Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.
Crystal Richardson’s senior art exhibition at the Kitao Gallery is a testament to her pride and devotion to her personal and family history. The show, which closed this week, ran concurrently with the “Pa Kusra Tu Pit’athuun: Indigenous Women’s Symposium,” of which Richardson was a principal organizer. In a spirit similar to the symposium, Richardson’s photography in the Kitao, intended as “letters home,” form a celebration of heritage and personal experience.
Richardson’s exhibition consisted of a series of photographs, edited and arranged in montages, then mounted on fabric covered boards through stitching. Richardson’s attention to color and form invigorated each piece, creating a bright dialogue between frame and photograph that shifts the eye across and effectively unites each ‘square’ into the larger quilting of the Kitao’s walls.
The ‘quilt’ effect of the walls was inspired by the quilts made by the artist’s grandmother and the art of quilting is a central topic to Richardson’s work. She observes in an interview that while quilting does reflect the colonial influence on native people, “we have re-appropriated the tools that were used to try and assimilate us.” Richardson added that though her grandmother learned to sew in part because this was “what Indians were considered capable of doing… Despite the prejudice of the time, my gram was one hell of a quilt maker and her art still keeps me warm at night. Her strength is why I was brought up a proud little Indian girl.”
Richardson’s playful choices in fabric reflect an intuitive approach to combining media that also attends to the possibilities of ‘coding’ her work through personal cues, whether it be a polka dot pattern or flowers from her grandmother’s garden. The mixing of media also attends to a combined sensory experience, with a range of textural surfaces in keeping with Richardson’s part work in which she “incorporate[d] something for every sense, so people’s entire bodies are inundated with sensation.”
Much like her holistic approach in utilizing the spatial arrangement of her work to create an artistic work, Richardson’s total sensory attention engages the whole exhibition space to make the process “more like a ceremony,” Richardson explains. “When I create art I do it in a devoutly Karuk way (my tribe and religion), having places where my art is simulate a modern ceremonial space is important to me”
Though Richardson draws heavily from personal memory and sensation in developing her work, she emphasizes her hope that the viewer find their own meanings and look for “the familiar” in their own terms. “I think art works should be the beginning of a journey and its up to art enthusiasts to fill in the story after, ‘Once upon a time…’” she observed. “The depth of the viewer’s interpretation says more about how deeply they are willing to look at things, how vulnerable they are willing to be in a dialogue with shapes, textures, icons and iconoclast… Artists are ourselves, just a medium, right?”
When asked about what comes next, Richardson reflects: “Over the last 10 years or so, my family has consistently survived on an income level below the poverty line… Thing about it is, we still do a lot of subsistence living. We have well water, a full orchard, and an ancestral homeland full of foods, and raw materials that have never stopped taking care of us. I can my family’s ham, we smoke our own fish, have chickens who give us eggs… When it comes to art, the people from home are already planning my second show. When it comes to my future, I plan on becoming an every day weaver… and for the first time in years, I am looking forward to being home when the peaches are ripe—because peach jam is my favorite.”