It was a few years ago that someone, transfixed by a drawing of a Native man hanging on my living room wall, asked who had created it.
I answered that it was a fellow tribe member’s beautiful work, and the person shook their head and said, “There is so much talent here on Shinnecock that goes unrecognized.”
Now, thanks to the wonderful staff at Rogers Memorial Library in Southampton, you can see that particular drawing along with a several other wonderful works of Shinnecock contemporary artists in the downstairs gallery and in the upstairs display case located across from the circulation desk. Included in the exhibition are drawings by Rebecca Williams, Ruben Bess Valdez and Patricia Cooke; paintings by Jason King and Waban Tarrant; beadwork and wampum jewelry by Tohanash Tarrant, Rachel Valdez, Aiyana Smith, Herman Quinn; and pottery by Winetu Tarrant. There are a few other surprises at the gallery as well.
It took about two months of negotiations with the artists to get the exhibit together, since some of the work is by family members who have passed on and considered heirlooms. Understandably, there was some hesitation to part with the works. Tohanash Tarrant explained her reluctance to part with her work this way, “when you work on something for so long or wear it for powwows, it becomes a part of you and something that feels really personal.” And Patricia Cookes’ daughter Lynette Cooke Weeks described her mother’s paintings as testaments to her talent and beauty. Lisa Bowen had many of her mother’s drawings in a book, and upon looking at how many beautiful works she had done over the years, even I was surprised at how beautiful they were. It is interesting to hear fellow tribe members talk about the exhibit and give their take on it. Many of them know the people in the drawings and comment on how, although anyone else might not recognize a particular dancer in the middle of a step they know exactly who it is by the regalia or the captured movement of a dance step.
It should be noted that several of the artists are self-taught or learned their skill at an early age, continuing to draw for the love of it and as an expression of their pride in their people and culture. Ruben Valdez and Herman “Chuck” Quinn are both Shinnecock aqua-cultural specialists who work tirelessly on the Shinnecock Tribal Oyster project, cultivating shellfish year round. Wampum jewelry and drawings are usually given as gifts to other tribal members and rarely sold. These items are highly valued by fellow Shinnecock and other Native friends who are lucky enough to have received them. Quinn’s wampum work is well known not only on Shinnecock, but on the powwow trail as well. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve admired a wampum piece on someone’s regalia while in line for grand entry, to be told by the wearer (quite proudly) that “this is a Chuck Quinn piece.” Quinn’s work has also been exhibited in New York City at the American Indian Community Center gallery.
Valdez, the artist whose drawing was admired on my living room wall, is well known as a maker of leather regalia, especially women’s traditional fringe dresses. Not many people knew of his other artistic talent—even one of his nieces was surprised and delighted upon seeing his drawings.
It is hoped that there will be other exhibits in the future that spotlight local Native American artists. The exhibition will be up through to the last week of December.
The Rogers Memorial library is located on the hill at 91 Coopers Farm Road, off Windmill Lane, and is open Mondays through Thursdays, 10 a.m.–9 p.m.; Fridays 10 a.m.–7 p.m., Saturdays, 10 a.m.–5 p.m. and Sundays 1–5 p.m. For more information, visit myrml.com.