Kay WalkingStick (b. 1935 Syracuse, NY) is a citizen of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, she has Cherokee/Anglo heritage. She received a BFA from Beaver College (now Arcadia University) Glenside, PA in 1959 and an MFA from the Pratt Institute, Brooklyn, NY in 1975. She lives and works in Pennsylvania.
Over a career spanning six decades, WalkingStick’s practice has focused on the American Landscape and its metaphorical significances to Native Americans and people across the world. WalkingStick draws on formal modernist painterly traditions as well as the Native American experience to create works that connect the immediacy of the physical world with the spiritual. Attempting to unify the present with history, her complex works hold tension between representational and abstract imagery. Her paintings represent a knowledge of the earth and its sacred quality.
WalkingStick’s early work focused on an exploration of the body, which she painted as a flattened silhouette & often depicting nudes in bright colors. A key figurative painting from this period, April Contemplating May (1972) is in the collection of the Whitney Museum of American Art, NY. In the background of April Contemplating May, there is a picture of another painting, called Pieces of Sky.
From the mid-1970s WalkingStick shifted towards abstraction. In this critical period, WalkingStick’s paintings became increasingly geometric and minimalist. Using her hands and a pallet knife to spread a mixture of acrylic paint and saponified wax on the canvases. The thickly layered surfaces of these paintings are sculptural, creating a cartographic texture of ridges and valleys, suggesting geological formations or the earth seen far above.
As WalkingStick continued to explore conceptual ideas, she became fascinated by Native American histories and her own heritage. Chief Joseph (1974-77) is an emotive and epic work, taking three years to complete, it is made up of 36 small rectangular abstractions. These paintings are an elegy to Chief Joseph, the great Nez Percé leader who in 1877, after refusing reservation life for his people led his band on a thwarted journey to Canada. The repetition of gestural arcs act as a ritual of mourning for the loss of home, land and lives. The Chief Joseph Series is held in the collection of the National Museum of the American Indian, Washington D.C.
In the 1980s after spending time in the Colorado Rockies, WalkingStick became enamored with the rugged western landscape there. She felt compelled to depict it combining abstraction with landscape in pairs of paintings joined together as diptychs. These iconic two paneled works directly combine traditional modes of landscape painting with the formally American abstraction of New York. Each work holds a duality, WalkingStick states, ‘the diptych is an especially meaningful metaphor to express the beauty and power of uniting the disparate and this makes it particularly attractive to those of us who are biracial. It also visualizes the connection between our sacred earth and the cosmos, reminding us of the need to protect our planet.’
In the 1990s WalkingStick lived in Rome for three semesters while teaching at Cornell University. She traveled extensively and as one would expect, those travels had a profound effect on her work. During this time her experiences led her back to not only using brushes again, but also incorporating figures in her work – often dancing figures. The golden interiors of the many churches led to her use of gold leaf referencing the spiritual or the unknown in a long series of paintings.
In her most recent works, WalkingStick paints single viewpoint landscapes of non-industrial America, reclaiming the land by overlaying the paintings with designs of the Native American people who have inhabited or live there now. Sublime vistas are painted in fluid brushstrokes with bands of traditional Native American patterning floating on the surface, as if protecting them.
WalkingStick’s practice is both a visual record of her experience on earth and her attempt to come to terms with Indian history that is such a crucial part of America's history. In these works of rich colors and bold forms there is a sense of ancestral presence and a deep connection to place.
WalkingStick has been included in many institutional exhibitions, including shows at the Minneapolis Institute of Art, MN; Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, AR; Whitney Museum of American Art, NY; Heard Museum, Phoenix, AR; Eiteljorg Museum, Indianapolis, IN; Morris Museum, Morristown, NJ; Bruce Museum of Arts and Science, Greenwich, CT; Montclair Art Museum, NJ; National Gallery of Canada, ON; The New Museum, NY; Aldrich Museum, Ridgefield, CT; Peabody Essex Museum, Salem, MA; and the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Richmond, VA.
WalkingStick’s extensive retrospective at The National Museum of the American Indian, Washington DC, toured the United States to the Heard Museum, Phoenix, AZ; Dayton Art Institute, OH; Gilcrease Art Museum, Tulsa, OK; Kalamazoo Institute of Art, MI; and Montclair Art Museum, NJ (2015-2018).
Her work is in many collections, including Albright-Knox Museum, Buffalo, NY; Arkansas Arts Center, Little Rock, AR; Baltimore Museum of Art, MD; Birmingham Museum of Art, Birmingham, AL; Cherokee Heritage Foundation, Tahlequah, OK; Denver Art Museum, Denver CO; Detroit Institute of Arts, Detroit, MI; Heard Museum, Phoenix, AZ; Hood Museum of Dartmouth College, Hanover, NH; Hunter Museum, Chattanooga, TN; Israel Museum, Jerusalem, Israel; Kalamazoo Institute of Arts, Kalamazoo, MI; Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY; Minneapolis Institute of Art, Minneapolis, MN; Museum of Contemporary Art, San Diego, CA; National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC; National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa, Canada; National Museum of the American Indian, Smithsonian Institution, Washington DC; Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia, PA; Portland Art Museum, Portland OR; Rockwell Museum of Western Art, Corning, NY; San Diego Museum of Fine Arts, San Diego, CA; Southern Plains Indian Museum, Anadarko, OK; Spencer Museum of Art, Lawrence, KS; Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Richmond, VA; and Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, NY.
WalkingStick was a Professor of Fine Arts at Cornell University from 1988 until her retirement as a Professor Emerita in 2005.