to Syracuse, New York, where Kay was born. Unlike her brothers and sisters, Kay did not have the opportunity to know her father or to learn to be proud of her Native American culture, which the rest of her family had done. Her mother however told her “Indian stories” and talked about her handsome father throughout her childhood.

Kay loved art even as a young child and she spent her time coloring and drawing. A number of the other members of her family were artists.

Kay WalkingStick received an education in fine arts earning her Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in 1959 from Beaver College, Glenside, Pennsylvania. Ten years later she received the Danforth Foundation Graduate Fellowship for Women. She then attended Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, New York and received her Master of Fine Arts in 1975.

She also was privileged to participate in many residencies and studies to continue developing her artistic talents. She studied at the MacDowell Colony in New Hampshire. She was an artist-in-residence in Saratoga Springs, New York, at the Yaddo Artists’ Colony, and at Montauk, New York, at the William Flanagan Memorial Creative Persons Center. In 1992 she was blessed to be able to paint at the Conference and Study Center in Bellagio, Italy. In 1995, she was a visiting teacher and artist at the Vermont Studio Center for a month. In 2011, she was awarded an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degree by Arcadia University.

After college, Kay began creating representational art works which, for the next 10 years, were self-described as “hard-edged” and “realistic”. During the early 1970s, while she was in graduate school, Kay’s work became more abstract and they were included in many New York City exhibitions, even though, at the time Native American artists’ works were seldom exhibited. In was in graduate school that she began to study Native American art and history, in an attempt to understand her “Indianness”. Kay WalkingStick then began a series of works about the 19th-century Nez Perce “Chief Joseph” who was one of the chief’s that resisted reservation life. She layered wax and acrylic paint, mixed together onto inked canvas and left the design unpainted then cut to create designs. In 1978 she had a solo exhibition at Bertha Urdang Gallery. Kay WalkingStick would later begin integrating other elements into the works, such as small rocks, pieces of pottery, metal shavings, and copper. Throughout the process she added paint with her hands or a knife in the areas exposed from the cut wax to create her final work.

Kay WalkingStick focuses on the American Landscape and it’s metaphorical significances not only to Native Americans but also to all Americans. The landscape sustains us physically and spiritually. It is our beautiful corner of the cosmos. The varied rendering of landscape in Kay WalkingStick’s art is the thread that weaves together the many painterly directions her art has taken over the last 50 years.

In 1974 Kay brought her conflicting feelings for her father into her work with Messages to Papa. The work included the stereotypical image of a Native American dwelling, the tipi, even though it was not a Cherokee structure. She used the tipi image because it is a symbol of Native Americans that those of non-native decent can understand. In the middle of the work she hung a Cherokee language translation of the Lord’s Prayer and a letter to her deceased father.

Kay WalkingStick has become best known for her use of diptychs, which are two-paneled works of art. She said, “[T]he diptych is an especially powerful metaphor to express the beauty and power of uniting the disparate and this makes it particularly attractive to those of us who are biracial.

She began making abstract/landscape diptychs in 1985, for which brought he great success both nationally and internationally. She would usually make an abstract work on one panel of the diptych and a more representational, or realistic, image on the other. Her works include landscapes of the Rockies and the Alps and of the ancient southwestern sites such as Mesa Verde and Canyon De Chelly created from sketches she had done during her visits to these sites.

Walkingstick has said, “I do not see my paintings as landscapes, per se, but rather as paintings that describe two kinds of perception of the earth. One view is visual and fleeting and the other is abstract and everlasting. These paintings are my attempt to express the mythically inexpressible and to unify the present with eternity.”

Kay WalkingStick’s work can be seen in the Eiteljorg Museum of American Indians and Western Art in Indianapolis, Indiana.

Her works went on a touring exhibition in 1994 after she exhibited at the Cairo Biennial. Her works have been shown in many European and American exhibitions, including both solo and group exhibitions, a few of which are National Museum of the American IndianNational Gallery of Canada and Heard Museum.

WalkingStick was also honored in the 2015–2016 exhibition “Kay WalkingStick: An American Artist,” at the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C. The show was the first to trace her five-decade-long career and includes many works from private collections, and is accompanied by a comprehensive catalog. The exhibition was toured across the U.S. by the American Federation of Arts.

The Dayton Art Institute in Dayton, Ohio, began its 2017 special exhibition season with “Kay WalkingStick: An American Artist”. The exhibit run from February 2017 through May 2017.

On March 1 through 5, 2017, the June Kelly Gallery featured Kay WalkingStick’s work at the Art Dealers Association of America Art Fair. The exhibition was held at The Armory at 67th and Park Avenue, New York City.