Line, Shape and Color: Elements of Native American Art

Native Americans didn’t develop a painting tradition until the late 1920s and 1930s with instruction from white artists at the Santa Fe Indian School. Harrison Begay was among the first Native painters to break out. Following him came some of the greatest painters of the 20th century including Fritz Scholder, T.C. Cannon, and my personal favorite, Earl Biss.

That doesn’t mean Native Americans weren’t creating. Leather work, beadwork, jewelry, baskets, ceramic, rugs… the list of functional and ceremonial items indigenous people – mostly women – were producing now fill the country’s greatest art museums.

On view April 1 through December 31, 2021, the Fenimore Art Museum in Cooperstown, New York explains how Native Americans engaged in object-making used the tenants of painting and drawing – line, shape and color – to inform their work during the exhibition, “Elegant Line/Powerful Shape: Elements of Native American Art.”

Native American artists communicate with their audiences visually, expressing the beauty of the world through shapes made by textiles, wood and pigment. Line can be painted on a carved wooden box or woven into a textile to create designs. Traditionally, artists used natural colors found in their environment, such as red clay and barkwood to create pigments. Later, as commercially produced paints and pigments became more widely available, these were incorporated into artists’ skillsets.

Line, shape, and color are created from different materials in different regions, but a textured piece of pottery from the Woodlands exemplifies line just as well as a painted hide from the Plains. Likewise, a Southwestern vessel is defined by its monochromatic gold color just as a hat from the Northwest Coast defines whales with black dyed fibers.

About Fenimore Art Museum

Fenimore Art Museum, located on the shores of Otsego Lake—James Fenimore Cooper’s “Glimmerglass”—in historic Cooperstown, New York, features a wide-ranging collection of American art including folk art; important American 18th- and 19th-century landscape, genre and portrait paintings; more than 125,000 historic photographs representing the technical developments made in photography and providing extensive visual documentation of the region’s unique history.

The renowned Eugene and Clare Thaw Collection of American Indian Art comprises nearly 900 art objects representative of a broad geographic range of North American Indian cultures, from the Northwest Coast, Eastern Woodlands, Plains, Southwest, Great Lakes and Prairie regions.

The Fenimore Art Museum is open April 1–December 31, 2021. Spring hours (April 1–May 2): 10:00 a.m.–4:00 p.m., Tuesday through Sunday (closed Mondays). Summer hours begin May 3: open daily 10:00 a.m.–5:00 p.m.

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