Trail of Tears paintings at Wyld Gallery

When I began seriously considering how to transition my career from sports media into something having to do with visual art, I took on a part-time job working weekends at the top fine art gallery in the small town of Fernandina Beach, FL where I live. It was and remains the only fine art gallery here, representing exclusively professional artists.

I enjoyed being around the work, seeing the business from the other side of the register and talking to customers about art, most of whom had no intention of buying, simply wandering in off the street as tourists at the beach. I’d spend three, five, eight hours at a time with the work on display. And it was good. For the most part, these were well-educated, highly trained, highly skilled professional artists with gallery representation around the state, region and, sometimes, nation. Paintings and sculptures in the gallery generally sold for between $2,500 and $10,000.

I worked there for a little over a year prior to the pandemic and then a couple months after. During that time, I became increasingly disinterested in most of the work for sale. While working there, I was also routinely visiting museums and writing about art almost daily. I came to recognize that the work which most attracted me differed greatly from what was being shown at the gallery, as good as it was.

Ken Woodward, Cherokee, Faces on the Trail. Wyld Gallery.
Ken Woodward, Cherokee, Faces on the Trail. Wyld Gallery.

The artwork which attracted me had a purpose beyond simply serving as a creative outlet for the artist. It would be insulting and inaccurate to describe the gallery’s artwork as purely decorative, but the art there was largely produced and purchased as home décor. Even the best pieces were produced to be dramatic statements of wealth or color or taste designed to impress house guests. Pieces could express the personal aesthetic of the buyer and serve as reminders of place and memories – good times on Amelia Island – but the storytelling was limited. With few exceptions, storytelling was absent.

The artworks were cool to look at and made dramatic cosmetic statements hung in the foyer or over the couch, but were thin somehow. They lacked meat. They lacked meaning. They lacked message.

By the time I stopped working at the gallery, I had grown tired of most of the pieces – even sick of it – and haven’t missed seeing any of it in the 18 months since. I haven’t gone back just to look, despite the gallery being four miles from my house and it being the best gallery in my town.                

When I began writing about Wyld Gallery’s contemporary Native American artists early in 2021, the distinction between the gallery I had been working at and a gallery representing the artwork I truly loved came into clear focus. I’ve found every one of the numerous Wyld Gallery artists I’ve profiled from the first, Del Curfman (Apsáalooke), to the most recent, Travis Mammedaty (Kiowah, Seneca-Cayuga), genuinely fascinating. Every time I look at their work on the Wyld Gallery website or their personal Instagram accounts, I see something I would love to own myself.

Jackson Narcomey, Muscogee, 1942-2012, Trail of Tears. Wyld Gallery.
Jackson Narcomey, Muscogee, 1942-2012, Trail of Tears. Wyld Gallery.

The artistry is good, the storytelling is better. Beyond heart and soul, which most fine artists put into their work, the artwork at Wyld Gallery has meaning. Contemporary Native American artwork comes from a spiritual place, an ancestral place. It is evocative of a way of life, a philosophy of living. It features a great deal of joy and can feature a great deal of pain as well.

The artwork is rich, substantive.

It is meant to be admired – like the work from the gallery I worked at – but then it goes several steps further. Wyld Gallery artwork is also meant to be considered. It’s meant to teach lessons, share heritage. Like artwork at museums. It’s meant to be felt and remain with you long after the cocktail party or beach vacation has ended.

Wyld Gallery in Austin, TX deals exclusively in contemporary Native American artwork.
Wyld Gallery in Austin, TX deals exclusively in contemporary Native American artwork.

Wyld Gallery’s numerous paintings depicting the Trail of Tears exemplify this.

Purchasing artwork recalling a barbaric human tragedy fueled by colonialism, despotism and white supremacy may seem like an odd choice to bring into your home and hang in the den. Why do that to yourself? There’s enough pain outside your home without bringing it inside. While I understand that perspective, I would challenge collectors to think differently about Trail of Tears paintings and other pieces created by Indigenous people.

Valjean Hessing, Choctaw, 1934-2006, We Did Not Choose This Way. Wyld Gallery.
Valjean Hessing, Choctaw, 1934-2006, We Did Not Choose This Way. Wyld Gallery.

View these artworks through the prism of resilience. In that way, they are inspiring.

Think of them as stories – difficult stories – but no less needing to be told or heard than the beautiful stories. Probably more so.

All of the great Native painters from Fritz Scholder to T.C. Cannon and Earl Biss and Jaune Quick-to-See Smith and George Morrison have told difficult stories in their work. Stories of sacrifice and suffering and removal and attempted genocide. These are the most important pieces. The works that hang in museums. Works that don’t merely impress friends at the Super Bowl party.

Profound, weighty art which outlasts interior design trends. Artworks you’ll cherish more and more over time for their meaningful storytelling and substance.

More Wyld Gallery artists

No Comments Yet.